While caught up in the rush of each day, it’s easy to lose sight of the fundamentals. We can become so absorbed in our own little heads that we forget to step back and to appreciate each other. I’ve got things to do, things to buy, places to go, people to see, money to make, money to burn, shows to watch, games to play. We’ll spend so much time and energy focusing on what we’re doing—on our own and together—that we can often fail to consider who we are and who we are becoming. Absent such reflection, we can never meaningfully and purposefully realize our better selves, precluding any possibility of collective self-actualization. Every day we pass up opportunities to recognize each other, to spend time on the relationships and connections that build our communities and sustain our lives.
University of Southern California professor of linguistics, Paul Frommer, is the creator of the Na’vi language used in James Cameron’s film Avatar, which grossed nearly $2.8 billion worldwide. While the film is riddled with the sort of racial stereotypes and dynamics that one might expect of times long past, Frommer did invent one line that stands out as particularly important for us all to consider: “Oel ngati kameie,” the formal greeting of the Na’vi (you know, those big blue people that live on the planet Pandora). In a 2009 interview with UGO’s Jordan Hoffman, Frommer explains the meaning of this phrase:
Jordan Hoffman: And “I see you” means much more than to regard visually, it means “to understand your soul,” right?
Paul Frommer: Exactly. And in the script the “s” in “See” is capitalized. (Hoffman, 2009)
In order to be our best, we need to See our best in one another. But we have trended toward seeing global realities only in their technical terms rather than as the shared contexts that we construct and within which we life. We see global warming as a problem of CO2, O3, and CFCs. Illegal immigration as a problem of border security. AIDS and TB as medical issues. But those views are incomplete. We’ve started seeing problems as only technical problems rather than human problems. And technical solutions to human problems often ignore the humanity in us all.
In his best-selling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell describes Stewart Wolf and John Bruhn’s study of the technically inexplicable absence of heart disease (or other physical and social difficulties) in Roseto, Pennsylvania in the 1950s, a time when heart disease was soaring everywhere else. The short version of the story is that they found that the health of relationships in the community translated to the physical health of its members. “These people were dying of old age. That’s it.” (Bruhn in Gladwell, 2008, Loc. 66).
Living a long life, the conventional wisdom at the time said, depended to a great extent on who we were—that is, our genes. It depended on the decisions we made—on what we chose to eat, and how much we chose to exercise, and how effectively we were treated by the medical system. No one was used to thinking about health in terms of community.
Wolf and Bruhn had to convince the medical establishment to think about health and heart attacks in an entirely new way: they had to get them to realize that they wouldn’t be able to understand why someone was healthy if all they did was think about an individual’s personal choices or actions in isolation. They had to look beyond the individual. They had to understand the culture he or she was a part of, and who their friends and families were, and what town their families came from. They had to appreciate the idea that the values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are. (Gladwell, 2008, Loc. 102)
What the researchers found in Roseto was that technical solutions to human health problems were incomplete and, perhaps, fell far afield of the human solutions. Their ability and willingness to See one another not only extended their lives, but may have even been life itself.
The World View K-12 Symposium on Population and Global Migration, held at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Friday Center on October 23-24, 2013, was focused on “examining the world’s most pressing challenges and resources” (World View, 2013), particularly questions of (as indicated in the symposium’s title) population growth and global migration. What the conference really boiled down to was Seeing one another. Seeing that we share this world. Seeing that we share aspirations. Seeing that we share a common humanity. Seeing into one another. Oel ngati kameie.
“We asked for workers and they sent us people”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction, June Atkinson, opened the conference with a question: How can we bring global education into our classrooms? Although I have now voted for Dr. Atkinson twice (and would be likely to vote for her again, if she chooses to run again in 2016), I think that she was asking the wrong question, making any response unlikely to be the right one. In fact, her solutions tended toward the bureaucratic rather than the substantive—a “badging” process for teacher certification, adult networking, acquiring technology tools—as though the ability “to broaden our children’s horizons and expand them to see beyond where they are” (Atkinson, 2013) not only could, but ought to be built from without, by adults. Her argument seems to be lacking a clear connection to students, perhaps in the hope that an audience full of teachers with good intentions could pave a path other than the proverbial one.
