January 12, 2011
Opinion: Reflecting on leadership in times of crisis for Martin Luther King Jr. Day
This year is another in which we mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day embroiled, by many accounts, in a moment of crisis—a point of urgency in which the decisions made now will influence our society and culture in the years to come. The crisis varies depending upon whom you ask, but whether it is economic, environmental, or educational, it calls on leadership and citizenship.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and notion of crisis resonates more profoundly this year because it comes on the heels of a very public act of violence against a public servant and others gathered in civic engagement. Of course, I am referring to the violence against Representative Gabrielle Giffords and others in Arizona. The incident has caused many to reflect on the nature of this countrys political discourse, the Constitution, current events, the media, and more.
The questions being raised are new and enduring. In 1861—the year the University of Washington was founded—President Lincoln made his first inaugural address at a pivotal time in the countrys history. In his speech, Lincoln urged his countrymen to be “touched…by the better angels of our nature.” A timeless sentiment.
King, too, operated in the context of a crisis in America that was an extension of Lincolns crisis. King was called to lead in lieu of and because of the dire need to address civil and human rights violations. He challenged others to engage, to march in the same direction for justice. The civil rights movement was a strategic, broad coalition rooted in purpose and conscience that had far-reaching implications for our nation. It was—in the language of academia—interdisciplinary, as Kings work involved the nations economic, educational, religious and governmental institutions. Its interconnectedness was not limited by time, establishment or geography.
In his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King addressed this interconnectedness of our world. He wrote, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Two years later in a commencement address at Oberlin College, he told the young graduates, “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”
The educational implications of this mutuality are great. Today, all of our states higher educational institutions face a moment of opportunity. We are at a pivotal point in the midst of a deep economic dilemma and should reflect on the decisions we make today and consider how they will stand the test of time. In these times it is even more imperative that we wrestle with enduring questions in new ways: What does it mean to educate students? Who gets access to education? How are students treated when they arrive to their campus? What constitutes learning—true learning? What kinds of communities do we want? Individual and community fulfillment are bound to freedom, growth, and justice—concepts brought to life through education. And here is King again, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be…”
In his 1998 essay “Only Connect,” University of Wisconsin-Madison professor William Cronon disconnects the word “liberal” from its political connotations and traces its use in liberal arts beyond “the Latin word liber, meaning ‘free” and connects it to Old English, Greek, and Sanskrit words meaning freedom and growth. “Values,” writes Cronon, “that lie at the very core of what we mean when we speak of a liberal education.”
Cronon writes, “Liberally educated people understand that they belong to a community whose prosperity and well-being are crucial to their own, and they help that community flourish by making the success of others possible. If we speak of education for freedom, then one of the crucial insights of a liberal education must be that the freedom of the individual is possible only in a free community, and vice versa.”
Across the University of Washington, we strive to educate our students so they develop a sense of purpose, understand the interconnectedness of the world and their responsibility in it, cultivate an insatiable curiosity of the broad facets of life. Through academics within and beyond the classroom, we hope to nurture qualities that Cronon ascribes to a liberal education: “listening, reading, talking, writing, puzzle solving, truth seeking, seeing through other peoples eyes, leading, working in a community.” The purpose of nurturing these qualities is to connect to the greater world around us.
“In the end,” writes Cronon, “it turns out that liberty is not about thinking or saying or doing whatever we want. It is about exercising our freedom in such a way as to make a difference in the world and make a difference for more than just ourselves.”
In moments of exigency, many want to retreat, wait it out, avoid entanglements. However, it is by embracing the opportunity for progress, purpose, and connection that we will best emerge from crisis. We will be able to look back at 2011 as we look back at 1861 and 1968 as a historic moment. Our actions today will matter for generations to come.
As we reflect on King, upon the events and crises of the present day, and upon the emerging and enduring questions we as a society should strive to untangle and solve, I hope we connect those reflections to the difference we want to make, the march we want to lead or join, the broader impact of our actions. “We may have all come on different ships,” said King, “but were in the same boat now.”