Leaving the Comfort Zone

Three years ago, the College of Arts and Sciences, HKUST, and Peking University entered into a trilateral partnership. The idea was to create research and teaching collaboration among the three institutions that can be enduring. The Jefferson Global Seminars is part of that effort. I want to thank Philip Zelikow, Associate Dean of Graduate Academic Programs in Arts and Sciences, for creating this program with stellar curricular content; and James Lee, Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at HKUST, who worked hand and glove with us to make it all possible—administratively, financially, and above all, intellectually. - MW

This is the “First Lecture,” which is a College convention—a dean provides the first lecture to the incoming first-year students. I have titled it “Leaving the Comfort Zone,” to state the obvious: you have left the comfort of your homes in Virginia and elsewhere in the U.S., to arrive in a city that in the last two centuries went from a barren piece of rock to being a shining metropolis open to all cultures and peoples; and since 1997 it has managed all that while being part of a country that is ruled by a communist party. This city will present you with mind-boggling complexity—in more ways than one.

A week ago I would not have guessed that I would be arriving in Hong Kong, following in the footsteps, as it were, of Edward Snowden.  A 29-year old American with a rapid succession of careers—in the military, the CIA, the National Security Agency and then Booz Allen Hamilton—he is also perched somewhere in this same city. He leaked documents revealing that the United States government has engaged in surveillance of citizens—its own and others—in an effort to thwart terrorist plots. Instantly a debate ensued; it was a familiar debate on the fine line between “privacy” on the one hand, and “national security” on the other. Trying to find a few needles in the tetra-bytes of haystacks, the government was riffling through emails, Facebook, twitters, and phone calls of a multitude of foreign suspects, and the American citizens they might have contacted. The idea was to look for patterns in the communications and store them in case they prove useful in the future.

The new modes of communication arriving in the past fifteen or twenty years provide such instant connection and gratification that we ease into an intellectual comfort zone without much concern. Then someone downloads confidential information, and the notions of “privacy” and “national security” are instantly juxtaposed in adversarial and oppositional ways. We are now forced to question the meaning of privacy in the 21st century, in a digitally interconnected world where citizens give up their privacy unknowingly to the government, but also willingly and effortlessly to commercial entities who trail us through myriad social networks. Our conceptions of individual inviolability and privacy, rooted in eighteenth-century dictums, encounter a world flung open to anonymous servers, humming quietly along and grazing on our every word.

We also search, in this new century and this Brave New World, for a new meaning of the term “national security.” The onset of the Cold War in the 1940s wrought dramatic changes akin to those we face today, as the U.S. for the first time developed a permanent standing army, hundreds of military bases abroad, and a new national security state at home. This new world was understandable because security was a matter pitting one nation against another; in many ways it merely brought the U.S. into the great power milieu that Europe had known for centuries. The primary adversary was also a modern state, the Soviet Union; the U.S. and the Soviet Union offered two alternative, top-to-bottom models of what modernity meant.

Now our enemies are not other states, but inchoate, invisible, implacable foes who seem to abhor everything we stand for, and who fight by means fair and foul. By these standards, the zone of Cold War rivalry was comfortable, at least in its boundaries. The threat of communism stimulated a vast expansion of the American state and its intelligence apparatus, dealing with existential threats abroad. But now the apparatus doesn’t know where to look: the quarry might be an Arab-American citizen in Yemen or a college kid wearing a backpack on his way to the Boston Marathon. So in a world where everyone can be both target and targeter, no one can escape. We need somehow to leave the comfort zone of Cold War and par-for-the-course national security dilemmas, rethink our assumptions, and start an important debate on the meaning of the national security state in our time, a very different and unprecedented era. That is the responsibility of the democratic citizenry, which is after all the purpose of the liberal arts education.

From his hideout in Hong Kong, Mr. Snowden also leveled charges against the United States government for hacking into government, business, and university computers in China, when our news media had it the other way around—one article after another about China’s assault on our cyber-system. The question has become whether Snowden is a concerned citizen and patriot speaking truth to power, and in so doing disclosing a new surveillance campaign in American history, or a traitor aiding and abetting another sovereign government.  And if the international system is no longer a system of nations acting as separate agents, but a shadowy world of clandestine digital break-ins by public and private entities, one might ask what is left of the meaning of nationalism and patriotism.

