Welcome to Earth
By Dr. Dan Hamilton | Published: May 12, 2016
I have just returned from the German-Polish border, where on these days in 1945 the Soviet and German armies faced off against each other on the Seelow Heights -- their final big fight before the battle for Berlin ended World War II in Europe.
As I strolled through the Soviet cemetery with Russian and German colleagues, reflecting on those times and their meaning for our world today, my thoughts turned to other dramatic events surrounding the end of the war. One of those was the bombing of the nearby city of Dresden.
Across the distance of time, it's hard to make sense of such events, or to feel like you could ever really understand. For such moments, greater insight may come from literary imagery than from historical narrative.
Kurt Vonnegut was one of America's great writers. He also happened to be a prisoner of war during the bombing of Dresden. His famous novel Slaughterhouse-Five conveys his experiences in ways that no textbook can.
Vonnegut was a satirist and social critic who had a knack for making big global issues accessible and transparent. His simple, personal style can make you feel as if a close friend has just given you a note explaining perfectly some abstract or distant concept. It's as if he took a writer's workshop from Albert Einstein, who once said that “you do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.”
But what about when we are young? When should we start to experience the world beyond our backyard, and who should help us understand it? And if we don't like the world we see, how and when can we use our voice to change it?
Vonnegut has the answer:
''I've often thought there ought to be a manual to hand to little kids, telling them what kind of planet they're on, why they don't fall off it, how much time they've probably got here, how to avoid poison ivy, and so on. I tried to write one once. It was called Welcome to Earth. But I got stuck on explaining why we don't fall off the planet. Gravity is just a word. It doesn't explain anything. If I could get past gravity, I'd tell them how we reproduce, how long we've been here, apparently, and a little bit about evolution. I didn't learn until I was in college about all the other cultures, and I should have learned that in the first grade. A first grader should understand that his or her culture isn't a rational invention; that there are thousands of other cultures and they all work pretty well; that all cultures function on faith rather than truth; that there are lots of alternatives to our own society. Cultural relativity is defensible and attractive. It's also a source of hope. It means we don't have to continue this way if we don't like it.''
The man had a way with words. First grade. A good time to change the world.
About the Author
Dr. Dan Karl Hamilton is Dean of Waldsee German Village and a professor at Johns Hopkins University. He served as a senior U.S. diplomat and also served as a Fellow in the German Foreign Office. He has authored many simulations and role-playing activities for Concordia Language Villages.comments powered by Disqus