As we continue to apply short-term, piecemeal technical solutions to our human problems, we seem to multiply the challenges that we face. “Henry Ford once asked…, ‘How come when I need a pair of hands in the factory, I always get a human being as well?’” (Krikorian, 2001). Looking only at people as means to ends, we ignore their complex humanity. Nannerl O. Keohane Director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University, Noah Pickus suggested a deeper understanding of people as “complex bundles,” an understanding that doesn’t give in to the idea of binaries. “It’s a mixture. It’s a mess,” he said (Pickus, 2013). Discussing immigration and citizenship, Pickus delved into the messiness of the United States’ complex web of rights, laws, history, economics, reforms, programs, identities, and more. In the end, as it so often does in ethics, it all comes down to principles. In this case, belonging and trust, particularly the current shortage of both.
Because there is so much uncertainty about the future—jobs and their surrounding communities can explode or evaporate seemingly instantaneously—people will cling to every shred of their imagined past and present identities and lose sight of their potential futures as individuals and communities. Immigrants enter into these contexts, in which it’s already hard to become a part of something, communities are strained, and everyone is uncertain. No one knows where, when, and how what set of rules apply (Pickus, 2013). It’s kind of like comedian Jim Gaffigan’s thoughts on having a fourth child: “Imagine you’re drowning…and then someone hands you a baby” (Gaffigan on Fallon, 2011). Rather than understanding the contextual and long-term needs of our situation, we are preoccupied with series of immediate and concrete one-time deals. We don’t trust each other’s commitment and aren’t willing to accept one another into our collective sense of identity. Instead of recognizing that we’re all in this thing together and seeing into one another, we hang onto whatever we can, point fingers, and risk drowning together.
The Spherical Cow
“We’re not good at dealing with issues that are evolving,” according to Greg Pillar in his presentation “9 Billion and Beyond” (2013). If it’s not of immediate importance, we tend to say that we can deal with it later, often forgetting that later will be sooner and then now, which is too late. However, we need to deal with the problems before we become unable to do so. In classroom contexts that often prize individual achievement and the frequency with which students answer questions correctly, a shift toward dealing with real-world messiness can challenge students’ expectations about what learning is, has been, and ought to be. As Pillar pointed out, kids are often looking for the fixed answer to problems, but they need to deal with the unstructured problem-solving that they will invariably face. They can’t simply deal with it later. In fact, none of us can.
Although their answers may not be correct, the students’ process is the learning. Their process will require that they deal with complex problems and experiment with creative solutions. To answer challenging questions—How much land do we need in an urban environment to feed the entire urban population? How many planets would we need if everybody used resources in the way that you do? (Pillar, 2013)—our students need to develop a deep sense of empathy that goes beyond putting a human face on problems. We need to challenge our students to see beyond their own assumptions, toward their own futures, and into one another in order to truly appreciate the complexity and interconnectedness of our lives together on earth.
Maintaining the integrity, really the messiness, of any unstructured problem requires that we can avoid introducing artificial constructs that change the conditions within which authentic solutions lie. In other words, we need to check our assumptions at the door and resist the temptation to oversimplify real-world complexity. If we can imagine a brighter future, we need to imagine it in full, not in a vacuum. If we are preparing our students for an unpredictable future, we need them to appreciate the messy complexity of reality. We need to push the boundaries of their imaginations and their willingness and ability to build the future of their dreams.
What Comes to Mind…?
James Dean, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost of UNC-Chapel Hill, began the final day’s plenary session by discussing the importance of international relationships and individual stories to understanding one another and to developing solutions to pressing global issues. Rather than building campuses across the globe, he said, UNC is focused on building relationships and mutual understandings. By mixing together extensive study abroad programs, UNC-Chapel Hill is focused on opportunities to hear others’ stories, stories that illustrate a need to check their (indeed, our) assumptions. Stories, according to Provost Dean, help us all to see that there is more to any person, place, idea, or context than we had previously assumed (Dean, 2013). Stories allow us to uncover and share the deeper meaning of our common humanity. And, we are writing our stories all the time.
