Friday, February 6, 2015

PhD-Level Compassion

David introduced himself before the lecture began. A high school junior from Winston-Salem, N.C., he was spending a semester at the School for Ethics and Global Leadership. We were seated in the second row of the Helena Rubinstein auditorium inside the United States Holocaust Museum, where Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, would attempt to answer the question: "Can Atrocities be Prevented?"

Mr. Al Hussein, the former Permanent Representative to the United Nations from Jordan, is a Muslim. His portfolio includes peace building and accountability for human rights violations. He crafted his talk with published research, quotations from Primo Levi and Viktor Frankl, and court records from the perpetrators of the holocaust atrocities. Every day he concerns himself with suffering on the ground. His distinguished, calm demeanor relaxed us even though the subject was dark and dismal.

I am increasingly supportive of the proposition that education of any kind, if it is devoid of a strong universal human rights componentcan be next to worthless when it should matter most: in crisis, when our world begins to unravel. . . . We need people who are kind. People with PhD-level compassionPeople who feel joy, and generosity, and love, and who have fully integrated the values that are essential to life in freedom and dignity. We need people with a strong moral compass, and we need to help to build – or rebuild – that compass with education that includes a deeper moral content.

We applauded his simple truth but reacted with public cynicism and frustration.

I asked my high school friend what he had learned from the High Commissioner.

"I have to tell you that I go to a Catholic parochial school, and although I get a good education, the emphasis is mostly on getting good grades. I have learned more about ethics and morality in the two weeks that I have been here at this program than I have in the two years that I have been in high school. The Commissioner is right. We need to teach about basic moral values, human rights and ethics in schools everywhere, not just at the School of Ethics and Global Leadership."
David from Winston-Salem, N.C., is on his way to earning his PhD in compassion. He gave me hope in the midst of communal despair.

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