Random Thoughts about Libya

After studying history at UC Berkeley, Chris…epitomized the best of UC Berkeley’s graduates, a commitment to excellence at the highest level and a passion for making the world a better and more peaceful place.

— UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau

On another September 11th, eleven years ago, I stood, alongside 3 colleagues, as we watched the attack on the Twin Towers play themselves out on my classroom television.  Arriving into work yesterday, Tuesday, September 11th, one of my new teaching partners came over to my room asking me how I planned to commemorate the day, offering me the chance to have the kids work on American flags to commemorate it.  I respectfully declined the offer, if only because I already had a full day planned, and I had reached the point where simply commemorating the day without a full explanation to my students had always struck me as being somewhat intellectually dishonest.  And at a new school, in a new situation, rather than invite any sort of controversy about what I might end up saying, I chose to take the path of following through with my original lesson plans.  I knew I couldn’t oversimplify things adequately.  I knew better than to do that.  9/11 has never been *that* simple and the intervening 11 years have only served to make it even more complicated to explain than it was at the time.  If there was one thing I took away from my years as a Berkeley undergraduate and carried forward into teaching my own students, it was to never accept the easy explanations for complicated issues.

Meanwhile, yesterday in Libya, at around the same time I began to go about my day, as has been reported, an attack on the US Embassy, resulted in the killing of 4 Americans, one of whom, J. Christopher Stevens, was the American ambassador.

Unbeknownst to me, until I was driving home this afternoon and listened to various news commentaries about the man, Ambassador Stevens was one of my classmates, a fellow Old Blue from Berkeley.  

Stevens graduated in 1982, after studying history, a year before I did.  But what stood out to me was that he and I were on the Cal campus at the same time. He was one of my contemporaries.  To read about him and both his academic and diplomatic career is to read about one of the best my alma mater had produced.  He made me proud to be a fellow Golden Bear if for no other reason that he understood the inherent danger of trying to seek out oversimplified solutions to complicated problems–the very sorts of things that have bedeviled American foreign policy since 9/11.  Rather than being content to score cheap political points by grandstanding about a world he choose not to understand like too many Americans, rather than being disengaged from world events and watching them disconnectedly on television, or filtered through talking heads, Ambassador Stevens instead went out into the world to not just learn more about it for himself, but, once there, to ultimately work to make it better.

I know, in my heart, that the sort of career he choose to have, once he left the Berkeley campus, embodied the very best of a public school education that the state of California can provide a young man.  Ambassador Stevens went to North Africa not through any sort of entitlement, but to simply make things right.  The true measure of a diplomat rest with those very reasons why he felt it necessary to be in Libya.

Tomorrow night is Back-to-School night at my new school.  In introducing myself, I will, of course, talk of my years at Berkeley.  But I will also make sure to make mention of Ambassador Stevens.  What he did with his Cal degree took far more courage than I could ever imagine having myself.  Honestly, prior to the events of yesterday in Libya, I fretted over what might happen Saturday morning when a struggling Cal football team travels to play a nationally televised college football game against Ohio State.  In learning about my tiny connection to the events in Libya yesterday, I was able to remind myself that the true legacy of a Berkeley education lies not with a sports team’s won-loss record but with the integrity, honesty, and willingness to sacrifice that J. Christopher Stevens himself characterized.  That is exactly the sort of thing I think I need to share with my parents tomorrow night.

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