The Commonplace #11

Here at Virginia Tech, we are excited to be able to help our communities, even in small ways during this period of economic recovery.   Our recent award from the Economic Development Administration enables our faculty and graduate students in the Office of Economic Development, and across the campus, to work directly with organizations and local governments across the state of Virginia.   

Still, we bring as many questions as answers to this work.  And maybe that is ok.  In this week’s newsletter, feature contributor Jill Hufnagel urges us to be inventive, to take note of the uncertainties around us, to experiment, and to learn.  

“So to me, it’s not really about which policies should be thought about, but it’s really about who do we fundamentally want to be as a nation? And do we think that things like housing and food and education are basic human rights, or do we not? Because what we have set up right now — and this totally goes back to the American Dream and individualism — is this idea that you have to earn your personhood, and you have to demonstrate that you’re a productive member of society in order to be a full human being. And only then are you allowed to have access to these things, things that in reality everyone should have.”

Here, as well is Mia Birdsong’s popular and powerful 2015 TED talk here:

  • What lies at the root of our divisions and distrust?  One element is our social identities and our ideas about truth and knowledge.  Writing for the London Times Literary Supplement,  N. J. Enfield reviews four recent books about facts and prejudices. These include Mikael Klintman’s Knowledge Resistance:  How we avoid insight from others.  Klintman calls attention to the powerful role that the public nature of beliefs and ideas can hold.   A social belief signals affiliation with a particular group or movement and, as Enfield describes,  “…people will opt for the belief that best signals their social identity – even if it means lying to themselves.”

  • For me, this related to what it means to be a a citizen in this digital age.  Researchers at Oxford University have been studying this very question since 2018.  Their 2020 report on Citizenship in a Networked Age, reminds us that “technology changes how people interact.”  The authors highlight, as well, some of the core concerns that technology presents, 

“In this networked age, the challenge is to protect and nurture existing human methods of moral decision-making, something that can benefit greatly from machine optimisations of technical aspects insofar as they are in service of human judgment of the moral whole. 

For the pursuit of human flourishing in the networked age, the choice is not between citizens and machines. It is about identifying and protecting human uniqueness for moral decision-making.”

  • Might a renewal in the art of listening be one part of the answer? 

“Human attention has become a precious resource, and where your attention is, there will your desires be also. In the midst of this new market for attention, we have to realise that giving quality attention to others is the most important form of self-giving we can engage in as citizens. 

In other words, the civic burden is not so much on being a good speaker but on being a good listener—finding the way to understand others and what they say, and in so doing go against the tide of our polarisation.”

  • Harvard University’s Human Flourishing Program is another example of university research that explores big questions of meaning and purpose and character and livelihood.  At heart, this is what colleges and universities are about.  Beyond the preparation of skilled workers and the provision of ever-more specialized expertise, we also explore and consider what it means to flourish – as individuals, in communities, and as a society.  As one example, Harvard’s program studies forgiveness, writing that,

“Forgiveness, understood as replacing ill-will with good-will towards an offender, can powerfully change lives. Given the nearly universal experience of being wronged, it is important that a commitment to the good of the other be extended, even in difficult circumstances, if we are to move forward and bring about the good in society. 

This is not an ignoring or denying of the wrong, nor is it a denial of seeking a just outcome (which is in fact compatible with forgiveness). Rather it is a hope that, ultimately, the person who committed the wrong will turn to, and experience, the good.”