The Celebration of Great Lives and Great Ideas
In the end (the most significant position in a last lecture or, for that matter, any lecture!), universities' most important roles, reflected in their historic entanglement with societal religious institutions, are to be custodians, interpreters, publicists, and agents of those values and beliefs that Mr. Lincoln described in his first inaugural address as “the better angels of our nature.” Although the division of responsibility is not rigid (as most notably illustrated by seminaries), churches and temples are the venues for the expression and study of revealed truths, whether by divine gifts or spiritual quests; universities are the repositories of the insights emanating from the application of such truths to lived experience.
The power of collective experience—stated differently, the power of ideas—is the most important reason why universities are good bases from which to work in communities, even though some other aspects of academic culture are maddening. In turn, as a practical matter, the institutional mission to expand collective wisdom is the most important reason for universities to reject parochial instincts driven by the restrictive guilds of the academy and instead to embrace globalism, multiculturalism, and Jeffersonian equality. Our individual influence rests, often imperceptibly, on the contributions of not only our colleagues but also those who are far from us in time and space. “Thinking globally, acting locally” is indeed at the foundation of effective community work.
Universities' most important roles are to be custodians, interpreters, publicists, and agents of those values and beliefs that are ‘the better angels of our nature'
Too often, however, academicians have overlooked the wisdom that can be found in the communities with which we work. Universities should indeed facilitate and celebrate the truths found in the lives of the philosophers, statespersons, scientists, and artists of global and historical renown. However, we should also facilitate and celebrate the achievements and insights of the greats (as in Strong Communities, the exceptional volunteers) who walk among us every day, those who believe that “people shouldn't have to ask,” who “naturally” behave accordingly, and who quietly lead others in building and sustaining a sense of community. Their recognition comes daily in smaller, maybe silent ways—in the affirmation that comes from others, be they friends or family who trust in great human beings' goodness, effort, and skills, or strangers who are surprised and warmed by their incidental hosts' hospitality.
My father's life was an example. Dad never achieved “success” in the way that it is usually conceived in our society. He was a furniture manufacturer's representative (AKA traveling salesman) who died in his mid-50s, heavily in debt after extended disability because of a series of heart attacks and a stroke. Although his work had required him to drive 1,000 miles per week during much of his adult life, he did not board an airplane until after I had finished graduate school and welcomed a second child (also my parents' second grandchild), in that instance a half-continent from my parents' home. He never went abroad, although my parents sacrificed so that I could do so when I was in high school. I doubt if his name appeared in the newspaper at any time other than his birth, marriage, and death, but he spread the word about my own and my siblings' achievements to anyone who would listen.
Much like the exceptional volunteers in Strong Communities, Dad was active in the local civic club. Indeed, almost every man whom I knew when I was a child belonged to the Granite Quarry, North Carolina, Civitan Club.8 At one time or another, he held most of the offices in the small Methodist church that my great-grandfather had served as pastor. Whether he was with the bridge club, the kids in the neighborhood, the church youth group, the local restaurant servers and patrons (I think that he knew most of them in the Virginia small towns where he worked), or the staff in the stores that were his customers, he was a people person. When he died, he was on his way to his weekly playtime with the toddlers in the nursery of the much bigger church that the family attended after we moved to Roanoke, Virginia.
All of this went two ways—or, better stated, multiple ways. For example, when my sister married after my dad became disabled, my parents' Sunday School class hosted the reception. When Dad died, the informal restaurant that my parents frequented donated the catering for the funeral. As I am sure that Dad never would have expected, the sanctuary seating hundreds of people was packed. The owner of a motel where my dad had stayed when he worked in the area brought in his remodeling crew to renovate the family home, which had fallen into disrepair, so that it could be sold. (That family friend became a loyal volunteer in the Ronald McDonald House that my mother subsequently managed. Indeed, especially after Dad's death nearly 30 years ago, my mother became an even more active community servant than he had been, but that is a story for another time.) Of course, there are many other examples from earlier years.
When Dad died, he had a tattered clipping of a Dear Abby column in his wallet. The column focused on a quote (“What Is Success?”), which is usually misattributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson but which was actually written by an early-20th-century magazine subscriber, Bessie Anderson Stanley, in response to an open call for 100-word essays:
To laugh often and love much; to win the respect of intelligent persons and the affection of children; to earn the approbation of honest citizens and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to give of one's self; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived—this is to have succeeded.9
Ms. Stanley's quote that apparently meant so much to my father not only describes successful people, it also presents the essence of successful institutes concerned with community life. Indeed, a successful institute is a way of life. It presents a venue that enables thoughtful, caring, and dedicated professionals and community volunteers to experience “success” a bit more easily. Such an entity brings scientific and humanistic insights, just as it capitalizes on the assets in living communities, to facilitate the appreciation and enhancement—even transformation—of the expression of human rights in everyday life. One needs little knowledge of academic culture to imagine the gap between this mode of study and action and the norms present in conventional university departments and schools.
