In his preface to If This Is a Man, Primo Levi writes
…many people – many nations – can find themselves believing, more or less consciously, that ‘every stranger is an enemy.’ For the most part, this conviction lies burning in the mind like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and is not the basis of a system of thought. But when this happens, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, stands the [camp]. It is the product of a conception of the world carried to its logical consequences . . . The story of the death camps should be understood by everyone as a sinister signal of danger.
Levi is describing the burning hatred for the European Jewish community stoked by the poisonous re-imagining of them as sub-human obstacles to racial purity. He is also alluding to the dangerous, but relatively common, fear that many humans have of one another. Another race, another class, another gender, a citizen of another country, a member of another party or faction. Far too often we humans understand, even defined, ourselves in opposition to others.
The efforts to overcome this, especially in schools, are laudable though often ineffectual. Perhaps one of the least effective and potentially dangerous ways some teachers attempt to engage students is through “living history” in which students dress up and “act like” someone from the past to “really understand” what is was like. As if folks from an earlier era walked around thinking how “exciting” it was to be wearing a wig and living in the 1640s. I would suggest that instead of playing what is, in essence, dress ups we encourage ourselves and our children to read widely. If you want to foster empathy in yourself and your children don’t buy them a powdered wig, enroll them in a summer reading program.
One of the things that reading offers us is the opportunity to overcome our innate biases against others and see the world through their eyes. In his book An Experiment in Criticism, the writer C.S. Lewis argues that in reading great literature
I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.
I’m not so naive as to suggest that reading widely always makes one a better or more ethical person, there are plenty of counter examples. I am suggesting that as a way to develop empathy and compassion it beats a costume box.
A few days ago I received a package in the mail from my Aunt Rachel. Inside was a portal that pulled me into the 1930s. Well, sort of. The package contained two books that belonged to my grandparents. I was pleased, but not surprised, to see that one was a book of hymns in spanish. I’m not sure if my grandmother could speak spanish but she was endlessly interested in other languages, people, and cultures and it wasn’t a bit surprising to learn that she had owned and used a spanish hymnal. I know she used it based on her notes in the margins (see below).
My grandmother was born in 1918 and would have been 20 or 21 in April of ’39 and living in Cincinnati, Ohio. I remember her as interested in world affairs and she would have known that German troops had streamed into Prague only the month before. She may have known that Neville Chamberlain had, the day before, brought a bill to parliament introducing military conscription for all males aged 20 and 21. The Thursday before, Billie Holiday, only a young 20-something herself, first recorded “Strange Fruit” a haunting lament and remembrance of the ‘Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze.’ As the daughter of sharecroppers in Alabama my grandmother would have known about that too.
By fall, the world would be at war. A war that would consume millions of lives and the next several years. My grandmother was 27 when it finally ended. I never heard her refer to any other human with anything less than respect, dignity, and yes . . . love. She loved Jesus and she believed, down to the deepest part of her soul, that Jesus loved everyone. The not loving others meant not loving Jesus. And so, when the world was on the brink of a conflict rooted in hatred of other people, other languages, and other cultures . . . my grandmother was trying to learn to sing a language not her own. That’s not a bad lesson for all of us. When the newspapers and internet are full of ugly words and ugly caricatures of others, maybe we should work to learn how to sing a song that’s not our own.
Last thursday a colleague and I gave a presentation at the 7th annual CARLI Instruction Showcase held at North Park University. The day opened with two longer presentations, followed by 5 “showcase” presentations. The first focused on culturally sustainable pedagogy and self-reflective practice in creative inclusive classrooms for students with diverse identities. The second was a Q+A with the creators of the “Library Sessions” podcast.
In the afternoon we presented on the final (capstone) step of Wheaton’s information literacy curriculum. It was a delight to present in North Park’s impressive, and fairly new, science center. We’ve co-written a chapter in a forthcoming book about the entire information literacy plan at Wheaton, but this was the first time we’ve presented about the capstone component. We were pleased with the feedback we received.
After the conference, we visited North Park’s Library and were delighted with some of their design ideas and features, especially their bold use of color.
It’s been quite a while since I posted anything personal on my blog. It’s also been two years this week since I started a new job at Wheaton College. Here’s what I’ve been up two in the last two years.
California Shortly before we moved, Faith and I took a short trip to Southern California. We enjoyed the exploring San Diego, hiking in Joshua Tree, exploring a mission, and just spending time together.
Job I started a new position at Wheaton College (IL) as the librarian for outreach and promotion and the group leader for the teaching and outreach group. I’m grateful to have been welcomed into a wonderful community of scholars and friends.
We Moved . . . Again. We lived in three different homes in under three years, leading our middle daughter to ask a few hours into a road trip, “where we were going to be living now?” When we first moved from Cincinnati we rented for a year to give us time to get a sense of the neighborhood and one year ago we purchased our home in Wheaton, IL. Nevertheless, we’ve had lots of fun exploring our new neighborhood and places nearby.
Charlotte We welcomed a third little girl to our family, Charlotte Ruth.
Travel One of the more exciting aspects of my job has been participating in the planning project for a proposal to expand the college library. Part of the planning involved a fair amount of travel. Between travel for meetings, conferences, and committee work across the last couple of years I was able to visit nearly twenty other libraries. Here are some of my favorites:
Conclusion It’s been a great two years but I’m looking forward to a few less changes in the next two.
“In the human mind, the word library seems to sit alongside other pregnant and evocative words such as garden, forest, galaxy, and labyrinth. Book lovers speak of their possessions as beautiful flowers, verdant leaves, precious fruit, flowing fountains. Books are stars and planets and meteorites. To browse library shelves is to wander in a maze or a mirror gallery. Cemetery is another neighboring word. Libraries have always been a matter of life and death. They are places of reverence, homes for things long gone. Through books, the dead speak.” Read the rest here.
Our visits were never long enough for me—the library was so bountiful. I loved wandering around the shelves, scanning the spines of the books until something happened to catch my eye. Those trips were dreamy, frictionless interludes that promised I would leave richer than I arrived. It wasn’t like going to a store with my mom, which guaranteed a tug-of-war between what I desired and what she was willing to buy me; in the library, I could have anything I wanted.