After giving a shout-out to public schools, Professor of Epidemiology James Thomas asked, “What comes to mind when you think about Africa?” (2013). For most of us in the room, the ideas were very much the same—wildlife, poverty, AIDS, violence, misery. But none of these is the whole story. In fact, as Professor Thomas pointed out, none of these is even the predominant story. We all seem to have imagined Africa and its people’s experiences unfairly and incompletely. Part of the problem, according to Thomas, is that much of what we see in films or on the news is Americans having experiences in Africa, largely viewing the continent and countries from a deficit perspective (2013). (Interestingly, Professor Thomas also pointed out that many Africans see the United States from a moral deficit perspective, imagining the entire country as New York City and “Sex in the City.”) In short, our ideas are just plain misconceived.
Through a series of examples, images, and anecdotes, Professor Thomas offered a suggestion—counter-stories. “There is some doing that needs to be undone,” he said (Thomas, 2013), and counter-stories are needed to refocus our understandings on common people’s experiences rather than those of elites. There are beautiful, complex stories that comprise the regular happenings of life across the diverse African continent, and our focus is largely on the exceptions. Counter-stories unveil the dreams, persistence, and commitment that underlie the daily lives of Africans (Thomas, 2013). The stories are out there and are necessary for us to hear if we’re to move beyond the two-dimensional and toward a more complex, nuanced view of the people, places, and spaces in which they are lived.
Professor Thomas’s ideas were both echoed and furthered by the next speaker on stage, Tim Flood, Associate Professor of Management and Corporate Communication at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. He urged us all to think beyond our preconceived notions of others and to respect “the complexity of culture” (Flood, 2013). To do so, we have to develop a deeper capacity for empathy. Circling back to an earlier idea, we can’t try to define cultures as sets of technical understandings, but need to see them as living things. Professor Flood demonstrated such a need for empathy by showing a “Facebook Story” about the Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation. At the conclusion of the video, he said, “You can’t just give what you think they need. You have to really find out what their needs are” (Flood, 2013). From there, we can build meaningful relationships, deeper empathy, and lasting commitments to each other.
What’s interesting is that we don’t seem to operate from an empathic perspective, but fall victim to self-referential tendencies. We’re ignorant of others’ needs, hopes, dreams, and intentions. Professor Flood encouraged us to consider that everyone has both the best intentions and limited resources with which to fulfill them, but that we’re going to fine because “we’ve been here plenty of times before” (Flood, 2013). History indicates that, over time, we work through processes of collective identity building in predictable ways, and if we can understand these patterns, we can begin to see and appreciate the complexity of our shared future much more clearly. For example, as Flood pointed out, we have essentially applied the same language to every wave of new Americans for centuries: “These dark, dirty people who don’t speak the language, refuse to integrate into society, are taking our jobs and stealing our resources” (Flood, 2013). We applied these words to Central and Eastern Europeans in the 18th century; to Irish, Chinese, and Jews in the 19th century; to Europeans, Asians, and Africans in the 20th century; and we continue to apply the same perspective to Latinos in the 21st century.
Because education—schools, really—is where “Americanness” is taught and inculcated, teachers are an important part of the development of new perspectives about what it means to be “American.” Professor Flood encouraged us to continue the work that we, as teachers, are doing in our classrooms, just to look at it differently, in full appreciation of all the unique flavors that contribute to “the stew cooking” (Flood, 2013). Certainly, a perspective shift is no small feat, but the final speaker of the conference—Christian Lundberg, UNC Professor of Communication Studies—reminded us that it isn’t really our job to give students perspectives, but to foster in them the ability to appreciate one another more deeply and to seek out others’ viewpoints as a matter of course. So, we were left with a question: “How do we give students the capacity to engage in meaningful debate and to develop deeper understandings so that we can talk it out, not fight it out?” (Lundberg, 2013).
