My intellectual challenge amid physical comforts

I write tonight from Doha, Qatar. (Check the map — Qatar is in the Middle East, on the east side of Saudi Arabia. It’s about 7 hour flight time and 3 hours time difference from my current home of West African Ghana). I am participating in a conference that the liberal arts department within Texas A&M at Qatar convened.  LiberalArtsTexasAMConf0213Their topic is a multidisciplinary approach to “Ethical Engagement with Globalization, Citizenship, and Multiculturalism;” my topic is liberal arts education as a way to reach that kind of ethical engagement.

This is a confusing place to be, physically and intellectually, especially now that Aljazeera news reminds me this is Super Bowl Sunday in the U.S. The cultural, socio-economic and ideological differences I am experiencing this year continue to astound me.

In early January, I attended an Academy of Management conference in South Africa where I delighted in Johannesburg’s amazing physical infrastructure. Within several days, I learned more and more about the very broken post-Apartheid cultural infrastructure. It left me appreciating the very coherent and peace-oriented Ghanain cultural infrastructure, even though the physical infrastructure there is terribly broken – water, electricity, roads all completely underdeveloped. Here in Doha, the physical infrastructure is exquisite, sidewalks and palm trees perfectly aligned, streets as clean as when first built, and cars new, sparkling white, and moving easily through the city, at least on our route.

The U.S. State Department website tells me crime rates are quite low here, the country safe from the opportunistic crime I am so cautious of in Ghana. But then it tells me that people at the middle class and below most often have to surrender their passports to their employers or sponsors until such time as terms of their labor agreements are fulfilled. Texas A&M sponsored my visit, and the visit of the other 30 or 50 academics here for the conference, and so they procured all of our transit visas; we have each retained our own passports.

The conference conversations provoke my thinking – the cultural anthropologist teaching in Saudia Arabia and studying transnationalism, the education PhD working as a curricular consultant to enhance Muslim women’s access to education…in Canada, the Indian philosopher preaching holistic well being among the least of us as a collective path to integrity global citizenship. Tomorrow I’ll offer insight about comparative models of liberal arts as an American educational model for fostering critical analysis and inquiry-based thinking, even though I’m not entirely sure which countries have the level of cultural tolerance required for young people to critically inquire into multiple constructs of a “good society.”

I’m clearly not in any place to criticize one culture or another. I’m an American. We have this strange game of football where feet don’t actually touch the ball but people sock each other on a line each time the ball is hiked. The American football season culminates on Super Bowl Sunday where advertisements cost six figures for 30 second spots. Testosterone so rages on Super Bowl Sunday that domestic violence apparently peaks on that night each year. What does that say about our culture? Then again, there might be a difference to the systemic violence against women I hear about in other parts of the world, even if I can’t quite articulate it.

The World Cup will be held in Qatar in 2022. Given the amazing attention Johannesburg has received by hosting the Africa Cup of Nations soccer/football tournament this month, no doubt Doha will also get great press. But it’s hard for me to watch the Aljazeera sports report when their advertisements are for upcoming specials about surviving in Hillsboro in Johannesburg, allegations of Afghan prison torture, and a compilation of films taken by regular people of abuses they see happening in the Middle East and Africa the name of calling for peace. That’s when I feel so confused about the luxuries I have tonight – a very comfortable hotel room, the Jacuzzi tub at the mezzanine level, internet access, abundant choices of food, and a community of delightful students who I’ll return to in Berekuso after leaving Doha tomorrow night. Mulitculturalism and global existence does indeed provoke me to ask my own questions about ethical conduct and citizenship.

Yeah, this conference is definitely an intellectual challenge for me, even though it’s physically very comfortable.

p.s. The Ashesi Dean has told me several times, “why do you have to make everything so complicated? Just keep it simple…you must be horrible to live with, just keep it simple…”  Hmmm, maybe this is what she’s talking about…but she does live with me, at least on weeknights at the guest house…occupational hazard perhaps? Just as well that the Super Bowl isn’t likely to be covered here. Even though the reception is awesome, I think I’m better off just getting some sleep!