Irwin: Back to basics in troubling times

Like so many of you, I was saddened and angry with what we saw transpire in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. The violence against our democracy was shocking to behold. After allowing myself a few minutes of despair, however, I reminded myself of my commitment to my profession of educating students and my firm belief that education is the antidote to ignorance and hate among so many other things.

When I was a faculty member, I taught predominantly general education classes, particularly an offering entitled “Myth and Culture.” In it we studied the sacred stories and beliefs of Navajo, Mayan, Tibetan and Ancient Greek civilizations. In an era in which we value more practical classes, one might wonder why a student should take such a course. What I found, however, is that learning about other cultures and their sincerely held beliefs opened the door for students to do two important things: (1) acquire an understanding of and empathy for others, and (2) think about their own beliefs and where they came from. Students became reflective, thoughtful, and slower to judge others without first trying to understand them.

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As I look across the general education curriculum at UH-Hilo, I see many such classes: classes in which students can learn about our national and state institutions; in which students can learn more about science and mathematics; in which they can learn to appreciate the aesthetics of the arts in all their richness; in which they can learn about the rich environmental and cultural diversity of the world. In all these classes, students hone their analytical thinking and oral and written communication skills. In some, they learn to debate one another in a civil and well-reasoned way. They can learn about the history and diversity of cultures and beliefs that their fellow students bring to our campus.

Faculty always hope that both the practical and deeper learning they promote in these classes will stick. They go to class each day, filled with confidence that the work we do will help our students navigate these challenging times and become well-rounded human beings and citizens: citizens who do not take advantage of others, but who are generous with their time and talents; citizens who seek to make the world a better place, whether it is within their local community or across the world; human beings who seek to live lives of consequence, not being complacent with the way things are, but always aspiring to the way things can be.

Students sometimes grouse about general education or anything they do not see as having a direct impact on their major. They often want to skip over general education and get right to the stuff they came to college to study. Back in the day when a college education was available only to the privileged, general education allowed students to explore, try out some fields before they decided on a major path. Now most students come to college with a major already in mind and general education primarily plays the more important role of setting a firm foundation for all students.

Within universities and colleges, we often debate what belongs in general education. More than the content of the courses, however, are the skills, abilities and attitudes that the students walk away with. If a communication class can help a student analyze the flood of information on the internet, for example, they can be better consumers of information, not believing everything that comes across their social media feed, but actively seeking out a diversity of opinions and discerning which arguments are well-founded. A statistics course might teach them how to analyze data and present it in a way that others can understand. A history class can help them make sense of the present by learning about the past.

In our increasingly diverse and complex world, general education helps prepare our students for work, citizenship and life. We ground that general education in Hawaiian knowledge, and the values of aloha and malama that our students encounter in this community help us fulfill this mission.

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Given the events of last week, we still have a lot of work to do, but at UH-Hilo, we are up to the job.

Bonnie D. Irwin is chancellor of the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Her column appears monthly in the Tribune-Herald.

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