Becoming More Human, Building a Better World (2022)


Becoming More Human, Building a Better World (1)

What is it all about? Why engage in service-learning and place-based education — if not to improve ourselves and to improve the world around us? This question — how do individuals fit within and contribute to broader community? — has been driving liberal education, community education, and philosophy for quite literally hundreds of years. As many of the most interesting community development solutions and educational methodologies that exist today are profoundly place-based and culturally and temporally-specific, is there anything that unites us?

The question presses harder as travel and communication become more affordable. We have the opportunity to engage in cooperative and community-based development efforts that span countries, civil societies, and citizenships. Locally, our cities and now towns are increasingly diverse. We may walk through several ways of being and knowing just on the way to the store. In our contemporary moment, conscious of the many harms done by universalizing logics and civilizing mandates throughout history, we must be able to imagine at least a tentative answer. We must be able to point, albeit loosely, the direction we’re headed.

If we have not gotten better at a precise answer to how we improve ourselves and the world around us, we have certainly complicated the answer(s). We do not lack for passion in pursuit of the question. In my role teaching and facilitating learning in university-community engagements in the US and around the world, I’ve seen the full range of tears, concerns, and fundamental life changes following from anger and outrage at our everyday, omnipresent injustices.

A student named Andrea broke down in tears in a US shopping mall following her return from a service-learning experience in a Bolivian orphanage, where she everyday cared for babies whose lives would be fundamentally altered with just a fraction of the resources traded in that mall on a given day. (Since initially writing this essay in 2006, the author has been centrally involved in efforts to ensure ethical international volunteering. Along with representatives of Save the Children, UNICEF, and Faith to Action, he therefore strongly discourages volunteering in orphanages. More information is available here.)

We don’t all need to walk away. We do all need to do our part. A community organizer who runs an all-encompassing human services agency up the street from my office shared it with me this way, “When we get new interns, I ask them if they’re interested in becoming more human. If they’re interested in growing as people, in better connecting as people, in being better people, then we can work with them — because they’ll develop relationships with people in our community. If they just want technical skills, they’re not for us.”

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We do wish to become more human — or to be better citizens, or cosmopolitans, or global justice advocates, or, or, or… but our age is also marked by a ubiquitous uncertainty born of centuries of good intentions gone awry. This essay is about acting in the context of that broad awareness. It’s about understanding the legacy of racism, sexism, colonialism, and hundreds of years of other inequities and horrors, and nonetheless figuring out how — today — we can still manage to cooperate and continue building a better world together.

Becoming More Human, Building a Better World (3)

That better world includes US communities as much as it does communities elsewhere; in fact that world will not be built until we can think of others as brothers and sisters first and as nationalities second. It will also not be built until people from positions of power and privilege can cooperate with their economically devastated neighbors five miles away as much as they may cooperate with international charities and global justice efforts.

This generation IS acting to address injustice. There is ample empirical evidence: young people seek out and engage in service-learning; increasing numbers of students are daring to explore untraditional study abroad destinations; young people have founded NGOs to work with refugees in Africa or internally displaced people in Colombia; it was young people who played a major role in getting funding to fight AIDS in Africa on the US agenda. We are pushing harder on global social issues than ever before. It is our responsibility to realize greater global justice. We can no longer pretend the world ends at the shore. Nor, of course, can we pretend that injustice only begins at the shore. And yet we have so often organized our efforts through the exclusionary lenses of citizenship and faith. We are not merely citizens, we are not merely Christians. We are human.

Our efforts are making a broad difference. Yet these efforts are hard to name precisely. That is both good and bad. It’s hard to raise money for a movement that refuses to fit into a bumper sticker. It’s also hard to raise an army. And that’s part of the reason this generation’s movement is itself deliberately pluralistic. It recognizes the long history of misguided attempts to promote the good. Yet continuing to build a better world binds us together.

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We explicitly recognize the great danger in supposing to solve others’ problems, in attempting to do justice, or simply in interacting with other cultures disrespectfully. That recognition and challenge requires that each person who works toward some sense of global community thinks about the impacts their actions have in travel, in service, and in their daily lived lives. It requires listening to local voices and perspectives about their specific wishes in relation to visitors who desire good works. And it requires thorough thinking that attempts to consider the nearly incomprehensible series of effects that our actions can have in this world of unprecedented interconnectedness.

In many ways these things are not new. People have always sought the world, have always explored. The Ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes declared, “I am a citizen of the world,” and sought with other cosmopolitans to discern ethical actions for a citizen conscious of what lay beyond the walls, conscious — to do this is still an intellectual problem and paradox for us today — of the unknown, unexplored, or misunderstood. Gandhi advocated for a new social-economic-religious order based on the unity of humanity and the opportunity to be of service. Various traditions speak of right, wrong, fairness, and justice. Today we have the opportunity to see the overlap and differences among these paths. And our communication technologies give us the knowledge that — by nearly any of the measures — justice would involve a radical departure from the world as we know it.

This is our position, inspired by the human impulse to connect and to serve, informed by our actions and testing our ethics in the context of a continuous and dizzying flow of information that at once liberates from stock thinking and plunges into uncertainty. Not one, two, three, or four ways of knowing but countless. Aware of the unintended impacts of past efforts to improve societies — cultures undone by the insertion of Christianity, millions killed in the name of proletarian revolution, warfare and genocide perpetrated due to conjured ethnic identities and the employment of religious or national identity for enhanced senses of belonging — we still wish to build a better world. We know we must therefore do so humbly, through humble service and a humble approach to knowledge.

