What Is It To Be Human?

For the last several weeks I have been seeing and hearing authors pose the question, “What does it mean to be human?” Most recently, I heard Toni Morrison say in the film , “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” that she writes to explore what it is to be fully human.

In the June 1 issue of “The Pause,” the On Being Project newsletter, Kristin Lin cites the poet Gregory Orr, “To be human is to be continually at risk.”  She continues with Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, “What it means to be human is to open ourselves to fully loving one another in an unsentimental way…” and with the definition from john a. powell, a civil rights scholar who studies structural racism “ to love and to suffer…”

Lin concludes, “the beauty of such a question is in the possibility for as many answers as there are lives – so long as we begin asking ourselves and one another.”

I have never forgotten what my first boss and mentor in higher education told me many years ago, that the purpose of education was to discover what it is to be human. As we worked to define learning outcomes and competencies, it became clear to me that the best we could hope for at graduation was that our students had been encouraged to ask themselves and others the questions that would help them confront what it means to be human. I had even proposed to the general education committee, only partly in jest, that we phrase our outcomes in the form of questions students would have asked themselves and graded them by the degree to which they articulated the answers that still eluded them.   

I kept a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet “Live your questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live some distant day into your answers” on my desk.

Many graduations later, I still think we need to encourage students and ourselves to ask these hard questions. To me, to be human is to seek connections to others and to learn continuously. It is to be flawed and to learn to forgive the flaws in ourselves and others. It is to be intentional about “living into the answers.”

Barbara ViniarComment