“I want to get inside your head,” Muhammad Yunus told senior James Sievers. One of four student panelists questioning the pioneer of microfinance at Convocation last Friday, James had asked him about his goals during the next five to 10 years. Dr. Yunus smiled broadly in response, saying he wants young people to see their power and use it today to solve the great and vexing problems of our time. “You are the most powerful generation of young people in the history of mankind,” he said. “You can communicate instantaneously around the world, and you have access to information at your fingertips. That makes you a different kind of human—a superhuman.” To anyone who says it’s impossible to change the world, Dr. Yunus simply pushes back with a calm but firm resolve, insisting we should never see anything as impossible.
Dr. Yunus’s visit to Westmont for the President’s Breakfast downtown and Convocation on campus was a huge hit. When I first spoke to him by phone two weeks ago, I was utterly captivated by his insight and determination. As we conversed, both on the phone and in person, I kept wondering how we can develop moral imagination. What allows millions of people over thousands of years to see abject poverty and simply accept it as a given? What causes a solitary individual, who has mastered complex economic theories, to feel utterly helpless and unable to meet immediate human needs and yet decide one day to do something to help?
Dr. Yunus’s story is fascinating. Raised in Bangladesh, he pursued the only educational opportunities available to him. Showing great promise during his undergraduate studies, he won a Fulbright Scholarship and studied economics at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee in the mid-1960s. He arrived at a turbulent time for the United States, with the civil rights movement, the rise of anti-war demonstrations, and the counter-culture youth known as “flower children.” He stayed for seven years, earned a doctorate in economics, and returned home to teach. But those seven years began a transformation that forever changed him.
Invited to teach at his undergraduate university, he found himself increasingly caught between the elegance of his economic theories and the crushing poverty he saw every day. He found it particularly troubling to see women and children starving to death during the famine that ravaged Bangladesh in the mid-1970s. He described his intense emptiness, saying he felt utterly helpless in the face of intractable poverty, unable to convert his teaching into anything that could assist the people starving to death all around him. Out of this feeling of utter helplessness and moral and intellectual emptiness, he found a simple way to change the plight of one person—and this one act began a movement that has swept the world.
Known today as the father of microfinance, Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for lending to the poor through microcredit, a strategy that has changed the destinies of millions worldwide. Throughout the two days he spent with us, I continually wondered how we learn to look at enduring problems in a new way like he did. What causes us to become complacent, and what helps us get unstuck?
One of the keys to developing moral imagination is spending time in a foreign country and learning to live and study in a culture completely different than our own. Dr. Yunus himself credits his seven years in America as an incredibly important time, not only because of his rich educational experience at Vanderbilt, but because of the opportunity to see our country during one of its most turbulent periods. These observations and experiences fired his imagination. They helped him see intractable problems in another society and recognize that there are never easy solutions. He realized that even great democracies have dark undersides.
As I think about my own life, including my responsibilities at Westmont, I recognize again the importance of preparing students to serve in every sphere of society as well as encouraging them to respond to the real and intractable problems all around them.
We need to continue to pursue activities and educational experiences that foster a moral imagination and provide the skills and abilities to pursue real solutions. In essence, we need to balance our pursuit of the future with engagement in the present so we confront the real problems right in front of us.
I’m especially mindful of this dual burden as I write my blog from a hotel room in Singapore. We’re working to open our next global studies program, Westmont in Asia, to provide another opportunity for our students to undergo the intellectual, spiritual and emotional development that produces people who look at old problems in new ways. We seek to balance preparation for the future with engagement in the present so our students will embrace these rich and rewarding opportunities and learn to serve purposes greater than themselves.
As our activities began to draw to a close on Friday and we prepared to say goodbye, Dr. Yunus clasped my hands tightly in his own, smiled gently and expressed his hope that we would see each other again. I pray that we will.
Gayle D. Beebe