Why we’re not going to save the world
By Lisa Curtis ’10 and Camila Thorndike ’10
Baccalaureate Speech, May 22, 2010
Lisa: A couple of weeks ago a friend jokingly asked Camila and me, “How’s saving the world going?" We’d been asked such things before, but this time, we started to think about what that question really meant. Like most college students seeking answers, we Googled it. In half a second our search revealed 244 million results for “how to save the world.” Apparently, everything from biodynamic farming to recycling batteries qualifies one as a “world-saver.” But if it’s so easy to figure out how to save the world, why do we keep messing it up? Why do we continue to wreck our environment? Why are there 2 billion people living in extreme poverty? And really, why are we killing each other in bloody wars all over the world? Let’s not even mention the recession…
Class of 2010, we’ve inherited a world of problems. But that is not what we want to talk about today.
Camila: Today, we want to reflect on how Whitman has helped us fundamentally call into question the entire notion of “saving the world” for something more honest. We are grateful to the people here who have improved how we find, think about, and engage with the part of the world that calls us. Here, we’ve asked, “How can we serve our community, our nation, and the whole Blue Marble that our famous Whittie astronaut has seen from space?”
Our Google search reminded us of the activities fair at the beginning of our freshman year. It happened right outside on the lawn on a sunny day before classes began. We were living then in what we call “Camp Whitman”: a euphoric time of first forays into the wheatfields and the 80’s dance with Scramble buddies. In a Whitman version of our Google search, we were presented with over 60 clubs and activities to choose from. I remember signing up for all the options – Spanish club, the organic garden, the civil liberties union, Ultimate Frisbee, cycling, even boffing. Why not?
Lisa: Signing up was easy, actually participating was a different story –we were turning into the classic overcommitted Whittie. I remember running across Ankeny from Jewett, bouncing back and forth between painting at the Fine Arts House, eating vegan cake at the Outhouse and ending up half-asleep in the ASWC House of Clubs. I was always running late but thankfully wasn’t the only one, I’d often pass other eager-eyed first-years racing across the field – including a certain overachiever standing next to me. Eventually, we all realized that trying to check off every item on the Google list was a straight ticket to insanity. When we finally stopped trying to do everything, we were able to concentrate on the things that made us the most excited.
Camila: Civil rights leader Dr. Howard Thurman captures this spirit of a Whitman education when he said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.”
For me, asking that question and looking for some answers began with declaring a major at the end of sophomore year. I delayed the choice for a long time because I didn’t know how to make it.
It’s not a surprise that I asked: What do my parents and grandparents expect? Like my peers here, it’s no surprise that I wondered: what would lead me to grad school, to a good career, to being able to support myself? It’s no surprise that I thought about that the Google list of how to save the world: Which were the most popular options, which ones would work out best?
These are worthy concerns, no doubt. But their importance became clearer once I started paying attention to the clues of coming alive. Certain classes, professors, and authors inspired that feeling – it had to do with the nature of the questions they prompted – the ones that keep opening onto more and more questions that become a path down which to tread.
I found my questions in the environmental studies wing. Others found theirs around Ankeny Field in Olin, Science, or Maxey, near the fountain in Sherwood or Harper Joy, over there in Fouts, in Hunter, or in the Hall of Music. Each building has its own luminaries or heroes – it might be Foucault, or Darwin, or Emerson. And each has its own instruments – be it a pen, a microscope, or a camera. Each helps us see the world through a certain lens, and then offers us different ways of contributing to and engaging with it.
Lisa: It’s a good feeling to find that path, to feel like you’ve found your passion. It’s great, until Geology 110 kicks your ass. The true meaning of a liberal arts education – one you won’t find in a brochure – is watching the sunrise from the glass windows of the library and realizing that you have spent the last 10 hours of your life studying for a subject you hate. Not to sound bitter or anything … Now that we’re almost alumni its easier to reflect on the benefits of those distribution requirements, the way they pull us out of our comfort zones and make us admire all of our geology, econ, or BBMB friends.
At some point we realize that the Darwins and Foucaults of our majors don’t have it all figured out. Saving the world gets really confusing: Our idea of the world is incomplete … and we realize our limits.
At the activities fair we had no boundaries, choosing our major we had little trouble, fulfilling those requirements – well we’ll get over it. But figuring out our role in this world and what type of contribution we want to make – that requires more than an all-nighter.
Camila: So, Lisa and I have concluded that we’re not going to save the world. People still jokingly – or seriously – ask us if we are. But honestly, we’d rather engage with it. We’d like to confront it. We want to interact with it. And we hope to heal it. But that's not the only problem with that question.
A professor once told me that nothing important gets done alone. At first I had a hard time recognizing that – wouldn’t working with other people mean giving up some of my brilliant ideas, my precious time, and all that glory? Eventually I realized that my best ideas, time spent, and successes earned were the ones created with other people. Who wants to be a lonely Atlas with the world on their shoulders, anyway?
Whitman has shown me that a shared life is one well-lived. Though Walla Walla is geographically isolated, here we are close to each other. A couple weeks ago at the senior art show, I noticed how widely that sense of community is appreciated. The exhibition abounded with images of togetherness: joined rocking chairs, a landscape of bubblegum contributed by dozens of Whitties, and a plexiglass painting through which you can see yourself surrounded by friends.
Lisa: Let’s go back to that Google list for a second. Google hits are ordered by popularity, by what other people think you’re looking for without really asking you. They don’t know how you should engage with your world, they don’t know whether you’re meant to be a farmer or battery recycler.
It’s not a personalized search.
Whitman has given us the tools to figure out what type of world we live in – whether our world revolves around questions of supply and demand or the intersection of nature and culture. In the moments of feeling alive, we’ve found clues of how we want to live our post-Whitman lives.
We are graduating Whitman with the tools to make a personalized search.
As a politics major, I’m going to be spending the next two years in the Peace Corps trying to find ways of creating prosperity in developing countries without reinforcing the scary words of my discipline such as neoliberal hegemony.
Camila: As an environmental humanities major, after graduation I’m hoping to help facilitate resolutions to conflicts over scarce resources in a way that fosters understanding between different types of people.
For the time being, these are the searches that make Lisa and me feel alive. Though the choices that we and our peers have made will be launching us in 368 different directions tomorrow, we hope – and we’re willing to bet – that our paths will cross again soon.
Lisa: For all this, we owe endless thanks to the people who have guided and supported our personalized searches. Thank you to our parents, grandparents, siblings, professors, and friends for broadening our sense of the possible and giving us the freedom to find our own path.