Return to Scholarship


Address to University Faculty Convocation, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Fall, 2002.

It's an honor to be speaking to you today–a somewhat intimidating honor. I promise to resist any homiletic impulses that might linger from my past. My business is not to preach but to affirm the value of the work we do, the importance of the role we, as a university faculty, play in the world.

It's not a nice world. Not in our lifetime. Some, perhaps many, of us lived through World War II. We have been shaken by the holocaust, lived for decades with the threat of atomic annihilation, and we watched the towers collapse. In his recent book, What Evolution Is, Ernst Mayr reduces these events to brutal, biological simplicity. "There is little doubt," he says, "that hominid history is a history of genocide.... It is difficult to construct a scenario in which benevolent behavior toward competitors and enemies could be rewarded by natural selection... Altruism toward strangers is a behavior not supported by natural selection.... Genuine ethics is the result of the thought of cultural leaders. We are not born with a feeling of altruism toward outsiders, but acquire it through cultural learning." (258-259)

We are the cultural leaders. Cultural learning is what we pass along. And our job is to direct the inborn altruistic tendencies of our students toward the very large world outside. It is not the whole of our job, but it is an important part of it, especially as the faculty of a university whose goal is the education of global citizens.

The idea of educating global citizens is attractive to me. Globalization is not. It leaves me at an intellectual and moral loss. One of my less pleasant duties as a grandfather is to take my grandchildren to the movies. So far I've racked up The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Spy Kids, and Scooby-Doo. They're boringly unreal. They're like those movie-house sequences before the main feature that tell you not to smoke, how to find the exits, and where to go to buy candy. The camera swoops you off through bottomless spaces, up, down, and through spiraling structures. You are spun off your feet into a world free of gravity and every other law of physics. Globalization is, to me, just that wildly ungraspable. It's like a moment I remember in The Lord of the Ring when the band of heroes emerges from a cave to confront an immense range of mountains, stretching far into the distance. In seconds the mountains are behind them, instantly and effortlessly traversed. I don't believe it. Whatever it is, it's not that easy.

If globalization feels like a whirlwind of everything and nothing, educating global citizens puts my feet back on the ground. After all, educating global citizens is what you and I have been trying to do all these years. But formulated in just that way, it challenges. Of course, now that I'm an emeritus professor, it's no longer my challenge. It's yours.

All the same, I've spent the summer musing about what I would do if it were my challenge. How would I go about it? What would I need to change in what I've been doing?

What I've been doing, mostly, is teaching American literature. Sticking to what I know, I'm going to use American literature as a paradigm and take the chance that you'll find what I say applicable in different ways to what you teach. I do that with some confidence. The disciplines we teach are not culture bound or nation bound. Perhaps at a close enough look they are all inherently directed toward educating global citizens. Going global is a matter of making explicit and deliberate what universities implicitly do.

So I've reimagined my American literature course. The keynote of the new course is my title today. The words are from Thoreau: "I have traveled MUCH in Concord."

I don't mean to be perverse. Thoreau was a global citizen. He gloried in the specific earth on which he stood. He studied it, worked it, wrote about it in books and endless journals. He tried to understand the people who had lived there before him, the Indians who were gone but who had left their relics behind, and the people who were living there in his time, the French Canadian mired in a priest-ridden morality, the Irishman slaving away on the railroad. And he traveled widely--from Maine to New York, even as far as New Jersey, and to the west as far as Minnesota.

Rooted in Concord, he traveled the globe in imagination. His favorite reading was travel books–on which he reported extensively in his journals. Though he had studied the Bible and the Greek and Latin classics, when Emerson called his attention to the great Hindu classics and other Oriental literature he began reading in them, and he continued to study them for the rest of his life. He had one of the largest libraries of oriental literature in the New World in his time. A Chinese-American scholar, Lin Yutang, said that if Thoreau's writings were translated into an Oriental tongue, it would be almost impossible to distinguish them from the native literature.

