My summer course, Poverty in the Global Economy, started this week.
Perhaps unlike most faculty, I really like teaching in the summer. I feel like students are a little less tense about grades, maybe, in June, and the longer class periods allow us uninterrupted time to study topics in detail.
And I appreciate the opportunity to journey with students, pushing their knowledge beyond their comfort level and, more importantly, helping them to integrate these new understandings into their social work practice.
It should be another rewarding month.
One of the books that I read as I prepared this particular course was Creating Room to Read, the founder’s memoir about leaving his corporate job to start a global charity focused on increasing literacy in the developing world.
One of the reflections that struck me was this:
There are social problems–crippling, devastating, completely unjust social problems–that we don’t really even see.
Like 200 million girls not going to school, largely because they are girls (p. 21).
And that has me thinking about visibility and proximity, about why global poverty is such a literally foreign concept to my students, even when they are fairly familiar with much of the U.S. social policy context, and about what it means for our chances of combating these social ills, this fact that we don’t really perceive them.
It can’t be, I don’t believe, just an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ thing. Not for my students, many of whom are very concerned about homeless veterans or victims of sex trafficking, for example, even if they don’t have much personal contact with those populations.
It can’t be pure access to information, since we have more information at our disposal, about global poverty or anything else, than we can possibly comprehend.
So is it a function of the scale the problem and the scope of our potential response, and how we avert our eyes from that which we find overwhelming? Is it a willful ignorance, not because we don’t care but because we are trying to cope with limited resources and an abundance of pressing needs? Is it a self-conscious desire not to intrude upon others’ realities, in an effort to avoid harmful paternalism? Is it an emotional allegiance to those we perceive as being ‘like’ us, and a greater distancing from those we do not?
One of the foundations of this summer course is the idea of interdependence and the reality that we are affected, in ways immediately visible and distantly imagined, by these problems we studiously ignore. From terrorist attacks to infectious disease to environmental strains to shared prosperity and the promise of gender equality, what we don’t attend to elsewhere has a way of coming home.
My students and I will spend our June not ignoring those 200 million girls, or the women who die in childbirth, or the highly unfair trade rules that the United States negotiated for itself.
We’ll fix our eyes on what is often unseen, listen to voices seldom heard, and attend to action regularly left undone.
What are you doing this summer?