I know that this is unprecedented—this broadcast is called “This I Believe,” not “This We Believe.” But let me explain why I believe in “we”—why I believe in the power of us.
Two months ago, I sat down in a classroom with seventeen of my peers at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. None of us were especially close, but we had each signed up to take a course on the Enlightenment. I figured that we would learn about the Enlightenment thinkers—Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, among others—and about how those philosophers influenced the ideas and discoveries of today. I quickly realized the uniqueness of this classroom experience. Yes, we would learn about those Enlightenment thinkers, but we would also be writing a social contract that we each had to sign and agree to live under. Each of us was given a section of the contract to construct—from Freedom of Speech to Crime and Punishment, Government, Education, Art, Slavery, and Religion. We would, in effect, be constructing a community. At the end of the semester, our individual beliefs would become our collective beliefs.
I’ll admit, at first we were skeptical. This was only a class—why was our Professor taking this contract so seriously? Student frustration quickly manifested itself. My classmate exclaimed: “I don’t know what I believe! I’m only nineteen!”
The classroom went silent. Then we woke up.
We realized that someone was taking us seriously. At nineteen, twenty, or twenty-one, we were being granted an opportunity to discover and challenge our beliefs. We were asked to radically alter our thought processes. Putting aside the world we knew and the society we lived in, we had to start over. To do so, we would have to work together.
Helping to create the “religion” section of our communal contract, I brought my heart into classroom conversations. As a religious person, I found it quite hard to differentiate my core values from those of my classmates. But while we did not all believe in God, or in prayer or in faith, we still managed to progress. We believed in equality and understood our responsibility to treat others with respect. Our religion was the process by which we grew and learned together. This, I Believe.
It is easy to teach students what to know, but it is hard to teach students how to think. It is even harder to teach us how to believe. We learned how to believe in that classroom. We watched ourselves transform from individuals who happened to be taking a class together into a community of thinkers who understood that in addition to learning how to craft a community, we had also crafted a faith.