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On Not Being Afraid

January 2006

Last October I attended a dinner in honor of a colleague whose work I admire—Michael Walzer, scholar, author, political philosopher at Princeton University and editor of Dissent magazine. I can’t get it out of mind. So I have excerpted it—although it wasn’t much longer—below.

“The names matter less than the picture we have in our minds of a good society, of a better society than the one we live in… a society where every man and woman sits under whatever is the modern equivalent of a vine and fig tree, and no one can make them afraid.

“When Roosevelt and Churchill called, in 1943, for ‘freedom from fear’ we took it seriously.

“Everything is contained in that phrase: a commitment to democracy, because the arrogance of power always produces fear in the weak and vulnerable—tyrants depend on the fearfulness of their subjects; and a commitment to equality, because any hierarchical society, the people at the bottom live in fear and trembling; and a commitment to pluralism, because desperate fear is the everyday condition of pariah groups and persecuted minorities.

“So that’s our project: we aim to make the wealthy and the powerful, and those who are complacent about wealth and power, and those who are silent or evasive in the face of religious persecution or ethnic cleansing or mass murder—we aim to make all those people uncomfortable…

“And of course, we argue among ourselves, all the time, about how best to do that, and about how to move closer to a society where ‘none shall make them afraid.

“By a long shot, we haven’t finished the work, but we can tell the next generation what we ourselves were told: you don’t have to finish it, but you are not allowed to walk away from it—and you won’t walk away from it.”

It would be interesting, as school people, to imagine the impact of twelve plus years of schooling on preparing young people for the task Michael Walzer sets out above. Are they more or less likely “to walk away from it” because of how we practice our craft?

It would be interesting to ask whether such a mandate to the young is too “political”—controversial, one-sided? Or whether it is what a democratic society needs–what must supercede and inform all our other valuable and critical agendas?

This is not asked rhetorically, but as a real question for us to argue about—not just the means, but first and foremost the “ends” themselves.

That remains the missing discussion—the silence everywhere. In part it’s the fault of schools that have shied away from discussing their purposes, been afraid to discuss “ends”. Not without good reason. After all, such discourse would at times cross the boundaries of church/state, become divisive, uncomfortably controversial. Above all perhaps because we ourselves were the product of schools that focused on everything else but the fifth Mission Hill “habit of Mind”—“so what, who cares”?

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