As an institution of higher learning, Emory operates with many distinct values and the solemn responsibility to use what is learned in the classroom and apply it to the betterment of society.
One of Emory’s core principles, being “an ethically engaged institution,” concisely reflects this general idea. But while being engaged in an educational or academic context usually means having awareness of things like the achievement gap in inner cities or endemic malaria in sub-Saharan Africa, it often comes at the price of being oblivious to what is happening in front of us on a daily basis.
It is obviously important to understand and improve where possible these very real problems that exist outside of our immediate perception.
When one generally thinks about being “ethically engaged,” the first things that come to mind are reading national or global news, taking a class with deeper social implications, educating others about an issue that impassions us or volunteering one’s time.
But none of these avenues of ethical engagement mean very much if the mindset starts and stops at one’s convenience, if it can be forgotten about when the class ends, the article is read, involvement with an organization is over or the issue becomes passÃ©.
It is impossible to juggle all of the issues and realities we are supposed to care about as progressive, mindful individuals – any such attempt will end in failure and disappointment. Instead, a more effective and lasting alternative is to remember that life goes on outside of our perception of the world.
Ironically, this particular understanding of being of the world exists in a bubble like Emory itself, in which the individual is often completely isolated from the issue. The colloquialism of “the bubble” is inherently opposed to the notion of being an active participant in a world of greater consequence.
Robert M. Pirsig writes in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book that I would readily call required reading for being a person, that “the place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.” Being part of the world on a greater level begins in the mind, and it is necessary to look at it differently and recognize what is in front of us – to understand what many of students at this university have had the privilege of not having to experience.
It is uncomfortable to admit that this is an issue largely dictated by social class. But being engaged with the world means experiencing things like working a menial minimum wage job, doing manual labor for an extended period of time or actively contributing to one’s household. Or if not personally having to live with these circumstances, being both extremely aware and mindful that, for many people, these are realities that are rarely given much thought by those who experience them and instead are expectations of what life is.
It is fair to say that many students at this institution, where having parents who are both doctors or lawyers is almost the norm, have not experienced any of this. In all likelihood, not many of Emory students probably know how to change a tire or navigate a toolbox. But people are the products of their environment, and while education can insulate the student from the broader world, it also offers the opportunity to think differently about one’s surroundings.
American novelist David Foster Wallace’s commencement address at Kenyon College (Ohio) in 2005, popularized as “This Is Water,” explains the value of a liberal arts education past the exhausted, ready-made answers of teaching us how to think or whatever. The value and privilege of our education, according to the great DFW, is “learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”
If one wants to have an active role in the world, it is absolutely necessary to be able both to recognize the privilege of receiving an education and to think about all of the struggles many of us will probably never have to experience as a result.
This is what it means not only to have taken classes or received a degree but to have truly received an education.
This is what each student, whether a first-semester freshman, a senior anxious to soon have a job or a graduate student, must always be conscious of.
Online Editor Ross Fogg is a College senior from Fayetteville, Ga.