On this Semester at Sea voyage around the world, the students are required to take only one course: Global Studies. Taught by Alex Nalbach, who has written a dynamite book called Discover the World, the course takes the students on a post-1492 intellectual journey, tracing the exchange of goods and how that exchange relates to the development of numerous economic and political systems. The lectures (there are 600 students and some 40 faculty sitting in on the classes) revolve around major questions that relate to our ports of call: Why is Dominica so pristine? Why is the Brazilian rainforest disappearing? Why is West Africa so poor? What factors shape race relations in South Africa? Why is India so crowded? How should we characterize East Asian modernity, and so on. Alex has to lecture in the largest space on the ship, with columns and poles and a huge lectern getting in the way of the screens on which he projects fabulous visual reinforcements for the points he is making (complete with sound effects!), and with the ship rolling and often pitching under him. He makes the best of a bad situation, however, with wonderfully paced and interactive lectures that keep us all on our mental toes.
To his great credit, Alex is not content with multiple choice exams in this class, so every student will write one global studies essay, which will go through peer review and revision. Here’s the prompt:
First, choose one of the major themes from our course as the subject of your analysis. These fall into six big categories: A: Development; B: The State; C: Social Relations: D: Religion; E: Connections; F: The Past. [he gives descriptions of each of these which I am leaving out – and he also discussed them at length in class.]
Second, thoughtfully select two critical incidents as points of comparison or connection that relate to your theme. A “critical incident” is something you personallhy experienced or observed first hand that illuminates how a location, culture, or political, social, or economic system operates. Please don’t try to compare applies to applies: don’t compare snails in one place with sky diving in another! Please also remember you are writing an academic essay for university-level credit. Finally, please remember that you are writing a contribution to a collection of hundreds of essays for our voyage; try to choose experiences that are significant.
Third, narrate your own experience of one critical incident in one port. Be a good anthropologist and aim for vivid, thick description. Allow your readers to experience what you experienced: to see, hear touch, and taste what you did, as well as to feel (psychologically, intellectually, or viscerally) what you felt.
Fourth, narrate a comparable critical incident in a different port. Again, aim for direct and vivid description.
Then, drawing on what we have learned in class, analyze or explain what you have experienced, using something you have learned to illuminate these experiences. How might key terms or certain historical background account for the connections between your two incidents? Or did what you experienced confirm, challenge, or complicate the expectations or preconceptions you had based on what we learned in class?
These brief (3-page) essays are due about two weeks before the end of our voyage, and Alex and I and a couple of other colleagues will do all the grading, and we will organize the peer discussions and peer response sessions. Should be fun!
About a week ago, Alex introduced this assignment in class—and asked four faculty members if we would write our own Global Studies Essay to provide as examples for students. Always a good idea to do what you are asking students to do, so I was very pleased to participate. I chose the theme of Social Relations, and I sweated a little over which incidents to focus on since so much related to this theme has happened since we pulled out of the harbor in Fort Lauderdale on January 17. Using my course notes and the journal I’ve been keeping–as you'll see–I came up with this, my very own Global Studies Essay:
Reflections on the Ubuntu Principle
After a pretty tough Atlantic crossing, we made it to Ghana, to Tema Harbor, and to the shuttle buses that took us slowly, very slowly the sixteen miles from there to Accra. For long minutes, the bus would scarcely move, then lurch forward a measly car length or two. As we at last came into Accra, I was amazed at the ability of our driver to turn very small corners in this very big bus. On one such occasion, he swung wide and to the right but still entered the street on the “wrong” side of the road—and we came bumper to bumper with a car, two men inside. Seeing what was happening, the car behind the one nose to nose with us immediately backed up, leaving a long space for the car in front of us to follow suit. Our driver looked at the men and, gently, motioned “back up.” Nothing doing. They sat, stolid, not making eye contact. After some time, a fellow from a hotel came out, knocked on the car window, and calmly and courteously, motioned the driver of the car to move back. Negative headshakes. No dice. Not even a budge backward. Used to the agonistic behavior of Americans and to stories of road rage, I half expected one of the men to pull out a gun and start blasting away or at the very least for the people in vehicles behind us to riot. Neither happened. Instead, six or seven people stepped off the sidewalk and approached the car. No one raised a voice. No one pulled a weapon. They all leaned in and spoke quietly, earnestly to the driver of the car. And he backed up.
