This column has long provided me with a wonderful opportunity to speak directly to the Macalester community. But my voice, however mellifluous, is only one of many that define and describe the life of the college, and it is important, I think, to hear as many of those voices as possible in order to appreciate that life in all its fullness.

For more than two years I have had the pleasure of engaging in conversations with Macalester alumni, faculty, staff, and students about what we have called “Big Questions”—things that are interesting and important and relevant to the present moment. Some of these conversations have been one-on-one, with only a videographer and a staff member looking on; some have been in front of audiences in cities around the country (and in London). From every one of them I have learned something, and from every one I have come away with an even deeper appreciation of the privilege of being part of a place so rich in what Dickens called “knowledge of the head” and “knowledge of the heart.”

Listen to some of those voices.

“I think if people are curious enough to learn more about the world, about people, they will become better versions of themselves and better members of society.”
–Kamil Ali ’18

“It seems a condition of uncertainty is with us in all aspects of our life….Stuff happens through life, and what was once certain becomes very uncertain for a great many people. It’s the human condition. So you try, you struggle to create an edifice of certainty you can live in and through to go on with your life, with the knowledge that it’s an artifice.”
–Tim O’Brien ’68

“Our students have been very powerful in their push to make sure that we are living up to our mission….But even their push to us has been done in a very loving, caring way.”
–Donna Lee, Vice President for Student Affairs

“‘Conservative Political Thought’ is really an ideal liberal arts course. It really gets students to ask and answer the question, ‘How should I live my life?,’ which is an ethical question, and ‘How should we live our lives together?,’ which is a political question.”
–Andrew Latham, political science professor

“We come to the U.S. not because we want to leave our home countries, but because we want a better future, not just for us, but also for our communities.”
–Cuauhtemoc Cruz Herrera ’18

“I think we assume that the safest place to be is where everyone agrees with us…and so then you create an echo chamber that silences what people are really thinking about.”
–Emily Nadel ’18

“The communication of science is something that’s concerning to me, because it translates at this moment into a distrust of fact and an ability to use some smoke and mirrors to change the meaning of things in a way that I find very disconcerting.”
–Kristi Curry Rogers, biology and geology professor

“By relying on these human-generated data sets, these machines, very transparently, adopt the cultural context of the humans that they’re learning from. And that cultural context…includes some things that we don’t like. It includes racism, it includes the desire to focus on oneself vs. others, and all sorts of other uncomfortable things that the computer tends to absorb.”
–Brent Hecht ’05

“I’m interested in how the ‘Me Too’ movement is written about, and that’s partly because people started associating ‘Me Too’ with Hollywood and very attractive Hollywood actresses, most of whom were white. … A lot of people didn’t realize that it was a black woman more than 10 years ago that started saying ‘Me Too.’”
–Duchess Harris, American studies professor

“The greatest miscalculation about Africa is that going and investing in Africa is helping Africa. I see it as one of the greatest opportunities to help the world.”
–Fred Swaniker ’99

“To write a novel is to be political. If you are writing about the world and making any sort of statement about the world, it’s political.”
–Marlon James, writer in residence and English professor

“Whatever position or situation you are in, always ask the question, ‘What is right? What should we be doing?,’ not ‘This is what we do.’ If you say ‘This is what we do,’ you’re complacent. The question is ‘What should we be doing?’ and the young ones should always pose this question to themselves.”
–Kofi Annan ’61

All of the “Big Questions” conversations can be seen at More will be added as the year progresses, and more events will be held in various cities during the course of the next few months.

I would encourage you to listen to the voices.

Brian Rosenberg is president of Macalester College.

Listen to the new Macalester “Big Questions” podcast and subscribe on your favorite listening service.

November 1 2019

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