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Learning from Katrina

Observer Viewpoint | Tuesday, September 6, 2005

The day the city of New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast was demolished by a category four hurricane, I was in class. As water engulfed the birthplace of jazz, I was reading City of God and the epic of Gilgamesh. The news in The Observer that Monday and most of the following week was all football tickets and Frosh-O. As my fellow citizens in Mississippi and Louisiana were suffering, were dying, were going without food and water, I was checking my e-mail and lazily drinking a cup of coffee.

Catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina must make us wonder what on earth we are doing with our very privileged lives. Why does any of this matter? What is the purpose of a liberal education? Why, finally, are we here?

If these four years are just about going to football games and finding a better paying job after graduation, then, in the face of this disaster, we ought to feel indicted.

Katie Perry wrote in her Inside Column (a few days after the storm) that Notre Dame students have reason to be cocky. Going to Notre Dame is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Go ahead and swagger, she writes. As if just attending Notre Dame as an undergraduate is enough of an accomplishment to build a whole life upon. You’ve joined the club. You’ve paid your dues. You’re smart enough and good enough. You bought the sweatshirt. You’re okay.

Think again. Going to Notre Dame cannot be an end in and of itself. So you jumped through a lot of hoops to get here. What now? What is the purpose of your studies? What is the purpose of your life? Why not more practical pursuits? Thousands of people are feared dead in Louisiana. How are you spending your days?

It’s useless for us to feel guilty about our educations. It may, however, prove useful for us to questions their ends. Is your education directed towards a good? Is it forming you morally, intellectually or artistically? Is it habituating you in critical thinking and ethical action? Does it alter how it is that you think and live?

Are we in the business of the transformation of self and the service of others, or is this just camp ND? How can we share what we have been privileged to learn with others and with the world? How can we be sufficiently grateful or generous good?

In the wake of this unparalleled natural disaster our nation is imploding along racial and class lines. People are furious that state and federal governments have not done more to evacuate and also to aid the poor and predominantly African American citizens of New Orleans.

Here in South Bend, we live an extremely divided community in terms of race and class. We do service projects all over the world, but only a minority of students venture into the neighborhoods and streets just blocks south of campus.

Terrible things happen. Hurricanes take out towns. Innocent people languish and die. We cannot explain suffering, but perhaps, we can learn from it and let it change our hearts and minds.

Anna NassbaumseniorOff-CampusSept. 4