An Open Letter to My Students

Dear Students:

I'd like to welcome you to a new academic year at the university, where I have taught for more than 35 years. As in previous years, I look forward to the excitement and promise of introducing you to the wondrous insights of anthropology through which we explore the whys and wherefores of the human condition.

This year is a particular important one for you to be introduced to the wisdom of anthropological scholarship. The world is increasingly complex. In the globally connected world you will require a measure of technological sophistication, but will also need an increased degree of cross-cultural knowledge to navigate the challenging rapids that course through 21st century social life.

Consider the challenges you will face?

1. The Challenges of the Public University. The university has become a bastion of corporate bureaucracy, meaning that things like mission statements, assessment and "compliant" documents have become more important than inspired teaching, cutting-edge research and groundbreaking publication. I wonder how many of you will read the "compliant" syllabus I've just completed in which there are clear statements of general education and programmatic goals, learning outcomes and assessment of learning outcomes. My sense is that you will be more interested in your final grade than in how well you met goal #3 of the course learning outcomes, and will appreciate an instructor who is more than a "compliant" employee, but someone who is passionate about her or his subject of study. My sense is that you will be concerned about expanding class sizes that increase professor-student ratios and decrease professor-student interaction, an important and overlooked element of higher contemporary education. You will be disappointed by the large class sizes, but may not know the reasons for this deplorable situation--politically induced budget cuts by state legislators who are at "war" with public higher education. Even so dedicated professors will attempt to open your eyes to science, which has no political agenda. Using strict procedures, scientists observe the world and report their findings, which often lead to "inconvenient truths." We hope to show you how you to separate fact from fiction and rational reason from irrational conspiracy.

2. Climate Change. One of the rationally induced inconvenient truths that scientific research has produced concerns climate change. NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report than July 2016 was the hottest month recorded since monitoring began in 1880. The evidence of climate change is everywhere--super storms in the Pacific, deadly 1000-year floods in Louisiana, catastrophic wild fires in drought-ravaged California. These are not politically induced statements; they are the results of careful analysis of scientific data, which is incontrovertible. Even so, many of our public officials deny the evidence of climate change. In so doing they dangerously deny science, which, is a denial of your future. What are the social consequences of irrevocable climate change? One consequence is likely to be unimaginable social dislocation.

3. Politics and the Social Contract. We are today mired in an important series of elections--presidential, congressional, state and local. We live in a era in which people desire change. Shall we change forward, acknowledging a demographic shift to a multi-lingual and multi-cultural society, or will change back to a earlier time in our history during which racism, ethnic discrimination, gender inequalities, homophobia and religious intolerance set in stone our social and income inequality? Considering these demographic changes, the politics of bombast, ignorance and hate as personified by Donald J. Trump is the painful last gasp of the old social order, an order few, if any of you have experienced. What kind of world will you inherit? What can you do to shape a more perfect union? As social scientists --your professors-- have long known, societies that are deeply divided are ultimately not viable. When social contracts are reinforced and difference is incorporated to create stronger social wholes, there is economic and social progress.

4 The Future. You are the future. It is impossible to know what the future will bring, but by mid-century, America will look very different from what it is today. There will be more--not less--diversity and our politics and social life will shift with these inevitable demographic changes. Many of you may be fearful of change. In America there is an unprecedented degree of income and social inequality. This state has created instability, uncertainty and insecurity in our cities, suburbs and small towns. And yet, as an educated public knows, these problems cannot be solved with simple blunt-edged rhetoric that spreads conspiratorial myths about the university, our climate and the nature of social life.

In the end ignorance is your enemy and it is my obligation to open your eyes to it and describe its devastating social ramifications. As your professor, I must be a realist about the state of your education and the state of the world. Despite the dark clouds that hover above our campus, I'm always hopeful at the beginning of the academic year. Each year I look forward to meeting curious, knowledgeable, and engaged students whose willingness to open their ears and eyes to the complexities of the social world inspires me to teach.

My optimism about the future is grounded in my personal experience as an anthropologist. My West African mentors in the Republic of Niger taught me the value of patience, of taking the long view of things. Although our droughts, famines and epidemics seem to last forever, they would tell me, we'll make our way through them and live a better life on the next path.

Like most of my colleagues in higher education, I am optimistic about your future. My goal is not tell what what's right or wrong, but to guide you onto a path so that you can discover your strengths and weaknesses and acquire the capacity for critical thought and clear expression--all in the hope that you eventually become socially engaged citizens of the world.

Lafia (Peace),
Your Professor