Flash forward to Cape Town, and to the Amy Biehl Foundation. Amy Biehl, the white 1989 Stanford graduate who, several years later, went to South Africa on a Fulbright to work against Apartheid, especially in the townships where she registered voters. Then on the evening of August 25, 1993, she was taking two friends home to the township of Guguletu, where a peaceful demonstration had been in process. But the police showed up and started shooting; the peaceful protest turned violent.
When Amy and her two friends drove in, a mob formed around them. In spite of her friends’ frantic protests that she was “one of us,” they pulled Amy from the car. She tried to run, but the crowd was faster: a barrage of stones brought her down and knives did the rest. As I listened to this story I kept thinking, what is the price of freedom? What is the price of a human life?
The Amy Biehl Foundation, started by Amy’s parents in 1997, tries to answer these questions every day. Dedicated to Amy’s goal of empowering young people in the townships through education, the Foundation supports a number of educational and arts-based programs, all of which aim to teach the value of freedom and the value of human life and to give young people hope that they can better their lives. It can’t be easy. The Guguletu schools we visited that day are clearly struggling; classes are large and teachers ill paid and overworked. Equipment and materials–sparse or nonexistent. Yet the children, most of whom live in tiny, dusty shacks crammed together in endless rows, seem overwhelmingly happy to be at school. For one thing, they get a plentiful and healthy meal, and that alone is reason to attend. In addition, the lessons of the day are augmented by the arts- and sports-based after-school programs the Foundation brings to them. At one school, the children took turns performing—while we clapped and roared our appreciation. Sitting in the dirt and entranced by the scene in front of me, I almost didn’t notice when a small hand worked its way into mine. I looked down into the deep brown eyes of a girl about 6 and held on tight as she crowded in close to me. What is the price of freedom? Of a human life?
Back at Foundation headquarters, Director Kevin Chaplin gave us a brief history of the organization and asked us to support their work however we could, perhaps by buying gifts in their small shop. We did go into the shop and we did buy: cards and posters and bead bracelets with clasps bearing the emblem of the Foundation – a black hand and a white hand, fingers intertwined as mine had been with the little girl. After making an additional contribution, I left the little shop and went back to our original meeting room, now empty. Then two men came in and introduced themselves: Ntobeko Peni, who works with the after school programs, and Easy Nofemela, an assistant who also coaches sports teams. We shook hands, and as I looked into their eyes, just for a moment I thought they looked familiar. Not until I got back on the bus did I remember those eyes, which I had seen on a video about the Foundation’s history. Beginning with the story of Amy’s death, the video went on to speak of four men who were charged with her murder and sent to prison. After five years, two of the men asked to participate in the Truth and Reconciliation process. Those two men were Ntobeko Peni and Easy Nofemela. I had watched them in court as they spoke of that night in 1993 and as they spoke later with Amy’s parents, who had flown to South Africa for the hearing. Amy’s father summed up his feelings by saying that the truth and reconciliation process had worked—it had really worked—and that he and Amy’s mother felt that they could now live out Amy’s ambitions and hopes and dreams. And they could do so accompanied in part by two of the men responsible for her death. I don’t remember anything else about the ride home: just those two men’s eyes. What is the price of freedom? Of a human life?
When Alex first introduced the South African principle of Ubuntu to us in Global Studies, I carefully wrote down “Ubuntu: I am what I am because of who we all are.” Later I heard Ubuntu referred to as “an African word for a universal principle,” a principle of human connectedness informed by deep respect, caring, and sharing. As I reflect on these two very different experiences, I find that I have seen Ubuntu at work—in the everyday streets of Acraa as citizens cared enough for each other to persuade gently, respectfully. And I had seen it at work in the South African political system, where black and white people cared enough about one another to embrace the truth and reconciliation process and to forgive. So I have seen Ubuntu. I have felt Ubuntu. But I, a white westerner, don’t yet understand it. That is work for the rest of the voyage, perhaps for the rest of my life.
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I felt fairly pleased with my little essay and was grateful for an opportunity to reflect on my experiences and to try to make sense of them in some larger way. I expect that the students will feel the same way when they tackle this assignment. I also expect that a number of them will write more thoughtfully, more astutely, and more memorably than I have been able to do. As Maxine Greene reminds all teachers, we can be certain that, in any class we teach, there are students there who are “infinitely your superior, in both heart and mind.” That simple and humbling truth is one of the things that has kept me teaching—and loving it.