Elemental thinking and human rights

By Helen B. Warren

A liberal education ought to prepare us to do the intricate, sophisticated thinking that must be done if we are to grapple with a complex and frightening world. We have to draw upon the best knowledge available about science, history, politics and culture, to think beyond the simplistic, and to approach seemingly intractable human problems with nuance and new ideas. But this article of faith that brings us to Macalester and warrants our efforts as students, faculty and staff is itself subject to challenge. Could it be that there are elemental truths that don’t require the scaffolding of theoretical enterprise or long chains of reasoned argument? And could it be that such simple truths are themselves part of the solution, rather than always being the cause of our problems?

These questions were in my mind as I sat in Weyerhaeuser Chapel Tuesday night and listened to Sakena Yacoobi, the Afghani woman who, by sheer force of will and the appeal of simple ideas, has transformed a fledging effort to educate a handful of Afghani women to read and write and to care for their own health into a movement that educates nearly 20,000 women every year in the most dangerous country on earth.

Sakena Yacoobi’s will was formed when her own U.S. university education caused her to ponder the fate of Afghani women who couldn’t read. It was strengthened by the travail of her own mother, who survived sixteen pregnancies and bore five children. Her will is fueled by the simple idea that women are human beings and deserve the opportunity to learn, to become literate, and to lead.

By her account, both entrenched custom and edicts brutally enforced by the Taliban prove exceedingly brittle, crumbling before this simple truth as women flock to classes and health clinics and their incredulous fathers, husbands and brothers accede to their wishes and marvel at their ability.

Certainly there is nothing automatic about this transformation and many in Afghanistan oppose Yacoobi’s efforts. But I find it entirely plausible that men who love their daughters, wives and sisters would come to embrace the simple truth that women are human beings.

The reasoning toward this conclusion is not sophisticated. The argument doesn’t hinge on the skills and strategy of dialectic. If you love women, if you identify with their aspirations and afflictions, if you acknowledge their desire to learn, to know and to operate intelligently in the world, it is hard to maintain the fiction that they are not deserving of rights equal to those claimed by men.

So I hope that at Macalester we become as smart about simple truths as we are about highly complex ones. What is elemental, even what is elementary, is not always wrong.

Helen Warren is Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations in the Advancement Office at Macalester.