If I were still teaching Thoreau, I would teach him primarily as an artist, because literature is what I teach, a mode of reflection on our human condition which is embodied in the artful use of language. But I would have to study those oriental classics myself, to discern what Lin Yutang saw in Thoreau that seemed so familiar to him. In teaching what I learned from those oriental works, I would be pointing out to my students how Thoreau engaged in that dialogue of cultures which goes on–-certainly at the heart of American literature-–perhaps at the heart of all literatures.

I wouldn't have to change much in my teaching of Melville. He sailed the immense and watery globe before he became a writer. He jumped ship and lived among south sea islanders. When he came home he wrote about them–ambivalently. He found them both attractive and terrifying. But he salted his story with bitter attacks on the injustice of the colonial powers and the foolishness of Christian missionaries.

In Moby Dick, he created his most powerful evocation of global humankind, the crew of the Pequod, a crew of all races, of many nations and peoples, doomed by the monomania of a single powerful man. Yet global as were the dimensions of Melville's vision, he worked to comprehend his own country's pain. His Civil War poetry is powerful and underrated. Eventually, in a late novella, "Benito Cereno," he gave us his own penetrating analysis of slavery. It is the story of a slave revolt on a slave ship. But the slaves of Melville's story, refuse to be victims. They are explicitly not the noble savages of Rousseau–Melville had seen too much for that. They are defiant, and in their revolt they manifest the violence, the deception and malice that are at the heart of all of us.

I would have to drop several canonical authors to spend enough time with Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur. He lived here during the Revolution. After receiving the best education France could offer at the time, a Jesuit education, he traveled to England, where he fell in love with both England and one of her daughters. His fiancé died, however, and somehow or other he arrived in the colonies. He walked the continent–-through Canada, down as far as St. Louis in the West, before returning to the east and buying a farm in Westchester near where Lenny Grob lives. He lost his farm and his wife in the Revolution, fled to France, then returned afterwards to find his children. He eventually died on his father's estate in France.

Our claim to him is his Letters from an American Farmer, written while he was farming up in Rockland county. In that book he wrote ecstatically about what it meant for a European peasant to arrive here, find land for himself and establish himself on it as a free man. Crèvecoeur rejoiced in the ethnic and religious heterogeneity of his neighbors. He saw the coming to America as the moment when a peasant acquires global stature. He writes: "When in England he was a mere Englishman; here he stands on a larger portion of the globe, not less than its fourth part, and may see the productions of the north, in iron and naval stores; the provisions of Ireland; the grain of Egypt; the indigo, the rice of China." To Crèvecoeur, to become an American was to become a global citizen.

But he, like Melville, was deeply aware of our profound moral failings. No other American writer, before the writings of the slaves themselves began to appear, so clearly imagined the horror of the slave trade as Crèvecoeur did in his chapter on "Charles Town and Slavery": "On the one side behold a people enjoying all that life affords... With gold, dug from Peruvian mountains they order vessels to the coasts of Guinea; by virtue of that gold, wars, murders, and devastations are committed in some harmless, peaceable African neighbourhood where dwelt innocent people who even knew not but that all men were black. The daughter torn from her weeping mother, the child from the wretched parents, the wife from the loving husband; whole families swept away and brought through storms and tempests to this rich metropolis. There, arranged like horses at a fair, they are branded like cattle and then driven to toil, to starve, and to languish for a few years on the different plantations of these citizens."

The novels of Willa Cather would also receive more space in my global course on American literature. She tells the story of America as an interaction of immigrant cultures. She, particularly, among our canonical writers, lingers over the efforts of the various ethnic communities settling into the midwest and west to maintain their customs, their crafts, their traditions while learning to live with one another. Her archbishop brings his French cuisine and his love of French architecture to Santa Fe, but becomes deeply immersed in the culture of his Hispanic flock, and by the time of his death has become a kind of mystic of the whole landscape.

These writers give us the sense that America is unique, completely itself, but linked with all the globe. They challenge us to that cultural dialogue which is at the heart of literature, as it must be, in one way or another, at the heart of every discipline we pursue in the university.