So, you and I seem to have left our comfort zones by arriving in this city, just as a new world drama crashes on our familiar shores and unfolds before our very eyes. I do hope that you will pay very close attention to the events of the last couple of weeks, and continue to do so even after Mr. Snowden departs Hong Kong, as he likely will.  This is not a comfortable discussion but a necessary one; from it you will  learn a great deal about relations between our government and China, and between China and Hong Kong; and you will learn a lot about their legal systems.

“Leaving the comfort zone” is the essential means that we deploy in seeking truth, which is the aim of our education—our liberal arts education. For all the ink spilled to define the purpose of a liberal arts education—and there is an ocean of it—nothing is so fundamental and important as our quest to understand the truth about ourselves, our circumstances, and our predicaments. Inside the comfort zone, that truth is impossible to obtain. To cite the venerable metaphor of Plato’s cave, you can see the shadow on the wall, but cannot discern the truth of the shadow without stepping out of the cave and into the light.

I envy you for having a great summer curriculum. Many of you are taking a course on Max Weber, jointly taught by Professors Krishan Kumar of UVA and Joshua Derman of HKUST. Max Weber pioneered something called comparative sociology. His core idea was stunningly simple; cognition is not possible except through comparison—you know what is, by knowing what is not. Weber claimed that there was a profound relationship between a particular kind of culture and religion, and the rise of capitalism. To establish a truth that could withstand scrutiny, he had to study the major religions of the world, to argue why Protestantism and its work ethic was conducive to material accumulation under capitalism—but not Catholicism, not Islam, not Hinduism, and not Confucianism. He stepped out of the Prussian intellectual milieu, his comfort zone, to read the best scholarship on the religions of the world.

You will be reading his “Religion of China.” An Occidentalist to the core, Weber found it difficult to assign rationality to the world outside of the European tradition, and his “Religion of China” is, in my view, a deeply flawed account of Chinese culture—as flawed as the best writings on China in the late nineteenth century, which is to say, very flawed. But there are brilliant passages in this book, transcending passages of comparative sociology. And even when he was wrong, Max Weber had more interesting ideas in his little finger than many of the sociologists in the decades that followed. I hope so much that you will delight in all his ideas, interesting when he was wrong as when he was right. Regardless, you will appreciate the effort he took to discover and express truth according to his own lights.

You will be taking “A New History of China, 1700-2000” by Professor James Lee, one of the greatest historical and economic sociologists of China. In that course you will explore an entirely different way to perceive global history, a quantitative route to making explicit comparisons between China and the West. Rather than recast the trajectories of modernity through ideal types as Weber did—some composite pictures of the “west” versus the “rest”—you will learn to anchor your analysis on hard data to the extent that we can excavate them: living standards and human development as measured by consumption, life expectancy, and literacy (which in China were roughly comparable to the West until the mid-19th century). Looking at modern history through the Chinese prism—community, ethnicity, family, freedom, gender, life, power, property, religion, rights, rules, sexuality—one begins to accumulate more evidence, allowing us to think more fully and maturely about how societies evolve and are structured. We shed light where we once looked through the glass darkly. In other words the study of modern China should help us better understand our society and ourselves.

The professors at Virginia and HKUST have also come together to offer courses on the environment, to provide historical perspectives on pollution control, water quality, and food security. I know you will explore firsthand the wild life refuge between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, and marine fish culture management zones.

In another one of your classes, you will develop tools for thinking about complex technological systems as they adapt to change. You will think deeply and carefully about the implications of the rise of megacities: energy and water systems, natural resource availability, transportation, health and population—and how they all relate to climate change. In the next twelve years, China plans to move 250 million people living in rural areas to cities; our classes will provide ways for you to understand the transformation of this great mass of peasants into urban citizens.

In closing, allow me to recount in one more way the virtue of leaving your comfort zones.  You are the first generation of the Americans whose lives will be affected in so many important ways by the country where you stand today: China. It may not seem so now, but the peace and prosperity of the United States depends very much on understanding China. In no small measure the effective collaboration between the two countries—or their effective estrangement—will determine whether we will have a peaceful twenty-first century, one of cooperation in a US-Chinese condominium; or a falling away from each other into a perilous future. I sincerely hope that the inaugural class of the Jefferson Global Seminars will be agents of peace and collaboration, as you must.

