St. Saphorin and The World's Agenda
THE little lizards stood motionless on the stone walls of St. Saphorin, an old vineyard town on Lake Geneva. The figs and cherries were half formed and green in late May. The town is so small that in a hundred meters you are through it. At its center, on the steep te," is a restored Huguenot cure, a public fountain, and the Auberge de L'Ondine, where Charlie Chaplin used to dine. It was evening and I was to meet a college acqaintance and catch up on years of events. The moon was full over the lake, the air warm and laden with the water's scent.
Our career parallels astounded us. We had gone to rival high schools in Detroit - Denby and Pershing. (How could we not have known that before?) We attended the same campus church at Harvard College, studied the existentialists, and, in our different ways, gone into a life of public service. My friend, Paul Wee, became a Lutheran minister, earned a graduate degree in Berlin, and heads the human-rights program of the Lutheran World Federation, based in Geneva. Dignity for individuals, and just government
- recently for the East Germans, now for the Guatemalans and Ethiopians - are his chief concerns. He had been editor of his high school newspaper. How could he have missed the racial injustice in our city, he now asks, thinking of the editorials he wrote then? When will he have time for the 10 books lodged in his mind and waiting to be written?
Amen here. Though by a different route, journalism, I find myself to be working on the same set of issues. Indeed, all my best friends - lawyers, investment counselors, teachers, political scientists, in many countries - share a common citizen's concern about public affairs. We are dedicated to the same ends.
Thus the point: At any given time women and men of public conscience find their thought drawn to the same world agenda. We usually think of this the other way around: That careers or professions have unique, not shared agendas. Journalism at its best "mediates." It publishes the world's agenda. It provides a meeting place, where the hour's progress and concerns can be posted and debated.
Last week Harvard's departing president, Derek Bok, reaffirmed that the educated woman or man must serve society and not merely self. "A Harvard education must serve a larger social purpose to justify our existence," he said at the university's commencement ceremony. "Is it enough to attract the brightest students if we do not excel in making them caring, active, enlightened citizens and civic leaders? Exceptional talent carries with it exceptional responsibility for the welfare of others."
Under Bok's predecessor at Harvard, Nathan Pusey, the university's social purpose was fairly obvious. But as the unrest of the '60s and '70s took its toll - from assassinations of national leaders to Vietnam and Watergate, Harvard's own "unity of purpose all but disappeared," Bok said. "Some students took to protesting, others concentrated on making money.
"And after the demise of the Great Society and the misadventures of the best and the brightest, many Americans even lost confidence in advanced knowledge as a key to progress or in experts as guides to help resolve our problems."
Today the campuses are quieter than when he took office, Bok observed, but "a buzzing confusion" persists over issues like tuition, affirmative action, and financial aid. "Although these are legitimate issues," he added, "the fact they dominate the debate about American higher education only shows how muddled we are about why universities truly matter."
A friend from the Pusey period once observed that many of us, in earlier eras, might have gone into the ministry. Today many careers permit working directly on problems like education, the environment, social justice, and economic restructuring. Institutions - government, universities, churches, the media - need renewal. There are lots of good works to do.
In fact, there are lots of good careers. What may be more important than our choice of career, as my friend and I discussed late into the evening above Lake Geneva, is the purpose to which our careers are put.