Developments at Seattle University, where students have protested a traditional, Western-based curriculum, remind us that viable institutions must adapt.
We seem to need a meaningful heritage almost as much as we need food. We do best when our lives are rooted in something greater than ourselves, something that gives us comfort, confidence, inspiration.
At the same time, our species has done well partly because it can change and adapt to new conditions. We’re always being tugged in both directions, and that can get complicated in a big, diverse society. There are questions that wouldn’t exist in smaller, more homogeneous places.
What traditions belong to whom? When are subgroup traditions acceptable, and when are they harmful to the whole or some part of the whole?
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I thought about how much we want to identify with a group that makes our life more meaningful.
In “Roots,” Kunta Kinte is sustained by his identity as a Mandinka warrior and as the son of Omoro and Binta Kinte. When he is at his lowest, those anchors of his identity lift him and give him strength.
His steps in the present are guided by his belief that he is part of a noble, honorable and powerful tradition. His belief in his place in the world gives him something to live up to, even when he is being told he is of no account.
We all want that groundedness. I was in Texas recently and marveled as I always do when I’m there at how often people proclaim themselves to be Texans. Yes, you live in Texas. Do you really need bumper stickers, T-shirt slogans, belt buckles and so on to declare that you are indeed a Texan? Well, it helps people feel like they fit, and I think it adds to a person’s sense of self-worth, like being a Mandinka warrior.
You know that whole cowboy thing. It lasted only a few short years and involved very few people, and yet a vast state built its identity on it — that and the story of the Alamo.
But what if a sense of identity is channeled toward diminishing others? When people form groups, we tend to look askance at anyone judged to be outside the group, whether the difference is allegiance to opposing sports teams or to religion or the idea of race, which was created expressly to separate and facilitate dominance of one group by another.
People create traditions, and sometimes it makes sense for people to adapt and improve them. Catholic Mass in English makes sense here. Kunta Kinte teaches his daughter about being a Mandinka warrior, something that would never have been done in his former community.
Individuals adapt. Societies that are unable or unwilling to change when change is necessary, decline.
Catholics in America built schools to keep alive their traditions in a mostly Protestant nation. But many of those schools have grown beyond that early purpose, expanding their reach without shedding their intellectual and social heritage.
Seattle University today educates a broad range of students, and the curriculum has changed to reflect both that diversity and the realities of the country in which it operates. That has been a strength of the institution driven by its desire to be a force for good in the community.
The thinkers it chooses to share with students in Matteo Ricci College ought to reflect that. They should be the best, and the best of humanity is not limited to one continent.
Matteo Ricci would understand that. The Jesuit scholar spent many years in China, learning and teaching, and wrote that Eastern and Western spiritual traditions were not so different as people assumed.
I’m glad that Seattle University President Stephen Sundborg gets it. Last week he said of the ongoing student activism, “My thought and my hope is that this will lead to a better university.”
Teaching the humanities should include a broad understanding of humans, especially in a richly diverse country that is continually improving its traditions so that more of us can claim them as our own.