17 Responses to “Leaving the Comfort Zone”

  1. James R. Brett says:

    When the Science Channel on my cable network began its mantra “question everything,” I smiled and wondered how many young people watching would question that injunction itself, that is, to be skeptical about questioning. One quickly realizes that to test the boundaries of their assumptions and their perceptions, especially–the comfort zones of clan and tribe and high school class and region, nation–requires some amazing courage.

    The injunction, like Dean Woo’s pleasant advice to understand what assumptions you bring to each new experience, is the boundary between a commonplace existence and something more. I like her words and thoughtfully created context. I hope the association of institutions prospers, and it will if comfort does not become the main goal.

  2. Kathy Lee says:

    This collaboration is yet another fabulous beginning for Uva students and faculty. Your inaugural lecture on the merits of so many issues to be explored and evaluated inspire each of us to involve our minds and hearts in ways that are outside of our comfort zones. For those of us beyond the college and graduate years, there exists a fellowship of active and engaged minds whose goal will be to pursue, albeit at a distance, the many notions highlighted in your presentation. Perhaps you might engage those of us closer to home in continuing thoughts about these issues!
    What a beginning! Bravo!

  3. Well done Meredith. Great insights, context and directives. You are right about the future as it relates to the Us/China relationship. I am more hopeful of the future knowing that programs like this are underway…keep it up!

  4. Al Cash coll '59 says:

    Dean Woo,
    Spark up your prose and step out of your academic “Comfort Zone.” Speak boldly about the failure of Chinese Communism and the daily damage that government does to the human rights of its good people. Internationally, China is a disaster. The prolegamina to data based comparisons should be the intellectual inquiry into the theoretical differences between our constitutional democracy and the human blight caused by China’s authoritative regime.
    Go ‘Hoos,
    Al Cash

  5. William Davidson says:

    Jefferson was one of the most progressive thinkers of any age. Too often the U. of Virginia has stood for complacency and stiffling tradition. Dr. Woo’s belief in a Liberal Arts education as a foundation for a functioning Democracy, gives me hope for the future of this country which desperately needs leaders such as herself to teach a new generation of Wahoos to think “outside the box”.

  6. Ruika Lin says:

    Reading this as a recent alum coming from China, I thought about the importance (and the inherent difficulty) of facilitating cross-cultural communication, not only through partnerships like these, but also right in Charlottesville – an increasing number of international students are coming from around the globe to UVa, and there’s still a lot more room for the University to leverage these resources and facilitate conversations (not only academic) among students and faculty of different backgrounds.

  7. Dean Woo is clearly one of most brightly shining gems in the Virginia faculty.

  8. Peter J. Verdirame, Coll '76 says:

    Dear Dr. Woo,
    Learning that Mr. Jefferson’s University has partnered with the Chinese Communist regime, who brought the world the Tiannamen Square Massacre, and which continues to squelch free discourse concerning same today twenty four years later, has taken me out of my comfort zone. Are alumni being requested to make donations to the school being informed of this development? Respectfully, Dr. Woo, I find it disturbing that someone writing from the inner circle of academic administration, lecture me on comfort zones. I would, again respectfully, submit, that you take yourself out of your own comfort zone by engaging in the following thought experiment: ask yourself if you would be receiving the salary you do for writing such relativistic pablum as this blog post, in the private sector. Physician, heal thyself.

  9. Steve McKonly says:

    Dean Woo:
    Thank you for another thought provoking essay.
    Although I get back to Charlottesville routinely during men’s basketball season, I enjoyed Reunion Weekend in early June with classmates of ‘ 73 and others. Forty years ago it was difficult to say good-bye to Charlottesville, but memories are still strong and friendships prosper. I am very happy I have maintained my ties with the University, and representatives like you make me proud.
    Steve McKonly
    Hanover PA

  10. Thomas Chase says:

    Thank you. Continue to explore!