This is where the impulse and action returns to us as ideas. Ideas we may receive from and develop with others, share, reject and reformulate based on our core concern of valuing all human life equally, and living a life that reflects that equal value. This is the fundamental uniting concept — some call it global citizenship, others say it is simply becoming more human. The duty is clear. We must continuously return to the question: Do our actions, efforts, and outlooks reflect concern for each human being’s individual dignity?

This is powerful and persuasive on its own — or so it should be, but many people are inspired to access and to live through this reality based on their understanding of Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, and many other less popular understandings of the divine, the unknowable. It is that serious. It is about how we understand the miracles around us, the complexity of the world, the human experience and purpose. For many, a secular reconciliation of races will never ring as truly or strongly as Martin Luther King’s vision of the peaceable kingdom he shared the night before his assassination, “mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

But we do not know if King’s Peaceable Kingdom is truer than Pope Benedict’s understanding of Love, nor whether we must understand Abraham in the context of Christian, Islamic, or Jewish teachings. We know only that many teachings have understood the supremacy of Love. In villages around the world, without phones and without human rights traditions as articulated by the United Nations, human life matters. And even our best secular articulations of the need for justice, fairness, equity, and basic rights can’t get started without an initial assumption of the worth of human life.

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We therefore may hold to this as a fundamental truth, while we embrace the humility that allows us to value and appreciate the many different — sometimes the strangeness astounds even the most culturally sensitive — paths to achieving this final outcome: valuing human life, helping more than hurting. That is how we become more human. That is how we build a better world.

This humility means not only that we must be willing and able to distance ourselves from our cultural backgrounds and assumptions about ways of being and knowing, but also that we must recognize the need to be profoundly humble in terms of our ability to even know. Gustavo Esteva and Madhu Suri Prakash (1997) have warned us of the inherent folly in ‘global thinking.’ There is arrogance, they argue, in pretending to God-like powers of cognition and analysis in ostensible service of a global society, the contours of which we are fundamentally incapable of truly comprehending. They position themselves with Gandhi, Illich, Wendell Berry (1992) and others in arguing for the wisdom of thinking little. Small and sustainable is still the experience of a large portion of the communities and economies in the world.

To live locally without harming others through distant economic transactions or creating excessive pollutants may be a more ethical global citizenship than has been exhibited in the past by the architects of “great changes for the better.” Belgium colonists’ efforts to civilize Hutus and Tutsis, Maoist reforms, the effects of Manifest Destiny on Native Americans, and various versions of conversion at the end of a gun are among the most widely known disasters of doing good, but many effects are much more subtle.

People in the Sacred Valley of Peru are currently battling non-native and invasive eucalyptus trees that the Peace Corps planted in the 1960s. Throughout the development era, many developing countries have become net importers of food (Escobar 1994); their citizens are less able to choose to live local, sustainable lifestyles. Doing good gone bad is not merely a phenomenon in developing countries; nearly every major US city has a strong example of a neighborhood or set of neighborhoods marginalized and destroyed due to reckless, top-down urban planning (Jacobs 1961).

Change has costs and benefits. Humility means being very (extraordinarily!) careful. And this is our position, to be conscious of these objections, warnings, and concerns, to be aware of different ways of being and knowing, and to choose the most ethical path we can, based upon what lies behind us and before us, based not only on what is but also on what is still possible. Because for all the folly and error — make no mistake implicit in those terms is death and destruction — there has been substantial beauty and realization of possibility. Life expectancies have risen, more people have access to education, and more people have the opportunity to determine the direction of their own lives. Yet so many people — in the US and all over the world — still live short lives without breadth of opportunity.

That is it. We must realize the potential and possibility, the interrelated and overlapping ethical streams, the value of different ways of being and knowing, the profound skepticism we should give our own efforts, and the chance to bring people together peaceably, equitably, respectfully. To do so would revolutionize our current experience. The possibility is better felt and understood than painted precisely. Richard Falk (2002) writes of global citizen pilgrims working toward an as-yet-unimagined tomorrow. Our efforts must be rooted in the reality we have, but visionary in terms of imagining then creating a better tomorrow that more robustly recognizes all people equally.

We are on the way. Different people will serve different ways. As engineers developing sustainable buildings, as editors allowing pluralistic voices, as revolutionaries and pragmatists, as business people developing and succeeding with fair trade products, as teachers making sure peace, justice, and diverse cultures are part of the curriculum, as writers, philosophers, poets, and small, local, sustainable farmers, as people who value their children and families and care to live in ethical communities.

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We will work toward it. We will address specific problems. We will end global poverty. We will reconsider poverty. We will stop calling healthy sustainable farmers poor just because they live differently than many of us. We will recognize human flourishing in its many forms. We will be skeptical, but we will work and hope in service of the central ethic that all of our sisters and brothers must be recognized as such and valued equally. We will continue this work, creating, allowing, and engaging possibilities. We will make our own best efforts to help realize the rhythm recognized by the great Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney:

But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

Berry, W. 1992. Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community. New York: Pantheon Books.

Escobar, A. 1994. Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third
World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Esteva, G. and Prakash, M.S. 1997. From Global Thinking to Local Thinking. In Rahnema, M. and Bawtree, V. eds. The Post-Development Reader. New York: Zed Books.

Falk, R. 2002. “An Emergent Matrix of Citizenship: Complex, Uneven, and Fluid” in Dowers, N. and Williams, J. Global Citizenship: A Critical Introduction. New York: Routledge.

Jacobs, J. 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House.

This essay was originally written by Eric Hartman in 2006, at the request of a group of US students who organized an initiative supporting refugees in Southern Africa. It was first published as Hartman, E. (2011). Becoming more human; Building a better world. Community Works Journal. Community Works Institute.”

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