Fairfield has embraced “Cities” as an area of academic focus

Fairfield has embraced “Cities” as an area of academic focus

by Nels Pearson, Ph.D.

If there is a universal characteristic of human beings, it is that we generally prefer to live together rather than live alone. As far back as archeology permits, we have abundant evidence for the human tendency to live in increasingly complex groups — settlements that may start small, but soon grow into complex, sometimes sprawling, socially and economically complex things called “cities.” It might be argued that making cities is what we humans do. But how do cities work? What effect does the city have on the individual, and how have cities shaped our social and cultural realities?

To address some of these questions, over the next two academic years Fairfield has adopted “cities” as an area of focus for the academic years 2012 – 2014. Along with Gary Wood, the director of the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts, I will be acting as co-facilitators of this campus-wide, interdisciplinary initiative to study, explore, and experience the significance of urban and metropolitan life in our global moment.

Over the course of these two years there will be hundreds of events — from seminars on the challenges of urban education, to theatrical and artistic programs highlighting a variety of city experiences, to courses on the mathematics and philosophy of cities — that raise questions about our urban environments and the ways we shape and are shaped by them.

Meanwhile, in the classroom, students from all disciplines will be thinking about the role of the city — from the perspective of economics, psychology, public health, philosophy, and so on. The idea for the biennial “area of focus” is to inspire conversations across disciplines, and to engage students and their professors — from math and physics, to business and economics, to literature and the arts — in an ongoing conversation on a topic that is relevant to one and all, and that requires multiple points of view.

After all, as a Jesuit liberal arts institution, Fairfield challenges us not just to study a variety of academic disciplines, but also to seek connections between these fields of study, and to solve problems by drawing on a variety of intellectual methods.

In the 1850s, John Henry Cardinal Newman described the ideal University as a place where “all branches of knowledge are . . . not isolated and independent of one another, but form together a whole system.” We often take Newman’s proposal to mean that each individual in the university is liberated to discover the interconnectedness of knowledge, but it can also be seen as a statement about the vitality of interdisciplinary collaboration and intellectual teamwork. Indeed, many of the world’s most pressing problems can only be understood through interconnecting fields of study.

The city is a perfect example of such a subject, for even though it is one of the most important phenomena in human history, no single academic discipline can tell us what it is.

As economists and students of business well know, the city is a testament to the human proclivity for commerce, our inclination to form markets, industries, and engines of wealth. For political scientists, sociologists, and philosophers, the city springs from the radical conundrums of the social contract. In the city, we as people are engaged in the ongoing tug of war over the requirements and privileges of citizenship, and how to establish, limit, and enforce political sovereignty.

Evolutionary biologists and ecologists have meanwhile noted that humans in cities behave in ways remarkably similar to organisms and animal species — in that they allow for the sharing of the burden of certain tasks, and increased efficiencies brought about by specializations (I don’t have to make shoes because you make shoes. You don’t have to make bread because I make bread). This is a compelling irony, for the towering skyscrapers that we see as evidence of our greatest progress thus also reveal how deeply embedded we are in the laws of nature.

Just as cities exemplify our capacity to engineer civil societies, they also illustrate our capacity to exclude, exploit, and isolate.

That urban locations, while bringing large numbers of people in close contact, also alienate the individual from society and expose the massive economic imbalances between classes has long been one of the central themes in literary works about the city. As Albert Camus wrote in his Notebooks in 1940, “As a remedy to life in society I would suggest the big city. Nowadays, it is the only desert within our means.”

For better and for worse, one thing is certain: As of this century, the human population has become predominantly urban. For the first time, over 50 percent of people on the planet live in cities, and trends indicate that this will rise to 75 percent within the next half century. The great majority of college graduates will follow this trend, earning their first job in a city.

And to think about the city today we must, quite realistically, think globally, for most of the largest and fastest growing metropolitan regions are no longer in Europe and North America but in Asia, Latin America, and outer Africa: cities such as Shanghai (population 13.5 million) and Beijing (pop. 20.1 million); Sao Paulo (pop. 11 million); Mumbai and Karachi (pop. 14 million and 13 million); Jakarta (pop. 8.5 million); Istanbul (pop. 13.5 million); Cairo (pop. 9.1 million); and Lagos (pop. 8 million). To understand the promises and problems of urban life globally, we must look to these metropolitan centers as well as those closer to home. In many cases, what some call development — as they point to shimmering new skylines — is on closer inspection an alarming example of multinational wealth suddenly superimposed on sprawling underdevelopment — a reminder of what international law scholar Richard Falk calls the stark difference between “globalization from above and globalization from below.”