I See You
3-D films, such as James Cameron’s Avatar, create the illusion of depth in order to enhance viewers’ experience in some way. It’s really cool, but it’s a trick. “Understanding what we see mostly happens in the brain, which is why a person with perfect vision is still susceptible to optical illusions. Do we know what the world looks like? We know approximately what it looks like, which is enough to get by, but our perception of the world is not without a certain amount of ‘misreading.’ Our visual nervous system approximates color, shape, and dimension” (Hirmes & Kaufman, 2002). Our brains are also partly responsible for the two- or even one-dimensional ways in which we will see each other. But it’s not a neurological issue that we have. The lump of matter in our skulls doesn’t fully determine our ability to See one another. In so many ways, it’s a choice. We have a choice about whether we decide to See one another as full, complete, imperfect yet whole, multi-dimensional human beings. We have a choice about whether we See the depth of the world that we share. We have a choice about what, whether, and how we See. Oel ngati kameie.
Seeing Providence Day School
While the World View Fall Symposium offered valuable opportunities for me to grow as a professional, to consider how I approach the courses that I teach, and to develop new ideas and skills; probably the most valuable opportunities came from getting to know some of my colleagues better. In some cases, I truly didn’t know them at all. Developing relationships with Lower, Middle, and Upper School teachers is what made the experience all worth it. The conference was important, but the feeling of connectedness with my colleagues was invaluable—sharing time together and beginning to see more of what makes our school so special in so many ways across so many stages of life. Sure, World View contributed to my classroom, but I believe that the experience to share in an experience with PD people made our school better, and made me love it here more.
- Atkinson, J. (2013, October 23). “Welcome.” K-12 Global Education Symposium 2013: Population and Global Migration. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina.
- Dean, J. (2013, October 24). “Welcome.” K-12 Global Education Symposium 2013: Population and Global Migration. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina.
- Fallon, J. (2011, August 31). Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. New York: NBC.
- Flood, T. (2013, October 24). “Contextualizing Education, Migration and Multiculturalism.” K-12 Global Education Symposium 2013: Population and Global Migration. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina.
- Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The Story of Success (Kindle Edition). New York: Little, Brown and Company.
- Hirmes, D. & Kaufman, D. (2002). “The Secret Life of the Brain: Mind Illusions.” PBS. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/brain/illusions/index.html
- Hoffman, J. (2009, December 14). How to speak Na’vi: We chat with the inventor of Avatar’s Na’vi language. UGO. Retrieved from http://www.ugo.com/movies/paul-frommer-interview
- Krikorian, M. (2001, June 19). “Prepared Statement of Mark Krikorian.” Guestworker Visa Programs. Hearing before the Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims of the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, One Hundred Seventh Congress.
- Lundberg, C. (2013, October 24). “Debating Difficult Issues.” K-12 Global Education Symposium 2013: Population and Global Migration. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina.
- Pickus, N. (2013, October 23). “Immigration and Citizenship in the 21st Century.” K-12 Global Education Symposium 2013: Population and Global Migration. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina.
- Pillar, G. (2013, October 23). “9 Billion and Beyond.” K-12 Global Education Symposium 2013: Population and Global Migration. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina.
- Thomas, J. (2013, October 24). “Re-Imagining Africa.” K-12 Global Education Symposium 2013: Population and Global Migration. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina.
- World View: An International Program for Educators. (2013). “K-12 Global Education Symposium 2013: Population and Global Migration.” Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina. Retrieved from https://worldview.unc.edu/programs/fall-symposiums/k-12-global-education-symposium-2013-population-and-global-migration/
Resources Suggested by Speakers/Presenters
A Home on the Field by Paul Cuadros (2007)
“An Essay on the Principle of Population” by Thomas Malthus (1798)
Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam (2000)
Chris Rock on Native Americans (video, explicit)
Consider a Spherical Cow by John Harte (1985)
Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo (2009)
Ecological Footprint Quiz by Center for Sustainable Economy (website)
Guns, Germs, & Steel by Jared Diamond (1997)
Imperial Reckoning by Caroline Elkins (2005)
Mississippi Masala (film, 1991)
Picture Bride (film, 1994)
Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison (1992)
“Swimming to School” (video)
The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs (2005)
“The Story of Stuff” (video, 2007)
The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly (2006)