Monday, April 15, 2013

Open letter to my students about Boston marathon bombing

Dear Students,

No doubt you've heard the news about the bombing in Boston, and perhaps even seen the terrible images. I've lived through two acts of violent terrorism, both at the former World Trade Center in Manhattan; and unfortunately, many of us can recall recent news events of mass shootings: at schools - Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook; at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin; the attempt on Congresswoman Giffords's life; the shooting in the Aurora, CO, movie theater. Moments of violence like the one that happened at the Boston marathon make me feel very afraid, sad, and angry. Lately, when things like this happen here in the US or around the world, the only way I feel comforted is when I hug and hold my small children tightly.

But, awake earlier than usual, and still numb from the news in Boston, my thoughts wandered to my work as a teacher, and what my students and I try to accomplish in the classroom.

In lectures, documentary viewings, research projects, debates, questions, and discussions, we try to wrestle with ideas. Sometimes, those ideas are hard. Sometimes, the material we study is difficult and unsettling, but we do our best to strive for analyses based on honesty and integrity. We don't have to agree with each other, or like each others' arguments. It behooves us to challenge one another - to ask questions and seek clarity. I used to think this type of work was the luxury of working in higher education, but the Boston bombing and a great deal of other violence that rocks people around the world reminds me that intellectual exchange, debate, and thinking clearly on hard matters are not luxuries that should only exit in the halls of academia. We need those practices to exist everywhere, all the time, amongst all strata of people, especially in dark hours when violence and suffering befall human existence and explanations about why this happens, and what to do next, do not come easy, if they come at all. 

So this is a thank you letter to my students - thank you for asking hard questions about difficult topics; for debating one another; for pushing me to be clear in my thoughts and words and arguments; for reading and working and struggling with your thoughts; for valuing ideas. Please bring these practices with you wherever life takes you - military service; corporate work and business; artistic work; politics; technology development; law; medicine; theater; dance; social work; religious ministry; accounting; engineering; science research; education; parenthood; citizenship - global and domestic. 

Terrorist violence, war and human suffering occur when fear, narcissism, avarice, hateful and bigoted insecurity, or sheer insanity subvert intellectual exchange and bold leadership directed towards the widest possible peace and prosperity.

Intellectual exchange and deep thought on difficult questions has so far not eliminated war and terrorism. Perhaps, in the day-to-day course of events, what we do in the classroom - thinking, debating, listening, asking questions, reading, discussing, writing, researching - may not seem important.

But I shudder to think of our world without it. 


Professor Purnell


  1. I agree completely. The absence of education leads to fear and misunderstandings. Thanks for the letter!

  2. thank you, mr. purnell, for your thoughtful letter. perhaps our paths will cross some day. my husband michael kolster is a professor of photography at bowdoin. take good care. christy