The World is Messed Up: Discuss

I have just begun writing a new book, Connecting the Dots, which I previewed last week.

I began it with a somewhat cute and self-deprecating incident that helped set me on the trajectory that led me to the Alliance for Peacebuilding and everything else I do these days, including writing Connecting the Dots.

As I dug into Chapter 2, I found myself building it off of three other events that occurred at about the same time. Each illustrates a key way in which my work changed.

In all likelihood, you could care less about my own personal intellectual history. In fact, it usually bores me, too.

However, in this case, it set me off in new directions that may have made sense for me in the 1980s but makes sense for us all today.

A Final Exam

Sometime in the late-1980s, I was team teaching the introductory comparative politics course at Colby College. The 150 or so students met three times a week for lectures. We split them into six groups for discussions sections. Each of us met with and graded the work of about a third of them, which meant that I only knew the other two thirds of them by sight.

For reasons I don’t recall, my colleagues and I could not come up with an essay question to include in the final exam. So, we took the academically cowardly way out.

I was scheduled to give the final lecture. So, I announced that the students should suggest questions and we would choose the best one for the exam.

After the class, one of those students whom I didn’t know came up to the front of room and waited until everyone else had left. He then said the following—and I do remember his words verbatim.

Chip, it’s obvious. The question should be:
The world is messed up. Discuss.

(In fact, he used a different six letter verb that begins with the letter “f” which my publisher won’t want me to use in the book, so I will ease into using it here).

To my surprise, my colleagues agreed to use it. So, on the day of the final, I walked into the room, passed out the bluebooks, and wrote those six words on the board. After a few titters and gasps of disbelief (not too many because I had been known to use both the “m” and the “f” word in class), they sat down to write. Most were still writing two hours later when I came back to collect the bluebooks.

They were by far the best set of exams I ever read. Not because our students were so brilliant.

But because that was exactly what we were teaching them. Why were the Soviet Union and China disasters? Why had the US screwed up so badly in Nicaragua? Why was Japan eating our economic lunch at the time? Why was Tanzania mired in what seemed like permanent poverty?s

Which immediately prompted a “Holy ‘s’ word” response on my part.

That was not what I went into teaching to do. I became an activist and a professor because I believed I could make things better. Yet, here I was. A decade into my career leading my students to the conclusion that the world is fucked up (oops).

Gloom and Doom 101

At about the same time, I attended the initial meeting of what is now the Peace and Justice Studies Association. I had recently begun teaching peace studies courses and actually had to sneak into the conference because I taught Colby’s only courses, and only schools with peace and conflict studies programs were allowed to officially send delegates.

One of the events I was able to attend was the presidential address given by George Lopez who was then head of the Kroc School at Notre Dame. In it, he rebuked us for teaching courses that felt like Gloom and Doom 101. We focused on what was wrong with the world. We were quick to attack our leaders which, frankly, was not hard to do during the Reagan administration.

But by focusing on the gloom and doom, we missed a lot. Among other things, we made it hard for our students to find something positive to work toward, let alone ways that we could work constructively with the people we disagreed with.

At the time, that meant that we gave short shrift to much of what was happening, including the rapidly thawing Cold War or the first serious glimmers of peace in South Africa.

It was another one of those “Oh ‘s’ word” experiences.

Reality Tells Me What To Do

Also at about the same time, I was asked to attend the national leadership workshop for the Beyond War movement. It began pointing me in a very different direction.

Though that was not my initial reaction.

A few days before we all headed to California, we got the conference’s agenda which, ironically was also six words long—just like my exam question.

Reality tells me what to do.

I found it hard to believe that we would be spending two and a half days on such a simple statement. I was wrong.

The facilitators helped us dig into the reality that was unfolding around us, including what was happening in Moscow, Washington, the Johannesburg. Then, they had us dig deeper into the broader dynamics that were (re)shaping the entire international system.

We used the term interdependence then to describe what should be called globalization today. The point was the same. We lived in a completely interconnected system in which everything and everyone affected everything and everyone else at least indirectly.

We explored systems theory which I had been using to organize my work as a political scientist since I was an undergraduate. But now, my friends were having us look at the systems dynamics that could point us toward constructive change at everything from our personal relationships to international political life.

What To Do About an F***ed Up World and Gloom and Doom 101

I came home from California with a new sense of purpose. My one course on the threat of nuclear war already focused on the kinds of positive things my students and I could do. But now, I realized I wanted to do the same thing as a political scientist. As a citizen. As a teacher. As a family member.

That shift has only gained steam in the thirty-five years since that (in)famous exam. I still get angry when I think about how screwed up things are. However, in my writing, my political work, and in my relationships with students and other young adults, I do what I can to bring out the best in them. Including the people I disagree with. Of whom there are plenty.

That’s what this next book will be about. What some of the wonderful young people I work with are doing to transform the way our f***ed up society works. Few of them think of themselves as peacebuilders. They do everything from creating new social responsible enterprises to teaching self-awareness. Many are women and/or people of color. Some are very young, including my ten-year-old grandson who will help me write the final chapter which will cover his generation.

Over the next year while I write the book, you’ll be able to meet many of these wonderful people and what they do in my blog posts.

I hope that you will find them as inspiring as I do.

That will start next week with Zebras Unite and their still tentative steps toward building a radically different economy filled with social justice and dazzle.

If you want to see why they keep talking about dazzle, you’ll have to come back here next week.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members. 

Also published on Medium.