The Urgent Need for Thinking and Imagination for ‘Doing Good’

President Oden; Carleton trustees, faculty, and staff; friends and families; and the Carleton Class of 2008:  Maraming, maraming salamat. 

I just said “thank you very, very much” in Tagalog, the language of my family, who are immigrants from the Philippines. I am touched and moved by this honor.  It means even more to me, because of what I have come to know during my residency here about the special qualities of the Carleton community.  It is also an honor simply to have the opportunity to speak to a graduating class at a very special moment in your lives about what matters to me.

I should mention to you, new alumni of Carleton, why I feel deeply connected with college students, and why I feel I have a sense of the lives you shared with each other the past four years.  Once upon a time, my husband, two children, two dogs, and I, lived with 100 Stanford students in a Resident Fellow cottage attached to Okada, the Asian American Theme Residence.  For 7 years, we lived with many, who, like you, appeared to need no sleep whatsoever, and who seemed determined to multitask at increasingly faster speeds, and who worked their days and nights with the help of equally complex planner tools.  I was reminded of those times during my residency at Carleton.  I recall the class Mary Savina, Laura Riehle-Merrill, Amber Swiggum Cameron and I led.  We were working on a project for which we needed extra time to organize.  We agreed to meet.  As we began to eliminate days and times on our calendars, it dawned on me that the students in the class were so heavily booked, they were harder to schedule than anyone else!  We ended up meeting at the Snack Bar at 9 p.m., because there was no other common time.  I recall looking around the table, and thinking to myself, “so this is what Professor Mary Savina, who leads the Faculty Senate as president, needs to do to catch up with students!” It struck me then, as I remember it fondly now, that is part of what makes this place “Carleton.”

Well, I “get even” with former students.  When I sense that they are continuing with the 24/7, multitasking lives, I ask ever so solicitously, “so how is your social life, your love life?”  There are groans, but also a lot of affection and “bondedness,” for we have experienced a life together as community, whose significance and strength will never be erased. I mention this, because I also sensed that kind of connection, of “bondedness,” of affection, across students and faculty and staff in this community of Carleton that is now a part of you forever.

It would be very tempting at this point in my address simply to express words of encouragement for you to go out into the world and “do good,” to exhort you to apply all that you have learned in this place of deep and probing learning.  But I’m afraid that it is more complicated than that, more important than that, and given your gifts, talents, and commitments, you deserve to hear about the challenges that I think are a good fit with what I have come to know about a Carleton that embraces deep probing and earnest love of thinking.  So, instead, let me share with you reflections on what I learned from trying to integrate learning with community involvement. 

Let me first set the context. 

When I started out my work in a field of educational practice called “service-learning” and “civic education,” these terms did not exist or well known as a part of higher education.  In 1985, there were only three institutions involved with the founding of Campus Compact, a national higher education organization devoted to the integration of learning with community involvement as a process for educating citizens and building communities.  Howard Swearer (former president of Carleton), Donald Kennedy, and Derek Bok, then presidents of Brown, Stanford and Harvard, respectively, organized the Compact in part to counter public perception of students as self-absorbed and detached from social issues. Over 20 years later, more than 1300 higher education institutions (including Carleton) are members of Campus Compact, which is now organized in 33 states across the country. There is federal government and, in some states, local support of service-learning and civic education.  The most familiar to you would likely be AmeriCorps VISTA of the Corporation for National and Community Service, whose mission is to provide full-time staff to nonprofits and government agencies to “…create and expand programs that bring low-income individuals and communities out of poverty.” All across the country, in practically every month of the year, you can find a national, regional and local conference devoted to the theory, practice and research of what is now a significant body of work and activity.  I have observed, in my lifetime, a shift in the location of so-called “engaged pedagogies” from the margins of the academy to its institutionalization in centers and programs, as you have here at Carleton in ACT or Acting in the Community Together and ACE or Academic Civic Engagement.  Through my visits to many campuses across the country and speaking at many gatherings, I now have a sense of the nation-wide efforts by students, faculty and staff to integrate learning with service in collaboration with community groups, nonprofits and government agencies.  The new mantra I have been hearing lately is the “engaged institution,” a term indicating expectations for colleges to be involved as partners and collaborators in solving community problems and social issues at large. This is reflected in accreditation criteria and also in the new elective category developed by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning called “Community Engagement.”