Given these challenges, it is important to note that for as long as there have been cities, there have been questions about how to build better ones. Engineers and architects know this by heart. Today, the question of how to imagine and engineer better cities is being answered through a variety of innovative professions, projects, and collaborations. And here’s the rub: all of these new solutions are the product of inter-disciplinary thinking, the result of people drawing upon different fields of study. For example, this years’ winner of the “Technology, Entertainment and Design” (TED) award, a project called “Cities 2.0,” highlights revolutionary ideas by health professionals, musicians, scientists, business entrepreneurs, and educators that each show how changes in one aspect of urban life can create huge ripple effects throughout its other dimensions. In Columbia and Caracas, collaborations between engineers, geologists, artists, and architects are turning conventional wisdom on its ear by introducing high quality transportation systems and public spaces into the poorest neighborhoods, resulting in lower crime, better public health, and more vibrant commerce across the entire metropolitan area. A recent United Nations exhibit demonstrated that, in cities around the world, collaborative projects like these are dismantling the old assumption that truly innovative civic spaces and structures can only be the byproduct, rather than the precondition, of human progress.

Here at Fairfield — in another example — the program in Peace and Justice Studies has brought together political scientists, philosophers, historians, theologians, and sociologists to help communities in New Orleans reinvent key public programs and institutions in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

So it seems abundantly clear that the proverbial “key to the city,” and to our global future, lies in the kind of integrative thinking about how best to live with one another that a liberal arts University like Fairfield aims to promote: a broadening of the mind, through the meeting of minds.

A BRIEF TOUR OF SOME OF THIS FALL’S “CITIES” EVENTS

by Carolyn Arnold

International Literacy Day

In partnership with the Mercy Learning Center of Bridgeport, Conn., Fairfield celebrated International Literacy Day on September 13.

A panel of Fairfield professors and Bridgeport community leaders discussed the impact of literacy on urban areas and examined the opportunities and challenges of education in Bridgeport, from early childhood through adult literacy programs.

The Mercy Learning Center is a literacy and life-skills training center for low-income women in Bridgeport, Conn.

Panelists included Drs. Wendy Kohli, professor of curriculum and instruction; Stephanie Burrell Storms, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction; Judy Primavera, professor of psychology; Kathy Nantz, professor of economics; Betsy Bowen, professor of English; and Jane Ferreira, president and CEO of Mercy Learning Center.

Dr. Terry-Ann Jones, associate professor of sociology and anthropology, who introduced the panelists, said, “The panelists highlighted different aspects of the importance and value of literacy and education, and really emphasized the role and responsibility of individuals in eradicating illiteracy.”

Dr. Kohli noted that the wisdom of those who lived in the city was imperative for transformation to occur. “Change comes from within and we need the wisdom of those who have walked the walk,” she said.

Ferreira, who has been at the Mercy Center for 11 years, spoke about the passion for education that the women who go there have. “The desire for education unites them all.”

Urban Educational Reform in Connecticut

Education reform is a hot topic across the nation. Connecticut Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor gave a presentation on urban education reform titled, “Urban Education Reform: A New Vision for Connecticut Schools” on October 2 at the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts.

Pryor spoke about Connecticut’s education reform law, which is designed to transform both teaching and learning and eliminate the state’s highest-in-the-nation achievement gap.

“We were delighted to host this event at Fairfield,” said Susan Franzosa, Ph.D., dean, GSEAP. “Commissioner Pryor is in the forefront of the education reform movement in Connecticut and our students and faculty want to be a part of that movement.”

Crossing the BLVD Project: Strangers, Neighbors, Aliens in A New America

In November, Judith Sloan and Warren Lehrer, artists of the award-winning traveling exhibit, Crossing the BLVD project, arrived at Fairfield for a special presentation about their work.

The project presents photographs and stories of immigrants and refugees who have recently come to the United States, documenting the challenges they have faced, their successes and their struggles. The presentation was held in the DiMenna-Nyselius Library.

The artists discussed their book, traveling exhibition, audio CD, and multimedia performance with photographs, sounds and stories, and how this cross-platform project used the tools of contemporary art to create a multimedia experience reflecting the changing face of America.

Crossing the BLVD was the winner of the 2004 Brendan Gill Prize, an award given to a work of art that captures the spirit and energy of New York City. It premiered at the Queens Museum of Art in 2004 and has traveled to 15 locations in the U.S.

Digital Citizens Living in Virtual and Real Cities

Not all cities are physical places. Sometimes, they are virtual.

Roxann Riskin, the DiMenna-Nyselius Library Technology Specialist, and her team of tech students were inspired to take part in the 2012-2013 campus-wide “cities” Events theme. Riskin and her team created the Digital Citizens Project: an initiative to explore the role of a good “digital” citizen in the fathomless “city” of the Internet.

“As our students are good citizens in the real world, it is now time to consider our students as being good citizens in the digital world,” said Riskin. “A person’s social presence can be obscured when presented with the ability to have multiple online identities — such as multiple screen names, texting identities, email accounts, that exist only in the digital world.”

Riskin and her students set out to ask how educators could foster good digital citizenship in the expanding digital world.

Students explored nine themes of digital citizenship, interviewed faculty and staff members, and created YouTube educational videos. The videos, available on the library’s YouTube page, discuss ethics, literacy, rights, responsibility, security, health, and wellness.

Riskin envisions that the Digital Citizens Project will help Fairfield students discover their unique identity as virtual citizens.

For more information about “Cities” events, go to www.fairfield.edu/cities.