America has writers with narrower perceptions than Melville and Crèvecoeur, and in my global American literature course, I would be a lot more judgmental about them. The Puritans, for instance. I would no longer spend sessions on Puritan literary style. I would emphasize, instead, their hubristic image of themselves as the City on a Hill. The Puritan global vision is this: America is God's place for God's people, the elect among the dammed masses of the earth. There is little interest among the Puritans in a dialogue of cultures. They fled from their own people, first to Holland, then here. They demonized the Indians, beginning that genocidal process which eventually wiped them out as a cultural force. Genocide, with slavery, as we know, are the two sins on which our American civilization founded itself. The Puritans are one of the sources of that myopic hubris which is America's besetting temptation.

The Fathers of our country had all been educated in the classical tradition, and classical Rome, not the Biblical city on a hill, became the dominant image for America in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Horatio Greenough's marble statue of George Washington at the Smithsonian, presents him lifting his bare right arm in a gesture of authority. His arm is bare because he is wearing a Roman toga. The Rome Americans idealized was, as we know, first a republic, only later, an empire. But the American nineteenth century merged the two, saying republic, desiring empire.

Walt Whitman, in his Preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass shouts in his "barbaric yawp" that America "at last is something in the doings of man that corresponds with the broadcast doings of the day and night." It's sheer blasphemy. America rivals the God of Genesis, whose first creative act was to make day and night. Our good grey poet had a global vision, just as the Puritans did: America will lead and the world will follow. He was a hawker of American hubris, and though much of his poetry is beautiful, much of it is repulsive to me, mere catalogues of those grandeurs that prove that America is the divinely chosen redeemer nation.

If , then, a global vision, for both better and worse, is inherent in American literature, my aim in teaching it would be to show it for what it is, a literature engaged in dialogue with the literature of the rest of the world. I would try to arouse my students' curiosity about the oriental cultures that fascinated Emerson and Thoreau, about the rich and ancient Hispanic culture of the southwest, about the many cultures of the native Americans at the expense of whose lives we possess this land, about the Nordic epics that inspired Longfellow, about the culture of the Chinese who built our railroads.

This is not a matter of mere exposure. "Expose our students to" is one of the most irritating of the phrases that creep endlessly into our statements of our aims. Global citizenship doesn't come through exposure. It comes slowly. It arrives, if it arrives, only after our students have left us to pursue their careers and raise their families. It will come only through a lifetime of following their curiosity and exercising their imaginative sympathies for the way others arrange their lives and speak their minds. It will come by learning the language of another people, and then another language of another people after that. It comes history book by history book, French novel by Chinese tale, film by film, painting by painting, visit by visit. This may seem an impossible ideal, but unless global citizenship is grounded in the concrete realities of another culture, and then another culture after that, for as long as one lives, it is likely to be nothing more than the mindless and destructive globalism of the ugly American tourist and the greedy salesman. The global citizen travels in the world the way Thoreau traveled in Concord. He travels, not far, but much.

Which raises the most difficult of the problems we face in the education of global citizens. Any serious encounter with another culture triggers, inevitably, judgment. We cannot, nor can our students not judge. None of us is so naive as to think of the world around us as a pleasant place of interesting people with curious customs. It is a place of overwhelming, relentless, horrifying violence, politics by murder and rape. It doesn't take an evolutionary biologist like Ernst Mayr to cell us that genocide is as natural to human beings as sex. Confronted with many of the customs of the world's cultures we and our students are bound to be shocked, and then driven willy-nilly to judgment–as we are often shocked and driven to judge our own culture. To ask our students not to judge is to indulge their own tendency to a bland and blind relativism, a fatuous political correctness. But how in the world do we teach judgment?

Not directly. We forestall premature judgment by eliciting curiosity and inducing imaginative understanding. In fact, any honest and open encounter with another culture asks us to reflect not just on that culture, but on ourselves. Meeting others backs us into assessing ourselves, judging ourselves from new perspectives. It is what Socrates taught us to do–examine our lives.

When wdo–examine our lives.

When we examine our lives, we are likely to discover that we have moved through a series of diverse and shifting moral visions, the romantic and unreal morality of childhood, the ambitious and uncertain visions of our adolescence, the eventual moral realism that comes to us as adults. But these shifts of moral vision do not stop once we become adults. The shifting moral visions within my own adult life, from student, to priest, to husband and professor are a constant reminder of the relevance of Socrates' lesson: the unexamined life is not worth living.