Because of the scale and scope of these efforts nationwide, it seems to me this is no longer simply a field of educational practice.  Indeed, it has become a national social movement to renew and revitalize the public purposes of higher education.  Carleton graduates, your children, nephews, nieces, and other children you teach or work with, will likely be involved with community service through school or community groups.  They will be attending colleges that are right now, as I speak, launching or expanding centers and offices of community service and civic engagement.

I think it is safe to say this field of practice and national movement is not going away or disappearing any time soon.  I should be pleased, because I have worked with others to make that come to pass.  To the contrary, I feel uneasy, anxious, troubled.

What I want are two things that I ask you to consider integrating into your lives, as you take on roles to shape the various institutions, communities, and societies of which you are a part.   It matters to me that you shape higher education and your own alma mater, specifically, in two ways.

First, provoke critical thinking about “doing good.” I’m aware that to say this to you, who have been immersed in a Carleton culture of the life of the mind, is like saying “please breathe.” However, if you take a look at the volumes of materials on community service and engaged pedagogies, it has become almost a ritual to critique the “ivory tower” and to exhort faculty and students to “get out there and do something!” The problem is with what is not said and what is implied:  that the “something” that one will do is presumably “good,” or that it is mostly a matter of getting people to act, to carry out what is self-evidently “doing good.” Again, given the life of the mind at Carleton, you are already accustomed to talking about being  aware of multiple, competing, and contested ideas – of anything! – including of that very basic thing we can take for granted:  what is the good to be done – in this community, in that one, in the larger society, in the world? In the case of Katrina, does it matter (for taking action to “do good”) if it is viewed as a case of misfortune or injustice – or both? Where there is chronic poverty and everything that goes with it, should we be focused on wealth creation (as through the now very popular social entrepreneurship) or on redistributive programs? Yes, I am urging you to “stir-up” thoughtfulness, because we need critical and rigorous analytical thinking to shape our choices for “doing good.” 

While “dong good” is the more familiar way of talking about character, it also matters to me that you – that we – be good.  It matters to me that you be good.  To get at the concrete reality behind such abstract words as “multiple and competing goods” is to be involved, especially with folks whose views differ from yours. There is a sharpness and depth to thinking that develops in the nitty gritty, and not so pretty, struggles to be heard, to be understood, to be opposed outright, to be shut down even about things that are presumed to be one’s good intentions to “do good.” I am not talking only about the folks in one’s immediate community, but also about peoples whose ways of knowing are not codified in western scholarship and whose wisdom and gifts for understanding our world and our relationship to it need to be heard and seriously considered. This is about diverse ways of knowing, or epistemological diversity, epistemological pluralism for practicing “earth citizenship” (a phrase I like so much better than “global citizenship”).  Earth citizenship is a concept French philosopher and sociologist Edgar Morin describes in his book (with a title I also like very much!), Homeland Earth.  In it, Morin writes about a politics of humanity that requires transformation of knowledge and ways of thinking, in order that all in homeland earth – not only a few humans – survive and thrive.

Second thought.  It matters to me that you – that we – be imaginative.  It is a tragedy that imagination is all too rare.  I think that the scarcity of it in endeavors for “doing good” is partly due to an orientation that sacrifices and discounts the utopic in favor of the dystopic.  Let me explain.  I come from the Philippines where chronic poverty has been a fact of life.  It is where I became aware of it as something I had a responsibility to address, and where I discovered a world of theories and explanations for its existence.  In my adoptive country, in these United States, I continued in the orientation I developed in the Philippines.  That orientation has been towards identifying and analyzing the causes of what is “wrong.”  That led me to years devoted to understanding systems that cause suffering and death, which led me toward efforts to counter these dystopic systems in the form of resistance struggles in social movements against injustice. It took me a long time to become self-aware of my orientation, because I have been immersed in an environment in which it is common practice to identify problems to be solved, to be fixed, and to demand measurable outcomes to account for those efforts.  Just as there is an enormous body of scholarship on every dystopic phenomenon in the world, the practice of “doing good” tends to be in the form of social problem-solving. (I am tempted to call this the “scholarship of bad news!”)