  11. Brawner Cates says:

    Great to hear from Dr.Woo again.Its been a while.Extremely happy that she didn’t leave UVA for Emory University.Hope it wasn’t close.I was very concerned as I can only imagine how many great schools would love to have her talents.Hope she really likes living on Jefferson’s famed lawn as every day we have her is truly a great day for UVA.Attended a wedding in London recently.Two young folks(one a UVA Law grad)who will be living in Hong Kong.Very exciting for time both of them.Regarding China and the future there is really only one number you need to know nearly 2 billion folks.Now that’s a large comfort zone for sure.”B” Cates UVA 1967

  12. Harvey Gleeksman says:

    The Dean’s admonition to go beyond our comfort zone is simply wonderful. I read her essay with skepticism, but concluded, she is on the right course, the best course; we must open our minds and explore, all the while being true to our most basic humanist morals. So I do not agree with those who caution that dialogue with those connected in one way or another with totalitarian leaders honors those leaders’ past reprehensible actions. She is correct in observing the critical and analytical skills derived from a liberal education are intrinsic to dealing with the rapidly evolving global and shifting force fields influencing our daily lives.

  13. Thomas Arrasmith '60 says:

    Thanks for such a forward thinking program. We cannot avoid change, but with understanding and insight we can deal with it constructively. Way to go Dean Woo. TJ would be proud of you.

  14. Peter J. Verdirame, Coll '76 says:

    Dear Dr. Woo,
    I read this article in the New York Times about another American university, NYU, siding with the Chinese government against a dissident scholar. Why don’t you, as the Dean of a College known as a symbol of free discourse, arrange for the University of Virginia to offer Chen Guangcheng, a fellowship? See link below to learn more of Mr. Chen’s treatment.


    Such an act would truly prove that you are willing to go outside of your own comfort zone.

  15. Kim Dwyer says:

    Dear Dr. Woo,

    I agree with most of your points but believe that we will shape our conclusions according to our upbringing, even if we spend time living outside of our “comfort zones”. That being stated, I believe that one cannot effectively evaluate world events and policies within certain regions of the world without spending time in those foreign lands with the people.
    College students seem best suited for this since their minds are sharp and typically open.

  16. The history of Chinese civilization is one of respect for government authority and elevation of bureaucracy, for over 2000 years. The shorter history of America is one of disdain for government authority and bureaucracy, at least until recently when the US government has become an acceptable agency to force people to do things they don’t want to do, force used when the politically powerful are unable to PERSUADE the people using logic. In effect, the United States citizens (as opposed to “Americans”) are becoming politically more Chinese, even as some Chinese are adopting “American” (as opposed to US) values.

    American values of liberty and respect for individuals are scattered everywhere now, and we should seek out the individuals who are “American-minded” in whatever country they happen to be, and engage in commerce where possible. The United States borders still contains many Americans as well, even a few still can be found in academic institutions, mostly quiet, overwhelmed by the so-many academic illiberals who support such utter bunk as Obamacare and arming Syrian rebels. I hope that the US Americans work to understand American-minded (liberty-loving folk) in China, and that the Chinese see American values and not the horrific values of the United States Government and the illiberals who support its expanding power. I hope Dean Woo works to spread individual generosity, voluntariness and true liberality of America, and not the false liberality, fascist-leaning, law-breaking horror of those at UVA who support the antics of the unleashed, unfettered, unchained misbehaving United States Government.

    The US Government may represent many modern citizens in this country, and most faculty at academic institutions. But it no longer represents American values.

  17. We continue to be so fortunate at Virginia to have a person of the diverse qualifications of Meredith Woo, serving as Dean of the College and Graduate School of A&S. It is impressive now to see Dean Woo using her unique multicultural assets to organize and advance perhaps the most significant international educational project ever undertaken at our University. I was visiting recently with female friends and relatives who are graduates of Duke, Wake Forest, Virginia, Mary Baldwin and Meredith Colleges, and it was my privilege to tell them about the many accomplishments and interests of Meredith Woo. I was able to follow up by sending my friends a link to “Leaving the Comfort Zone” – this essay, and to Dean Woo’s other writings. It is wonderful to have such tangible evidence of UVa’s academic leadership, both in written words and viewable actions, all on the world stage. Jefferson and Alderman and their successors are surely proud.