The Continuing Struggle
To illustrate this point further, I will close with a description of another personal experience. In January 2012, Robin and I were privileged to attend the 20th annual joint observance of Martin Luther King Day by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Morehouse and Spelman glee clubs. Reflecting Dr. King's own musical taste and arguably expressing the threads of his own distinctive and monumental contributions, the annual concert combines the messages and experiences of African American artistic and spiritual expression and the aesthetics and ethics in Western intellectual history.
A successful institute is a way of life—a venue that enables thoughtful, caring, and dedicated professionals and community volunteers to experience success a bit more easily
Yo-Yo Ma was the soloist in the centerpiece of the King Day concert (Dvořak's Concerto in B minor for cello and orchestra). Besides owning many of Maestro Ma's albums, we have been fortunate to see and hear him perform on several occasions. In my judgment, he is without peer among contemporary musicians. Hearing him play is always memorable and inspirational, and the choirs and orchestra also gave performances worthy of the celebration.
After taking well-deserved bows at the end of the Dvořak concerto, the musicians assembled for an unannounced encore. I whispered to Robin that the forthcoming encore had to be We Shall Overcome. I was correct, but only partially so. Apparently spontaneously, Maestro Ma picked up his chair and his instrument and carried them to the back of the cello section, where he sat humbly in the last seat. He then began playing the elegiac, soulful Sarabande from Bach's Suite No. 5 in C-minor for unaccompanied cello. Words fail me in describing the performance, which was stunning, even transcendent. By the end of Maestro Ma's solo, tears were streaming down my cheeks.
Then immediately upon the conclusion of the Sarabande, the Morehouse choir began to sing its director's inspiring and distinctive arrangement of We Shall Overcome. The Morehouse arrangement builds into an up-tempo crescendo in the verse proclaiming, “We are not afraid today.” The two compositions blended into one extraordinary experience that symbolized the losses, the challenges, and the triumphs that were embodied in Dr. King's life and that have been amplified in the succeeding generation (I encourage readers to re-create this stirring event for themselves).10
So what is the significance of this anecdote? At an early point in this article, I said that I would end with some thoughts about the difficulties that institutes on children, families, and communities face. Institutes were created to have the substantive breadth and the structural flexibility to do what universities should do, but thanks to their guild-ridden character, they usually cannot or will not. In short, institutes, especially those on matters of great social importance, were created to do what is difficult for universities to do but that they ought to do. Thus, institutes are created in struggle; they continue in struggle.
The power that energizes such struggles can be found not only in the once-in-a-lifetime expression of genius and caring by a heroic humanist like Yo-Yo Ma but also in the spiritual and human meaning of daily acts of greatness by exceptional commoners, as reflected in the evocative lyrics and tune of a simple but inspiring folk song like We Shall Overcome. What makes the Morehouse choir's arrangement so special is not just the historical context that those of us who grew up in the American South a half-century ago know all too well. The Morehouse arrangement is not memorable because it stimulates a kum-bah-yah good feeling. Rather, it challenges us to find the courage to overcome our fears.
We must diligently discover, understand, apply, and spread the contributions of successful people—exceptional servants—as the foundations for truly transformed, hospitable, and decent communities
Of course, the fears that the composer put before the singers were much more profound than those that we face today. We do not risk life and livelihood. But we still are called to muster the courage repeatedly to assume the risk of failure (maybe even frequent failures) in order do the difficult, even the seemingly impossible, in transformational service to our communities.
Change toward greater sense of community is still possible, and it is worth the effort, even when the way is difficult, the access to tools is blocked (sometimes by academic institutions themselves), and the tide is flowing in the opposite direction. Amid the continuing societal decline in expressions of caring, we must diligently discover, understand, apply, and spread the contributions of successful people—exceptional servants—as the foundations for truly transformed, hospitable, and decent communities inclusive of those who are strangers, excluded, alienated, or in great need. Although some of us are fortunate enough rarely to experience such a sense of separation, it is a feeling that is all too common in the current era and that probably encompasses most or all of us at times.
In that regard, I can find no better words to conclude this last lecture than the admonition that I offered in my first essay in The Community 3 years ago:
Remember that all of us—yes, all of us—experience not only joy but also anxiety and grief in our families. Such is the human condition. Only some of us have the resources, however, not to feel so overwhelmed that children's safety and well-being are often compromised, maybe even most of the time. In either case, all of us deserve the support needed to strengthen and preserve the relationships most important to us.
Although a sense of community—a feeling of ubuntu, an experience of neighborly love—may be increasingly rare in our society, such feelings of belonging are no less important than they have ever been. The human need for connection transcends the characteristics that divide us. It is fundamentally important, regardless of whether one is rich or poor, old or young, liberal or conservative, black, white, or brown.11
People shouldn't have to ask.