Reflections from Italy
I have been in Italy for 5 days now. I do not bring good luck to countries when I travel. I was in France on 9/11. Was in Christ Church New Zealand the morning of the great earthquake. And this week I have been in Italy with my wife, Betsy Barefoot and they have had terrible floods and their political leader has been forced to announce a plan for his resignation.
We had a wonderful guide in Florence, a late 40’s or so guy with a son who had just graduated from University. The guide told me what I had been reading about already, namely, that the Italian unemployment rate for recent college graduates is running about 30 percent (much worse than in the US). And I know thanks to one of our political parties that is doing everything possible to make the economy worse in order to defeat President Obama, that the prospects for appropriate jobs for our college graduates is going to get a lot worse. As I have written before, when I graduated, I had only a very few options for life after college: work for a defense contractor, seminary, marriage, or war. I got drafted and so the choice was made for me. And then I had to make the most of it. And I did. But given our employment prospects for our college grads, we better be teaching them in college more than what to do to earn a living. We better be teaching them to find meaning outside employment.
I met a server in a restaurant who was from Albania. Had been in Italy for 13 years, except for one year when he went to Phoenix and worked for Marriott. Can’t wait til he returns to the States. Sees us as the land where anyone can work his way up, pay little or no taxes, be free of intrusive government regulations and where the notion of upward social mobility for those who take risks and work hard is alive and well. I thought: “hey, is this the country I know?” All the data that I am reading suggests upward social mobility is now greatly constrained. And our lack of regulations brought on the great financial collapse of 2008. Interesting how long we hang on to our myths and that it takes for reality to catch up with and revise stereotypes. This applies to how long it took me to finally buy an American made car (in December 2008) which meant getting over my perception that Detroit couldn’t build a quality automobile. It can and I am delighted with my American made car.
But the big story in the week I am away is what is going on at Penn State. I have long viewed the ultimate measure of quality of life in any country tobe the concern that is extended to the welfare of its children. So here is a story where people in power had reason to believe that someone else in a position of power may have been molesting children. By the standards of post industrial societies and western democracies the US doesn’t rank well in terms of its care for the least powerful: our children—witness the dramatic rise in the number living in poverty. As I drove from Siena to Spoleto in Italy today I commented to my wife that since we had been in this country we had seen no overt signs of poverty anywhere, no matter what they are paying for interest on their bonds. Yet, paradoxically, this is the country that has given the world the largest and most powerful organization that protects adults who molest children. As I think about all my friends back home that adore their alma mater or their employer, Penn State, one of the top 32 public research universities in the country, all I know is that the institution somehow failed to pass what for me is the ultimate litmus test of a civilized society: protecting children, the least powerful, first. There is much I do not know about this sad set of circumstances, but it does appear that there were other considerations than children first. In that respect, Penn State is an allegory of the larger host country—both the one where I am a citizen, and the one where I am a guest.
Since I have been away, I have read a report submitted to me by one of our Foundations of Excellence participating institutions. The report was on how the institution was, or was not, measuring up to a standard of excellence for diversity. And I got the usual pablum that I find in American colleges and universities that “diversity” can and must be addressed by “programming” and by special sessions in orientation and bolt on components in first-year seminar courses. Sadly, I see that we treat diversity like we treat the other things in our culture that we are most uptight about: drugs, sex, religion, alcohol use, political differences. We marginalize and trivialize them and do not subject them to in-depth study and analysis. My travels this week remind me that one of the best ways to teach “diversity” is to make it possible for our students to experience it through travel and study outside the US, where diversity is the norm, life, all what matters most.