Twenty-two years, five months and 17 days ago I was accidentally born white and middle class in the United States of America. I don’t regret it. In many ways I’m quite lucky that it worked out that way.But nevertheless it was an accident, an act of chance, a one-in-a-billion combination of genes and geography that landed me in Buffalo, N.Y. as opposed to Cape Town, Calcutta or East Berlin.
The accident of birth is one that in many ways affects who we are.Before we can even speak, we are Hindu, Christian or Muslim, poor or rich, urban or rural, black or white. By the time we can hope to understand what these things mean, we have already become them.
Many people accept this determinism without recognizing it.Young people are bombarded with one-sided narratives confirming the superiority of “people like them” ? communists are evil, capitalists are greedy, Catholicism is a cult, atheism is immoral, black neighborhoods are dangerous, whites are racist, Columbus discovered America, America is the Great Satan. Societies often frown upon those who ask too many questions.
Overcoming determinism and prejudice is one of the most important goals of liberal education. Our education allows us to question the roles that predetermined factors play in forming our identities, values and opinions.By allowing us to identify the ways in which culture contextualizes our thinking, our education enables us to guide our lives with a philosophy that is based on universal values, not mere tradition.
Vital to intellectual development, the tolerance and understanding fostered by quality liberal education also benefit society.Ethnocentrism, fundamentalism and ignorance are behind the greatest challenges that humanity faces today.
Focusing on difference, exclusion and superiority brought great suffering over the last century. Leaving the comfort zone of predetermined identity is difficult but necessary for progress in today’s world.Gross disparities in wealth, both within and between nations, are creating insecurity and hostility. People are dying because of cultural animosities fueled by a refusal to acknowledge the humanity of the other side.The world needs a new generation of leaders who are willing to abandon the failed ways of the past and focus on improving the lives of all people.
Our time at UR has provided us with opportunities to interact with people of varying ethnic, national, religious and ideological backgrounds. It has exposed us, both in and out of class, to ways of looking at things that we might never have come across in our hometowns.And hopefully, it has left us unafraid to question even the most basic assumptions that we make as a society and as individuals.
Many of us have a different concept of who we are now than we did four years ago. I arrived here as a somewhat politically conservative, practicing Catholic, who ate mainly cereal, pizza and Spaghettios. I am now a proud secular humanist who loves foods from around the world and considers Ted Kennedy substantially too far to the right.
My best friend never misses an opportunity to tease me about my former self.However, the important thing is not whether we have changed our views or customs, but whether we have questioned them to see whether they were right for us. We have learned to subject our beliefs, and all other ideas that we encounter, to scrutiny and debate. We have learned to discard that which we find unconvincing or ineffective and to move forward in the pursuit of truth and meaningful solutions.
Our education has provided us with a wealth of experiences and expanded our ways of thinking. It has given us the confidence to ask the important questions and to venture into new territory. Most importantly, it has helped us to define ourselves, as dynamic individuals, on our own terms. Even if, like me, you have yet to turn it into a job, you have to admit it’s been worth the price.
Brach can be reached at email@example.com.