From complexity to compassion

By Coline Irvine

In his book My First Summer in the Sierra, John Muir offered a sentiment which, more than 100 years later, represents as good a justification for higher education in contemporary society as one is likely to find in any college catalogue: “When we try to pick out anything by itself,” he says, speaking of the profoundly ecological nature of the world, “we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

To be sure, college campuses—meaning the empirical kind with living, breathing students, with staff, teachers, textbooks, trees, quads, and stadiums—sit squarely at the various junctures of this tangled-up creation, seeking from these vantage points to understand through intensive study the pressing issues, the timeless questions, and the persistent, ineluctable mysteries that unite our places in time and space with those of countless others.

College is literally where and when we hope to experience the joy that comes with accessing the eternal through the particular. It is where we come to study, in our specific yet overlapping disciplines, the problems of the world so as to appreciate the complexity of all things—because it is, without question, an informed appreciation for complexity that inspires reflection and breeds compassion.

COLIN IRVINE is an associate professor of English at Augsburg College and serves as the summer 2012 research coordinator for the College’s Office of Undergraduate Research and Graduate Opportunity (URGO).

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