We judge ourselves by judging those competing visions: Ruled by today's vision, am I better now than I was before? Have I learned anything? Do I see things more clearly? Am I more confused, less genuine?

We engage our students in this kind of scrutiny by teaching our cultural history. They study Plato, Shakespeare, Revolutionary America, the Cold War. We ask them to see the world as the people of earlier times saw it. And just as they judge themselves by comparing their present ideals with those they have passed beyond, so they judge their own culture in the light of the succession of ideal visions it has passed through. Did the people of the past lack our vision or do we lack theirs?

The process is no different in the dialogue of cultures. As we judge ourselves, as we judge the very different values that governed the various eras of our own culture, so we judge the other cultures we encounter. Of course, we know more about ourselves than we know about our culture, and we know more about our culture than we know about that of others. That is where teaching comes in. We require our students to inform themselves, not about the chimera of global culture, but about the individual cultures they have the curiosity to investigate and the imagination to understand. Curiosity and imagination make valid judgment possible. But in judging other cultures, just as in judging other times in our own culture and earlier versions of ourselves, it is we who are in question. Judgment always engages scrutiny of the self.

The education of global citizens is a long term project–-as all education is. We can't complete it, only initiate it. We won't turn out global citizens. We only start what has to be a lifelong process.

I end, finally, where I began, with the endlessly renewed threat of a conflict rather than a dialogue of cultures. I'm concerned, as I am sure you are, about our reaction as Americans to these threats. Concerned, but unfortunately not qualified to give an analysis or critique of our reaction. I take refuge, instead in a personal experience.

A month ago my wife and I went to Philadelphia to see The American Sublime, an exhibit of American landscape painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Among the landscapes in the show were the five large paintings of Thomas Cole's The Course of Empire. It was the fourth time I have seen this series. They are landscapes, but their theme is not landscape. Their theme is what its title says it is: The rise and fall of an empire that suggests but is not Rome. The date of the series is 1836, when the Roman empire was the favorite image of America.

The first painting shows dawn over a wild landscape. There is a dark promontory in the background which recurs in every painting of the series. The second painting is a morning scene, arcadian, pastoral, with sheep, shepherds, and pagan temples. The third painting is larger than the others. In this painting it is high noon and the landscape has been overwhelmed by architecture: arches, columns, domes, aqueducts, statuary, all in a gleaming white marble that recalls the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome–-and though the painting was done in 1836, it can't help but remind you of the Washington we visit today. The promontory in the background has become insignificant. This bright noon of this painting is followed immediately by a darkening scene of war. The gleaming marble dissolves in blood and destruction. The final painting is a night scene of utter desolation. The promontory in the background looms over ruined buildings, disappearing under returning vegetation.

It fascinates me that in 1836, close to the birth of the American Empire -–when Empire was a good word-–Cole was thinking about America's inevitable fall. I have always found it hard to walk away from those paintings. You can't pass them by. You have to think about them. You think obvious thoughts–nothing lasts forever. At the same time you hold on hard to the hope that somehow we will escape the violence of Cole's vision. You ask yourself if it is possible to break the cycle of the rise and fall of empires. I certainly don't know if it is. But it seems to me that if there is a way to break that cycle, it would have to be by coming to terms with our own imperial hubris.

Imperial hubris. It's the manifestation–at the level of the nation–of that inborn altruism that Mayr speaks about in his description of evolution. Inborn altruism is what evolution gives us, but as Mayr says, it isn't enough. Inborn loyalties and willingness to sacrifice tend to be narrow, confined, and ultimately dangerous.

A larger altruism, altruism toward outsiders, is crucial. It comes from learning, from the thinking of cultural leaders. This is our work. We teach that larger altruism. Our business as teachers is to struggle against the narrowness of imperial hubris. We struggle to teach what hubris is. We use mind and imagination to encourage careful reflection on ourselves as individuals and as a people, and we use mind and sympathetic imagination to make ourselves something more than aliens to all the alien cultures which populate our planet.

It's good work.

I'm glad you're all here to carry it on.