Whose Fault Is It?


A course on genocide, taught by Bassett Teaching Award winner Jonathan White, forces Colby students to grapple with questions of responsibility

By Ru Freeman
Photography by Leo Pando

Andrew Volk '05 says he has heard the best lecture of his life.

It happened last semester when Jonathan White, assistant professor of sociology, walked into his class Genocide and Political Violence looking disheveled and sleep-deprived and said he thought it was time for "the hunger talk."

"Then," Volk said, "he spoke for an hour and fifteen minutes, delivering a lecture so full of facts, figures and vivid illustrations that it left me feeling drained and depressed for days. It changed my thinking."

Volk wasn't alone.

On the first day of White's class students are faced with three quotes written on a blackboard: "Never Again" is sandwiched between "Ignorance is Bliss" and "Knowledge is Power." So begins an investigation of genocidal events from the Holocaust to Rwanda, along with discussion of the diffusion of responsibility that allows such crimes to take place.

It's a course that is fluid, with connections that are broader than the events being discussed, Volk said. White himself said the class has evolved in the 10 years he has been teaching it "from being about the specifics of genocide and political violence to being more about the study of the sociology of morality through the lens of those phenomena."

Terri Cunningham '04 said White examines the topic of personal morality in a single course, but in the language of sociology, anthropology, economics, government, history and international studies. The syllabus asserts that the class will search for an understanding of human morality and immorality, nature and nurture. It also mentions a focus on "our own country's direct and indirect role in modern genocide and political violence."

Why is a course on genocide, a topic many people would shy away from, one of the most popular classes for Colby students from all disciplines? It may stem from White's tension-defusing teaching style.

During the lectures there are asides about White's own life: about being a young "party boy turned activist" at Brandeis; about attending the largest act of civil disobedience in America since the Civil Rights movement, at the School of the Americas. The class returns, refreshed, to the discussion on personal responsibility, and the interactions resume the back-and-forth intensity that is the best of intellectual exchange: Christina Pluta '05 raises her hand and says she believes everybody is responsible for allowing injustice. White counters, "How do you deal with the fact that you can't live up to your own responsibility? I'm asking you, personally."

The workload in the class is almost as ponderous as its subject: 10 required texts, innumerable assigned articles, six reflective papers, journal entries, impromptu assignments, videos and speakers outside of class hours and extensive participation in class required. White immerses his students in his subject, but far from being daunted, students seem to thrive in the climate he creates. Cunningham praised the workload as a strength in the course, wishing that there were more time to discuss all the reading that is required.

How does White discuss the horrifying details of genocide and violence without making the material overwhelming? Cunningham said White "keeps the mood positive," focusing on what each person can do when they connect the dots between themselves and world events.

Brittney Lazar '04 said White's course allows students to challenge themselves and each other "in a forum where honesty prevails and knowledge becomes power."

Joshua R.W. Hunnewell '04, credits the success of the class to White's humor and wit, saying he loves the variation in White's classes: one day a lecture, the next discussions in smaller groups.

No matter what the forum, questions return repeatedly to hunger. It is, after all, an issue that cuts across boundaries, time periods and social classes, and White believes hunger is one of the root causes of social dislocations. He said he "can't imagine teaching students about social problems without also teaching them that they can play a role in creating the change they want to see."

White's work with Free the Children, an international organization that helps empower children to fight child exploitation, is one example of creating change that he brings to class as personal experience.

As founder and director of Sports for Hunger, White runs a research center that contains thousands of valuable audio-visual and print resources on hunger-related issues. It is work that parallels Colby's efforts to encourage policy analysis, development and even implementation through the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement.

In his Genocide and Political Violence course, White alerts students to some of the world's injustices, he said, "in hopes that they will feel the affront,and even enough so that they feel compelled to act."