Creating a world of greater understanding

Creating a world of greater understanding

A big piece of the answer to drive hatred out of the human spirit lies in what universities do

September 9, 2011 - as published in the Daily Pennsylvanian

By Amy Gutmann

A decade has passed since the sadness of that terrible September day in New York, yet the images of 9/11 remain seared in the memory of all who experienced it. And along with the images, there linger the questions: How could people be so filled with hate? How could they and why would they do this?


There are moments in history when the worst of humankind is on display. The Holocaust surely ranks at the top of that list, an act incomprehensible in its motive, its scale and because so many people were culpable; so many people knew. 9/11 is similarly difficult to grasp. Its impact is complicated by its suddenness, the familiarity of its setting and the fact that we were all participants, watching it play out live on our TVs and computer screens.

The savagery of these moments in history makes them difficult to resolve in our hearts and our minds. But on that day 10 years ago, we also saw incredible heroism. We saw a level of compassion that most of us had not witnessed in our lifetimes. We saw the value of love. My hope is that those memories and what we together work to create out of this tragedy will dissipate the despair and sadness that lingers for so many of us when we think of 9/11.

The challenge for the next decade is for us to create a world where another 9/11 is less likely; where zealots are less driven by prejudice, hate or misunderstanding. It may be impossible to prevent deranged people from doing terrible things, and I doubt that anyone has the answer that will drive hatred out of the human spirit, but I suspect that a big piece of the answer lies in what universities do: creating a world of greater understanding.

Universities such as Penn instill an appreciation for the diversity of our world. We teach respect for different cultures and the value of having compassion for our fellow man. If we can help develop a world with a little less prejudice and a little more empathy, maybe we can create an environment that dampens the hatred and misunderstanding that led to 9/11. And maybe we can keep the next generation from having to repeat that horrible question: Why?

Press coverage of Penn's 10th Anniversary of 9/11 Campus Commemorative Vigil