A Letter to the Children of My Children's Children

By Norman Care

Suppose you were to set yourself the task of writing a letter to the children of your children's children. That is, you propose to write something to members of a future generation whose existence you will have a part in. You will be part of their history, and, depending on circumstances and luck, they might know something of you. But you, now proposing to communicate with your descendants, know nothing about them.

Let us also suppose that this letter is not confined to family-history information. It is an opportunity for you to expand more broadly on your concerns about life and the human condition as you, a grown adult, know it.

How would your letter go? The more I think about this task, the less clear I become about what to say. The letter I once thought might be fun to write soon becomes gloomy.

At some point I must tell these future children that I live in the midst of an environmental crisis. But I am also caught up in any number of other crises in my nation and local communities-some social, others political, educational, economical, or concerned with health. As the members of my generation conduct their lives, they in effect ship a number of crises forward to members of future generations.

Today, individuals in Eastern Europe, the Mid-East, and the independent communities in the former Soviet Union face problems and struggles relating to survival, but also to responsibility, character, and value. As an American, I also face issues-some different, some similar-that challenge my sense of responsibility, character, and value. I am caught in my society by history and contingency, and my society has not yet gotten past the racism, sexism, and violence embedded in its past. Only now is our society beginning to acknowledge its negative impact on its environment, the plight of its uneducated young, the sorry state of its health care arrangements, and the abuse suffered by its current children and its elderly.

I wonder whether the children of our future will live in a society like mine-one that is relatively materially affluent, is superficially preoccupied with sex, jokes, bright lights, pizza, and bizarre media hype. Despite this often silly veneer, many people in my society are discontented, angry, and filled with resentment-feelings not confined to those who express them by blowing up federal buildings or playing guerrilla militarism on weekends. My society is difficult; it is dangerous in many places and increasingly unkind and ungenerous in many others.

As this is my letter to the future, I am sure it will include some thoughts about higher education. I believed for many years that higher education was a good thing in its own right; that it was helpful in decisions about work and career, and even about choices in friends and geography. But my current impression is that higher education is increasingly driven by economic and professional factors that make it veer away from the ways people live and the crises they negotiate.

In my thinking and writing about problems of individual and collective responsibility I am impressed by the fact that for human beings, it is one thing to know what's right, but quite another to be moved to do what's right. I wonder whether our future children will be more strongly moved to take action in response to the problems facing the larger community.

When I look across the world community today, I notice that more than a fifth of our population is absolutely destitute in ways that jeopardize human life. These are people literally starving to death, homeless, suffering life-threatening political oppression, or so lacking education that they have no way of expressing themselves or living a fulfilling life.

When I look out across the world again, I find such disparity in the levels of life that I wince. The world is no extension of the affluence that shields some of us; it is instead a sea of pain and despair with only small and temporary islands of stability and prosperity. Shall I write of the contrasts in housing, clothing, diet, education, transportation, entertainment, and length and quality of life between myself and the hundreds of thousands of people living today in regions of famine or ethnic strife? The differences are difficult to bear.

When I look across the world a final time, I am ready to notice the environment for its own sake-surely a matter of importance to my future children. The great forester and environmental ethicist Aldo Leopold wrote that for persons of ecological conscience, the environment is a "world of wounds." Our land is hurt; the air is damaged, natural systems have been ruined, mighty rivers fail to reach the sea. And for Leopold, what is thus wounded had positive value in its own right.

In the end my thoughts return to higher education and problem of motivation. Higher education in my day is concerned with issues formulated by professionals in disciplines. They are often interesting and important and sometimes stretch the mind. Higher education should address the issues of my time and place, yet also those to come. My letter to the future would express concern about the forms of educational experience we offer young people-primarily undergraduates-some of whom are serious about mind, conscience, and aesthetic sensibility. The current forms rightly emphasize "breadth" and "depth" in liberal arts education, but undergraduates do not get much chance to address the unsolved problems of their nation or larger communities on terms appropriate to those problems. Instead they are invited by the system into "disciplines" and hence urged to become occupied with the fashionable squabbles.

My hope is that schools will establish a new instrument within the undergraduate educational program-such as a center or institute for special projects. Faculty and students could work together on major unsolved issues, such as the persistence of racism in America or the protection of our environment. For these projects, participants might drop the trappings of individualist education in which the action is between the student and professor and no one else. They could approach a problem by working together through discussions, reading, periods of intellectual exploration, laboratory, or library research and then produce their results in a way that invites others to comment and respond.

What I propose would be difficult for higher education to implement, yet the idea is not strange or even unfamiliar. One of the great promissory notes in the rationale for liberal arts education is that it prepares individuals to join others to make reasoned, imaginative, and value-based responses to important problems. Making this a reality might, when the turn comes for my future children to write to their future children, make the message not quite so bleak.

Professor NORMAN CARE has taught philosophy at Oberlin since 1965. This essay is the script for talks he has given locally and to alumni groups in Florida.