Back-to-School: An Urgency to Know

Commemorating the lives lost at Virginia Tech.

In the aftermath of Seung-Hui Cho’s shooting spree that claimed the lives of  32 people and physically injured at least 17 others at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an interesting series of reflections on the matter. They asked scholars, artists, and college presidents to imagine the commencement address they would give to Virginia Tech’s graduating class. The central message offered through these imagined addresses recasts the value of education and the aims of critical inquiry. Ariel Dorfman, novelist and professor of Latin American studies at Duke, used his address to point to the ways that the liberal arts curriculum readies the mind for an engagement with life’s mysteries and difficulties. Reflecting on some of the core divisions, Dorfman ratifies their importance for preparing students as they face some of life’s greatest challenges. He writes:

What have you been doing at this institution but precisely engaging in the very issues that now threaten to infect and sully your existence? You have studied how the science that brings us so many wonders is nevertheless unable to give us final responses to a number of fundamental questions. You have been challenged by philosophy, by psychology, by history to examine what is different, what is not easily explained, what is doubtful. You have been shaken by knowledge, broken out of the conventions you believed in, made uncomfortable with lies, forced to look into the mirror of yourselves. You have been shaken by beauty, interrogated by atrocity, exploded by languages from faraway places where death comes more easily to the inhabitants and just as unpredictably. If all through these university years you have not learned to ask the right questions about grief and community, if all this time you have not been made wary of the false answers, then I would advise you not to graduate, I would beg you to go back to the classroom and get yourselves an education.

As violent as this world is, it seems nearly impossible to imagine that students would be unprepared to engage the issues of “grief and community” that Dorfman indicates, and yet, I would argue, it happens. Investigating life’s most pressing concerns does not appear to be at the forefront of student inquiry. Being a good student as Dorfman appears to cast it shows a very personal stake in an age old effort to reconcile how we ought to live together in light of our differences.

Dorfman recommends using schooling as a model for shaping future approaches to living meaningfully:

Spend time with the literature, the books, the learning, which could not save your tormentor, lost as he was in his ferocious loneliness. Use the wonders of your own intelligence and the rivers of your empathy to become, each of you, the sort of human who ride into the world determined to create conditions where fewer of your fellows have to face the daily possibility of premature death descending upon them.

These essential tasks underscore the urgency of reading and reflecting. As Bobby Fong, President of Butler University, claimed, students gained these skills not merely “to make a living, but to make a life.” Making a life occurs for Donna E. Shalala, President of the University of Miami, through engagement with literature, science, philosophy, and art to make life intelligible. As she notes, “a world that makes no sense cannot be filled with purpose, with achievement, with growth, with joy.” Study reconciles incoherence and incongruity. If anything productive can be said to have come from the massacre it was that that terrible atrocity put the value of learning into context:

One of the important things this tragedy can help us see is that learning represents a belief in ourselves and in our innate capacity to overcome the inexplicable. Learning is the opposite of walking away, shaking our heads, and throwing up our hands. Rather, learning is an act of conviction about our ultimate ability to understand tragedy and thereby someday diminish or prevent it.

This small sample of reflections offered in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech tragedy points to the significance of going to school and earning an education. What kind of learners might we be if we kept the urgency of this context at the forefront of our minds as we begin this school year anew?

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