Three definitions

It’s important to define terms meant to illuminate and explain. Yet one can obsess over definitions.  Here’s what we’ve come up with for three key terms:

  • Social justice is any attempt to right a wrong to what benefits the majority, not necessarily an individual. Social Justice is grounded in finding the flaws embedded in human culture and correcting them so that no one group has an advantage over another.
  • Social change is a shift in our perception of self, which in turn affects our relationships with each other and our environment. Positive social change raises the moral baseline of society.
  • A social movement is a unified effort among members of society to promote awareness of social issues in hopes of creating change towards societal ideals.


What’s the right thing to do? A case study

Every day, three times a day, 2400 Middlebury students face splendid choices in three dining halls. Eggs, pancakes, fruit and yogurt for breakfast; chicken parm, pasta, burgers and a glorious salad bar for lunch; more of the same – better! – for dinner.

Each day, at least 2400 Vermonters near our campus, in Addison County and into neighboring Rutland County, have no such choice. These fellow citizens – kids, often – wake up hungry, remain hungry through much of the day, and too often go to bed hungry.  Some perspective: these Vermonters are not starving; on occasion, they eat well. But their lack of access to a consistent source of healthy food harms them, now and in the future.  Young people in such a state of poverty have more trouble learning and thriving: they are less likely to graduate from high school, to go to college, to break the cycle of poverty.

It would not be hard to change this. Imagine if Middlebury students petitioned the college administration to do the following:

  • Reduce the daily choice in each dining hall at each meal.  So at a dinner, for example, just spaghetti and (optional) meatballs; salad with tomato and cucumber only; vanilla cake; milk, juice, water, coffee, tea.  The same would go for breakfast and lunch: nutritious. perfectly good, very little choice.
  • Reduce the dining-room staff on that day, saving $1000 day.  (Those staff would lose a vacation day or the equivalent take-home pay.)
  • Using that $1000 to deliver 7200 meals – the very same meal of spaghetti for dinner and the comparable breakfasts and lunches – to social agencies and schools in our area. (And because of the reduction in choice and the lay-off of staff, this would all cost the same as a typical choice-heavy day in our dining halls.)

Feasible, right?  In fact, not a bad idea at all. Let’s call it ‘Midd Cares and Shares’ (MCS).

So, here’s the question.  Given that Middlebury students are here for 200 days per year, for how many days would you advocate that the college run MCS? 0? 200?  Somewhere in between?

In class today, you will meet in groups of three or four and come up with an answer to this question. To formulate and then justify your answer, you will be asked to weigh the perspectives of three great philosophers – Kant, Rawls, and Aristotle. How would each of them answer this question, and why? How do you know?

How does social change occur?

So we are at the stage of the course where we need to think about terms and definitions.  As we have discussed in class, four key terms for us are social change, social movements, social justice, and social entrepreneurship.

To get started, below are a elements of the model of social movements from Bill Moyer’s wonderful book Doing Democracy.

  • Social movements “are collective actions in which the populace is alerted, educated, and mobilized, over years and decades, to challenge the powerholders and the whole society to redress social problems or grievances and restore critical social values. By involving the populace directly in the political process, social movements also foster the concept of government of, by, and for the people. The power of movements is directly proportional to the forcefulness with which the grassroots exert their discontent and demand change. The central issue of social movements, therefore, is the struggle between the movement and the powerholders to win the hearts (sympathies), minds (public opinion), and active support of the great majority of the populace, which ultimately holds the power to either preserve the status quo or create change.”
    • Eight stages of social movements
    • The four roles of individuals within social movements
      • Citizen
      • Rebel
      • Change agent
      • Reformer

In our class, we will use these four roles as a link between your own reflections on identity and agency as well as our research on social entrepreneurs and their diverse approaches to effecting social change.

On becoming a better writer

Each of you surely has writing strengths. This semester is an opportunity to become a better writer, a process that will continue for the rest of your active lives. All good writers, whether a second grader or Shakespeare, aspire to be better. You should too.

What makes good writing? We’ll do our best to answer this question, knowing that the search for an answer – even answers – can yield quicksilver. We can say that the best writing is clear, analytical, and has a sense of style. The very best writing, on any topic, is a joy to read.

This is one of my favorite passages on writing (do you know it?):

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell. (William Strunk, Elements of Style)

We’ll share examples of great writing throughout the semester. These examples will include, I am sure, your writing.


Welcome to Middlebury and to our First Year Seminar. For a whole lot of reasons, Fall 2012 should unfold as an indelible three-and-a-half months. You’re finally a college student. What awaits?

Between now and December 15th or so, plan to bond with folks from all corners of the world; some are likely to be dear friends for life. Get ready to learn how to learn in a liberal-arts community. Look for opportunities to fail. (You read that right: we’ll talk!)

Over the next 100 days, you will muddle through. You will have memorable periods of elation, discouragement, depression, redemption, appreciation, overload and finally contentment.

In the weeks ahead, aspire to discover a more mature form of self-awareness and of self-reliance. Aspire to reflect, connect, analyze and engage.