Friday, November 20, 2009

A Thanksgiving That Was Forever a Teachable Moment: My 9/11

Friday, November 20, is the 46th anniversary of the assassination of President John Kennedy. Like most all of my generation, this was our 9/11. I remember where I was that day, what I was doing, what I was thinking. My world would never be the same. It has remained a powerful epiphany for Thanksgiving.

On a beautiful, sunny, warm, late fall day in Marietta, Ohio, I was sitting in class in political philosophy, really engaged in what one of my favorite professors was telling us. We were reading one of the greatest works of western civilization: Plato’s Republic. We had been spending weeks discussing one of the two most central questions of that work, two questions that are still paramount in my mind each day of my adult life: What is Justice? And Who Should Rule?

That day, the professor, Dr. R.S. Hill, was about to lead us to the answer to the second question: that, of course, philosophers should be kings. But he didn’t quite get there that day because our class was interrupted with the news of the President’s assassination. Class was excused.

I went outside and briefly talked with fellow students. But I found no answers, no solace in that. So I went to where I always found solace, to the place on campus where was stored the truth of all ages: the Library. And I spent several hours in there meditating, and taking in the smell, the feel, the constancy of that holy place.

Later that afternoon a college-wide announcement went out that classes for the following week would be cancelled! I was stunned. That was the Monday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Monday was declared a day of national mourning. So the College administration decided that because they would be obligated to cancel classes on Monday, that it seemed pointless to keep the students around from Friday to Tuesday.

The reaction: pandemonium. Sheer jubilation on the part of many of my fellow students. That Friday evening was one all night party. I was shocked. How could they be celebrating when the cause of this unanticipated extended vacation was the murder of our President? This was one more of the many clues I was getting in college that I was different from most of my fellow students and probably would never quite “fit in” outside the academy. But I didn’t know that yet.

I also didn’t know yet that that other unresolved question—what is justice----would be the guiding intellectual, social, moral, political question paramount to my life. This also became my principal professional question: what is justice—for first-year students, sophomores, seniors, and transfers.

Thanksgiving is one more occasion for us to reflect with our students on what are the most important questions we all need to be pursuing in college. For in college and life, the questions are often more empowering than the answers.

-John N. Gardner

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