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Last Lecturers: With Courage, Determination and Creativity, A Better World Is Possible

April 7, 2011 — Members of the University of Virginia community gathered in Old Cabell Hall Tuesday night to hear two of U.Va.'s most distinguished faculty members participate in the Last Lecture series, a yearly event designed to give professors the opportunity give a lecture as if it were their last. 

Sponsored by the Residence Life Office, the Last Lecture series celebrated its 19th year with thought-provoking speeches from politics professor Robert Fatton and anthropology professor Richard Handler, both of the College of Arts & Sciences.

"Every year we look for nominations of faculty members who are well-regarded in their fields," said Jenny Eaton, a fourth-year McIntire School of Commerce student from Chesapeake. "The speeches are meant to be inspirational."

While the Last Lecture committee received many recommendations this year, the committee chose Handler and Fatton because of their similar interests and critical thinking styles, said Eaton, who also serves as the Residence Life program's coordinator for council leadership development.

Fatton, associate dean for graduate academic programs in Arts & Sciences, was the first to speak Tuesday night. The Haiti native elected to speak on one of his favorite topics: globalism.

"Societies either globalize or they are condemned to poverty and stagnation," said Fatton, Julia A. Cooper Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs. He cited Christopher Columbus' discovery of the Americas as the start of globalism.

Still, Fatton explained, global economies are not immune from fiscal crises, like the financial collapse of 2008, which he said "has shown us all that globalism is fragile."

Moreover, he explained that globalism puts money in the hands of the already wealthy, while leaving the impoverished to suffer. More than 1.4 billion people live below the accepted international poverty line, meaning they survive on less than $1.25 per day.

"There is clearly something wrong with the worldwide distribution of wealth," he said, adding that "there is no reason to believe that these grim figures will change in the foreseeable future."

Fatton said that globalization is also responsible for a "paradoxical intensification" of the inequalities and injustices in an increasingly small world. In particular, he said that the globalized economy is "extremely profitable for drugs, arms and prostitutes," thus increasing crime worldwide.

Even those countries that initially benefit from globalization are at risk. For instance, while China's economy is booming, experts predict that should the population of China consume as much as the populations of the United States, the world market for steel, coal and meat, among other things, will skyrocket. "The Chinese economy is not sustainable," he said.

Still, Fatton remains optimistic.

"In this, my last lecture, I have painted a bleak picture," he said. "I know that very little is set in stone. If we muster our courage and imagination, we can change things."

Fatton encouraged the audience to be skeptical of conventional wisdom, and to make every possible effort to move toward equality.

"The current moment is full of the possibilities of new beginnings," Fatton said.

Handler took the stage next, giving a talk on the importance of critical thinking.

"Critical thinking has to do with rereading truths and discovering knowledge," he explained. Handler said that critical thinking has three aspects: getting beneath the surface of an idea, breaking reality into smaller components and navigating the relationship between nature and culture.

Higher education is frequently described in terms of the natural sciences on one hand, the liberal arts on the other, and the social sciences, which navigate between the two.

"One of the deals of being educated is that you sample the different programs to see what major or area of study is best for you," Handler said. "Different disciplines are interested in different surfaces and use different methods and philosophy to penetrate" them.

For instance, sociologists are interested in the patterns and meaning behind the constructs of society, whereas students of religion change their focus slightly to examine faith as a lens through which one can view the world.

"Each group thinks critically, but in a very different way," Handler said. As an anthropologist, Handler expressed his interest in the study of culture.

"A critical feature of cultures is that all us natives have a complete mastery of our culture. This is mostly unconscious knowledge," he explained. Human beings act out models of behavior in accordance with their respective cultures.

"A lot of anthropological scholarship is learning about other worlds and trying to understand other ways of living," Handler said. In turn, this study inspires reflection on one's own cultures.

Like Fatton, Handler eventually turned his thoughts to the idea of social inequalities. He discussed the difference between equality of opportunity – which means that everyone gets a "fair chance" – and equality of result – which means that every situation has the same outcome, regardless of effort or intent.

To explain the point, Handler cited professional sports as an example. Each season starts with an equal number of games, and teams compete against each other to enter tournaments or bowl games. The process ends with an exact hierarchy that painstakingly lists the teams from best to worst.

What's unusual about this microcosm of society, Handler explained, is that after one year the process starts all over again. A bad season does not condemn a team to failure the next year.

"Now," Handler asked the audience, "when is life like that?"

– by Samantha Koon

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