Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Owning Up

Today in class we were looking at some consequences of the rapid urbanization taking place in such developing countries as India, Nigeria, Mexico, Brazil... Specifically, we were looking at two slums in Lagos, Nigeria. After our discussion about living conditions there, I wanted the students to think about how we see our relationship to these places - as students, as Americans, as human beings. I asked them to think about if we had an obligation here? And what should it be? I should we respond? I let them discuss this in small groups before asking them to share with the larger class. The first student raised his hand and said, "We all pretty much agree that we have no obligation at all." Wow. I needed to explore this. "As individuals? As a country?" I asked. "Well," he responded, "pretty much we can't do anything that would actually help and after all they are a developing country, so we pretty much need to let them develop." Ok. Another student chimed in - about how maybe we can't understand what its like unless we go there. But we should at least be educated about it. Ah. A little bit of hope. Another student said, "Well, maybe we can give money to a charity, that is if they aren't corrupt."

I wish we had had more time for this discussion. I kind of threw it in at the end of the class (you know 5 minutes left kinda thing). In all honesty, I wasn't capable of processing these opinions all at once. I didn't know what my response should be - no obligation? Maybe I chose the wrong word, these kids tend to be really literal. Maybe I should have said responsibility. But no, they got what I meant.

I understand that these are valid opinions and should not only be explored but respected. However this was my first reaction:

First of all, how can they not feel some obligation to do something? This is not something that I can relate to. Personally, I live with this obligation as a daily burden. What I mean is that it weighs on my mind. Clearly there are others who wear the burden more directly. especially recently with this and last weeks' materials in addition to viewing the films Children of Men and Blood Diamond, I have these topics on my mind.

What makes us any more deserved? Because we were born rich? Because we were born on the right continent, in the right country, in the right economic class, with the right skin color? In the movie Blood Diamond there is a great line by Leonardo de Caprio's character he say's to an African man, Yemi, who his trying to bribe by saying, "Without me you are just another black man in Africa." And yet, it is Yemi who is good, de Caprio's character who is a greedy opportunist, but the military will move when de Caprio gets on the walkie-talkie. The film brought me to tears. The greed of the nations that have perpetuated the situation of blood diamonds and the pillaging of raw materials, through environmental and human exploitations is utterly despicable.

So in class I did not even have a chance to get take the discussion to question our own society's direct and indirect responsibility for how these people live. It is our greed, our country, our economics, our consumerism that has exasperated these living conditions. We are all connected, and we are all guilty. Not one of us is clean or innocent. If one person on the planet starves, we all starve.

I cannot even express the despair and exasperation that I feel sometimes looking into the faces of these students. I know that it is not my burden alone to change the world - nor is it theirs. But what they don't realize is that they will be the ones to suffer, and surely their children will suffer, that is if they do not own up soon.


myrrh said...

I think part of the problem is also that we (me too) who decide to choose a life of teaching believe that we are not just imparting subject matter, but also communicating healthy, responsible, moral and ethical values. So it must be hard to feel like you aren't able to get there with these kids. OTOH, don't despair, college is a time of trying on new ideas and seeing how they fit. These kids might feel inundated with dying children in Africa, global warming, political corruption, etc so much that for this moment they aren't able to bear the weight of responsibility. It doesn't mean that it will stick for eternity.

Keep it up. They need role models to help remind them of their basic humanity and our needs for one another.

Kisses, Myrrh

eloise said...

Yes, I think you are absolutely right. And surprisingly after I wrote the post I received their written assignments for the week which showed a good deal of thought on the topic.