Notes from Ransom Hall: A Higher Ed Blog

Taking Lessons from Flint

Sean Decatur
January 29, 2016

Safe drinking water is something that most of us take for granted in the United States. This is why the still unfolding narrative of Flint’s poisoned water provokes powerful emotions: sadness (so many needlessly harmed), anger (the failure of systems and individuals to act in the best interest of the public) and frustration (the absence of an easy solution to correct this human-generated problem). I’ve read about the crisis closely, from the perspective of a chemist, as an educator and as a citizen who firmly believes in the right of everyone to safe water. 

Chemists like to think of themselves as problem-solvers, including those of us who teach and train others to solve problems. In chemical terms, measurements of water quality, at least those of the type needed to understand the Flint crisis, are fairly straightforward and achievable. Most undergraduate analytical chemistry courses teach trace metal analysis, and the relationship between corrosion and the leaching of lead into water is basic inorganic chemistry. The health consequences, moreover, of lead poisoning, both short- and long-term, have been well known for decades. So why, in the 21st century, in one of the most scientifically sophisticated societies on the planet, did a city pass on lead-poisoned water to its citizens? 

The answer is simple: Objective measurements are only as valuable as their interpretations and application, and these remain all too subjective. Putting the data into action — in the case of Flint, putting data into the service of the community — requires giving meaning to the numbers, drawing logical and reasonable conclusions, and challenging assumptions. Developing policy from data requires not just analytical skill but the ability to understand the impact of one’s work, to have compassion for those whom one serves and to respond empathically to the humanity of one’s neighbors. The tragedy in Flint was caused by leaders who repeatedly neglected their responsibility to their community. 

As an educator, this failure of leadership reminds me of the responsibility we have at Kenyon to educate a generation of leaders who will not repeat this mistake. Those of us who advocate liberal education often use terms like “education for citizenship” or “values education,” and we use those terms with such frequency or so casually that they sometimes may lose their effect. But the story of Flint should be a constant reminder of the need to keep the concepts of citizenship and ethics front and center in education. A liberal education should not result merely in a graduate who can collect and process data quickly and mechanically. We must, rather, aim to graduate students who rigorously question and challenge assumptions, develop a deep understanding of the context of their work and act with a sense of conscience and larger purpose. Our graduates must be able to relate to those around them not as strangers but as partners bound together with shared commitments to sustaining the community.

These are the lessons that we should take from studies of the arts, humanities, social and natural sciences; from community service on and off campus; from coming to know people from different backgrounds as individuals; from challenging ourselves constantly to look at issues and problems from multiple perspectives. This is the standard to which we must hold ourselves at Kenyon. This is what we mean by education for citizenship. 

On Feb. 15, Bryan Stevenson, MacArthur Fellow, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of the book Just Mercywill give an evening lecture titled “American Injustice: Mercy, Humanity and Making a Difference.” On March 23, Kenyon will host a lecture by PEN and National Book Award-winning poet and essayist Claudia Rankine, author of the amazing work Citizen. These events offer powerful opportunities for the Kenyon community to reflect upon the concepts of justice and citizenship. As we move forward with our work this semester and as we fall into our regular routines of study, let us keep close in mind the lessons of Flint and let us take advantage of any opportunities we can find to reflect upon the larger purpose of our work here on the Hill.