Don’t get me wrong: I think it is absolutely essential to continue in the efforts to address, to resist, to struggle against painfully real enough dystopic systems.  People’s lives depend on it. On the other hand, the creation of a more ideal social order is not only a matter of stopping the “bad.”  I think it is also about creating – not tomorrow or long into the future – but here and now, today, small scale experiments in realizing the utopic.  I know that we sometimes dismiss the ideal as “utopian,” referencing the imaginary construction of ideal worlds as existing “no where” (Greek 'ou' for "no" and '-topos' for "place," no place). But I think that we will get nowhere and no place that is better than what exists, unless we can imagine that which is beyond.  Specifically and concretely, just as you have been involved with participating in, and creating community on campus – in your student residences, in class, in various co-curricular activities at Carleton, in your involvements with community service – and just as you have come to expect those kinds of efforts at your alma mater, I hope you consider that you can also be very intentional about creating communities, creating pockets of the “good” through small scale utopian experiments everywhere you live and work for the rest of your lives.

This requires imaginative capacity.  That’s because the world is not utopian!

I hope you will consider integrating into your lives a practice that I have been calling “civic arts.”  As in art, the imaginative is essential, and the rendering of what has been only in one’s imagination into reality is through one’s engagement and participation in shaping our social order.  It is as if the various social worlds in which we live are our artwork, our participation and engagement is our art process, and the medium of this civic artwork is one’s self.

And there’s the rub.  You. Me. We. We are not separate from the world-out-there which we negotiate, manage, and create. The mechanistic, control-oriented orientation of our environments might delude us into thinking that “doing good” is “out there,” outside of one’s self.  But we are “in” and “of” and “are” the systems.  As the saying goes: “them” is “us.” The creation of our best selves is an integral part of “doing good” in the world.

Let me close by reading from Thich Nhat Hanh,a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet and peace activist.  In his book, Being Peace, Thich Nhat Hanh recounts a story that the Buddha tells:

A young widower, who loved his five-year-old son very much, was away on business, and bandits came, burned down his whole village, and took his son away.  When the man returned, he saw the ruins, and panicked.  He took the charred corpse of an infant to be his own child, and he began to pull his hair and beat his chest, crying uncontrollably.  He organized a cremation ceremony, collected the ashes and put them in a very beautiful velvet bag.  Working, sleeping, eating, he always carried the bag of ashes with him.  One day his real son escaped from the robbers and found his way home.  He arrived at this father’s new cottage at midnight, and knocked at the door.  You can imagine at that time, the young father was still carrying the bag of ashes, and crying.  He asked, “Who is there?”  And the child answered, “It’s me Papa.  Open the door, it’s your son”  In his agitated state of mind the father thought that some mischievous boy was making fun of him, and he shouted at the child to go away, and continued to cry.  The boy knocked again and again, but the father refused to let him in.  Some time passed and finally the child left.  From that time on, father and son never saw one another.  After telling this story, the Buddha said, “Sometime, somewhere you take something to be the truth. If you cling to it so much, when the truth comes in person and knocks at your door, you will not open it.”

Doors. The doors to thinking deeply, broadly, “differently,” inclusive of epistemological diversity in identifying and defining “doing good.” The doors to imagination, to cultivating imaginative capacity to envision the good that can be created here and now in small scale utopian experiments of “doing good,” without waiting for the world to be “fixed.”

Will you open these doors?

Because you have experienced a community of learning at Carleton; because you have been an intellectual explorer and adventurer in this place where teachers love teaching, and teachers are everywhere – on the faculty, on staff, in the administration, among the other staff who run the cafeterias, clean, maintain the grounds – everywhere in Carleton;  because you have been immersed in a place whose mission is to develop “…qualities of mind and character that prepare its graduates to become citizens and leaders, capable of finding inventive solutions to local, national and global challenges,” in fact you have been opening the kind of door in Buddha’s story.  It is now up to you to continue – with intentionality, purpose, and planfulness—a life-long process of cultivating a self who is willing and capable of opening new doors, especially the hard ones, the ones shut tight. 

But for today, congratulations on the many doors you opened while at Carleton, and congratulations as you open another and walk through it today at graduation.  I hope you will forgive me for an offering you an elderly, maternal farewell in awkward English:  Do good, and be good, will you?