It seems that one primary purpose of our undergraduate educations — or at least the humanities distribution requirement within it — is to reveal to us that we’re not the centers of our own universes (an insight I should attribute to David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College).
In looking back on my last two years at the University, I realized that I haven’t done the best job fulfilling that purpose in a hands-on way. This year, for the first time, I’ve been able to see Ann Arbor from a perspective that’s not entirely my own, through the eyes of the children I babysit and the children I tutor at a local elementary school with the Ginsberg Center’s Project Community.
While the lenses I’ve been able to borrow these last few weeks belong to non-University students, they don’t belong to anyone whose experience of life — at least as far as I can tell — is radically different from my own. Rather than making me feel as though my horizon has broadened, these small tastes of non-collegiate life in Michigan have shown me how disengaged I’ve been from the world outside my classroom walls, despite the countless books read and papers written about that world.
As students at this university, we have an unparalleled resource available to us to integrate academia with the reality upon which it’s based. We live 30 miles from a city and kind of life that many of us study (and many of us don’t) but, for all practical purposes, know nothing about. I’ve done myself a disservice by failing to explore Detroit: our next-door neighbor with a wealth of history and culture.
For any number of reasons, most students create a path for themselves that never leads them to Detroit. Others couldn’t imagine a University experience without Detroit. I don’t believe the latter group is, as a whole, inherently more outward-looking or of a higher ethical order than the former. Perhaps a combination of pre-existing interests and inspiring professors who made it a priority to educate their students on the very real and proximal presence of Detroit motivated those students to incorporate the city into their University lives.
Until this semester, Detroit was never prominent on my radar — neither socially or academically. I’m inclined to feel ashamed of myself to admit that, especially because I consider myself to be particularly conscious of my duty to make my world larger than myself. But I should feel less shame than gratitude that my friend’s invitation to see the “Big Bambu” exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Art and that my sociology class has engaged me in a dialogue about Detroit’s public education system came while I still have time to learn.
But what if the invitation had never come or if I had chosen to take a painting class instead of get involved in Project Community? I could have been swept up into another semester and allowed it to pass by without awareness of my failure to do my job as a student. Here’s where my call to action comes in: if you are someone for whom imagining your life at the University without Detroit is impossible, do what you can to put Detroit on the radars of your friends. If you are a professor for whom Detroit is in any way relevant to your curriculum, talk about it in class. Some people may jump at an opportunity to go to the city at first mention. Others may need to hear about it several times before a desire to see for themselves develops.
It can be easy to pass through the undergraduate vestibule with our eyes still shut and our inborn self-centeredness intact. But because we’re students who chose to attend what is essentially the largest liberal arts school (that looks deceivingly like a research institution) in the country, it shouldn’t be so easy for us. But a community of curious and broadly thinking peers can only carry the rest of us so far. Ultimately, the responsibility to take our educational duty to expand our minds seriously lies with the individual.
We’re afforded these four years to open our eyes, look past our noses and take a comprehensive look at the world we’re about to enter. We are especially lucky, relative to the majority of college students, that we can so easily include a city like Detroit in our gaze. To spend our four lucky years here oblivious to that real world is — as students and as the generation that will be faced with the job of fixing our society’s broken infrastructure — irresponsible and inexcusable.
Libby Ashton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.