Updated: Mar 5
"With a little more deliberation in the choice of their pursuits, all [people] would perhaps become essentially students and observers." HD Thoreau
Yesterday, I ate at the first large gathering on USC campus in two years. It was a student-faculty luncheon for the Norman Topping Fund, the only student-initiated, student-funded, primarily student-governed scholarship in the nation.
I accompanied one my students as his guest.
There were many "it's so good to see your face," and clinks and clatters of plates and platters. After a bit of "do we take masks off," I turned to David, my student and asked,
"What do you think is the biggest problem in America is right now?"
I expected him to say access to heath care or people not earning enough money.
"I think it's that we are really divided. People just aren't getting along," he said.
"Are we not pulling together, like we did during World War II?" I asked.
"No, we're not together. There are too many people saying it's the other side's fault" he said.
A moment later a speaker welcomed us.
"Let's take a moment and remember the people who lived upon this land before this University was built: the Chumash, the Tongva, and Kizh. Before we can talk about inclusivity, we need to discuss erasure."
Higher Education Opens Doors
A series of speakers made these points:
Higher education opens doors
Mentorship is powerful
Being part of a university allows you create new knowledge
The end of the pandemic is a time for reframing your life
I typed notes in my phone, looked at who was at my table: six faculty-student pairs, twelve brains in all, one old and one young for each pair.
There was a professor of cinematography (who didn't think the arts are that important), a professor of education teaching research methods (who grew up in Alaska running away from moose and bears), and their respective students. Conversation ranged from wilderness survival tips to why (or was it how?) data drives our world's decisions. It was refreshing until the talk turned to traffic and "oh, look at the time."
After the what-have-you, David and I walked around Town and Gown, admiring leather couches, doodads in display cases, and antique armoires. We slipped into the little chapel of silence only to slip right out after seeing two people crying in the front pew. The architecture with engraved writing in the stone made me ask:
"What year was USC founded?"
"I have no idea" said David.
"1880" according to the telltale and sometimes brain-killing smartphone in my pocket.
I drove home in my turquoise Prius in the LA traffic that gradually and irrevocably eroded my gratitude for being part of something bigger than me, and my anachronistic escape was swallowed by highway ennui.
Still I was hung up (or blessed by?) on how higher education opens doors. Anybody fortunate enough to get a tincture of university can be more, have more, and do more. Thoreau felt—even in the 1800's—that it's ridiculous that people had to pay so much for a university education; that towns should educate our townspeople for free. He'd be irate if he saw today's pricetag.
Why can't we—those who are finished with college—read as many books as possible for free? Why can't we recreate a stimulating environment, perhaps just converse with friends and family about what books we read? And why can't we, as Thoreau wanted, educate the people in our own town and give them a taste of university life? The answer is: we can. And it's free.
Us vs. Them
When I got home, I walked into the house and my wife, who had been working on democratization research, said with mirth, "I have to tell you something."
I'd hate to insult the reader so I'll say this to remind myself; the verbification of democracy (from Greek) means to make (something) accessible to everyone.
Renee (aforementioned wife) had watched a video where Jeffrey Sachs, an economist and professor at Columbia University, and author of A New Foreign Policy was asked what he thought was the biggest problem in America right now.
It's an "us vs. other" mentality.
Sachs says, "the flip side of learning to cooperate within the “in” group is learning to fight the "other."
This may have originally been documented by Charles Darwin.
Sachs continues, "we are easily primed to focus on our identity and to form an us vs. other perspective, and that we can easily be made to hate the other, and that’s not incidental, that’s actually probably as deeply driven in our psyches and human nature as the capacity to do good within our group."
"...how primed we are to hate, not the other individual, but we are primed to hate the other group. Psychologists have shown how easy it is to hate the other group."
Any Cubs or White Sox fans out there? Raiders-Broncos? Republicans-Democrats? Maskers-non-maskers?
Twice in my day came a similar explanation for broken 'Merica.
Sachs explained how in the last thirty years America has not been able to solve anything. Renee had made the same claim (us vs. them) a few days before after reading the 2021 Decrocacy Index: The China Challenge. I'll spare the reader some time by saying the USA is not doing great. Go visit Sweden and Denmark and see what wretched places they've become while looking after ALL their people.
Rather than dig into all that's wrong with America (commonly done and aren't we sick of it?), I shall time warp to solution-ville and give three things you can do now.
Shortly before the pandemic, I called a friend (also named David) who ran cross-country with me at Augustana College back in the 1900's. David, a preacher's son, was now a federal agent getting ready to depart for a secret mission abroad.
"What do you think is going on? Why is America so divided?" I asked him.
"I think we've lost the ability communicate" he said.
Was David right? Or has technology blazed ahead and we can't keep up?
Read a few pages of Writing Well by William Zinsser and compare it to what's published online. You'll see (if you didn't already) that most is garbage.
How many friendships are lost over a text conversation? How many news articles are sent to prove a point if not to flaunt righteousness only to incite an argument?
We may not be equipped to communicate emotional material over these mediums. And we are easily provoked by material that does not educate, inform, or elevate the spirit.
We can do better by proofreading our emails, by not sending articles to prove "us vs. them," and when texting gets emotionally charged, we can pick up the phone and call.
2. Pursue Knowledge
“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was." Ernest Hemingway
If I had not gone to medical school, I might never have visited 60 different countries. And if I hadn't done all that (seen America through a new lens) I might not have met Renee, might not have read Seneca which cultivated an awareness that my time was filched surreptitiously, and I might never have rejected our medical system—an ignoble beast rather well equipped at making money off people's illnesses with a disempowered physician workforce. On it goes leading me on a path to taking a break from medicine, and chosing to live in a trailer, and remove myself from a hedonic treadmill.
Now what? I'm reclaiming time...and reading. I don't know what's next in my medical career but I hope to write about my journey. I'm fascinated with creating a book.
People read but what exactly? News articles, blogs? These shimmer with verisimilitude but they require little effort to create whereas a year or more is necessary to write a book.
What about emails and texts? This unfastidious armpit of writing is almost universally without proofreading and with no attention given to the poor soul who most certainly will misinterpret the lot.
I am guilty of occasionally diluting my mind with refuse. I then peruse a page of Thoreau or Nabokov, and bathe in the equanimity.
Consume real books, any way you can (paper, digital, audiobook, braille, etc.).
3. Kill Fear
"Fear is the mind killer" Dune, Frank Herbert
Sebastian Junger wrote in Tribe:
“We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is to an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents. Our society is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.”
Rachel Yehuda, Ph.D, Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience and Director of the Center for Psychedelic Psychotherapy said “If you want to make a society work, then you don’t keep underscoring the places where you’re different—you underscore your shared humanity,”
Now that you know about the "us vs. other" mentality in America, you might be wondering what to do about it. Briefly, I ask how we got here. Is it possible that we evolved this way out of fear, fear from outside groups in pre-modern times? Sounds reasonable.
Let's simplify. We are all afraid. But with what antidote shall we combat fear? I propose the answer, until a better one comes along, is knowledge.
If you have exhausted being grateful for what you have rather than worrying about what you don't, then work on communication with individuals. See the individual within the group. And when fear besets you, make wisdom your master...
and never stop learning.
Thank you David Heredia for your courage in applying to medical school at the age of 35 with two children. You remind me to never stop learning.
Thanks for reading! What did you think? What have I left out or am not seeing? Do you agree? What do you think is the biggest problem in America right now? Please leave some comments below.
Feel free to have a look at my blog post on reading one book a week. If this article troubled you or you enjoyed it, please let me know. Also, send me questions you may have. I also enjoy hate mail, but please remember to spell check.