Thomas H. Little, Ph.D.
SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research
Each summer for the past twelve or so years, I have had the pleasure of spending three days on the historic and beautiful campus of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business in Charlottesville with fifty dedicated public servants in SLLF’s Emerging Leaders Program. This summer is no exception as I am writing this from my room on the afternoon of the second day while participants take part in an exercise. When I welcome participants on the first evening, I always offer the same advice, take time to think, (reflecting a scene from one of my favorite movies, Inherit the Wind). But after thinking about the moving things that happened yesterday, I want to offer an additional piece of advice: Take time to view the world through the eyes of another.
Yesterday began with a thoughtful discussion of The Second Machine Age by Eric Brynnjolfsson and Andrew McAffee. Eric and Andy explore how technology is changing the way we live, work, play, communicate, and govern. That was followed by an emotional discussion of the James Baldwin’s short story, “Sonny’s Blues,” about two brothers whose lives have taken very divergent paths. Then, we discussed the complexities of the American Civil War with eminent historian Ed Ayers, exploring the complexities, causes and implications of that conflict. Finally, we ended the day with a visit to Jefferson’s Monticello where participants explored the often contradictory values and actions of our third President.
All these sessions reminded us that our present, both individually and nationally, flows very much from our past, and it isn’t only the good things that we inherit from our forbearers. As Professor Ayers reminded us, “We don’t just inherit granddaddy’s watch- we inherit granddaddy’s everything.”
This morning, Dr. Jared Harris asked participants to comment on yesterday’s sessions. Within a few minutes, it became evident that yesterday’s classes and activities had reached much more than our minds. For many, the discussions and presentations had touched something much deeper, reaching into our souls and to the core of who we were, who we are, and who we hope to be.
One participant, an African American man, spoke quietly about how the day had reminded him that he is (and all of us are) part of a great journey, filled with both sadness and joy, good times and hard times. There’s a responsibility to own our own history, and to strengthen the legacy for those who follow us. History isn’t just the past; it sets the stage for our future. Some of that stage involves obligations.
Another African American participant, a woman with northern roots now planted in southern soil, mentioned the debts all of us owe to those who fought in the Civil War, and in the many civil rights battles since then. Those conflicts left scars on the participants, often borne silently and without visible trace.
She was followed by a colleague who noted that it’s a privilege to discuss race in America and explore our differences, in a manner that leaves out blame, and pity. What’s important is that we look our history in the eye, without blinking. Before we can be one as a country, we need to be equal as individuals.
Finally, another woman mentioned her struggle as she, and I believe all of us, tried to figure out how to acknowledge and recognize that while our history may be shared, the effects of that history impact each of us differently and sometimes painfully. The question for her (and for us) was “How do we recognize everyone’s history and not repeat the mistakes of the past in our future?”
You will note, I suspect, that each of these perspectives were voiced by people of color and/or women. I want to personally thank each of them, and all who contributed to this powerful conversation. The discussion offered deeply emotional perspectives and experiences that are very different from my own as a white male born and raised in the South. Those perspectives changed the way I see not only the American Civil War, but America and my place in it. As I go forward from this program, I am a different person. I have seen, if only for a moment, the world through the eyes of others and for that, I am truly grateful. I believe as well that this experience makes me a better person.