MAGDZIK: The debts we carry

Making Magic

Thanksgiving is a fantastic holiday. My uncle makes a mean turkey, and it’s great to unwind by tossing around a football, then retreating inside to eat pie and watch the Patriots do it better. Seriously, three touchdowns in a minute? Good grief. Great television.

But much more important than food or football is the opportunity Thanksgiving gives us for self-reflection. We rarely truly consider the things, people and events in our lives that deserve appreciation. What should we be grateful for?

Everyone has his own answers, but we share at least one in common. As I wind down my penultimate semester in this wonderful place, I realize more and more how unbelievably lucky I am — almost all of us are — to have studied at Yale. That

And so, I am thankful that I always had adequate nutrition growing up. I never had to pray there wouldn’t be a snow day so school would stay open, because I relied on the free or reduced-price lunch program to eat.

I am thankful that I always felt safe in the school hallways; I never had a friend or relative get shot or stabbed.

I am thankful that over the summers I could go to summer camp — not top of the line, just whatever my town’s parks-and-rec crew was orchestrating. But television was never my babysitter.

I am thankful that my parents read to me extensively, that I never had to go to prison to see my father, that I was never neglected by a mother addicted to drugs.

In short, I am thankful that my educational path was cleared for me in a million little ways that I never fully appreciated at the time, because I never had to confront or grapple with destitution, racism or even bad teachers, for the most part.

Many of you too, probably had these advantages as well. To a large degree, they made you who you are. Cognitive research demonstrates that early learning matters — that the foundations built in our formative years are highly determinative of our future educational outcomes. When we were kids, it was our parents, our teachers, our communities — the very society around us, in fact — that made us capable of the academic achievement we enjoy today. It was not anything we ever did, and so we should be thankful.

But being thankful doesn’t simply mean mumbling to yourself before eating turkey around the table once a year. A critical part of being thankful is paying it forward, acknowledging the good deeds that were done to you by doing likewise unto others. President Levin’s last baccalaureate address, which should be required reading for any Yalie, says it well: “Take inspiration … from your own experiences here at Yale, and make your course, and the course of those without the privileges accorded to you, onward and upward.”

This argument will be repulsive to the types of people who distorted and rejected President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” claim during the campaign. Individualists would like us to believe that each man is responsible for his own lot in life, that by dint of hard work and persistent effort anyone can reach his goals. Unfortunately, this is a naïve ideal, disproven by scientific research on child development. We need to face the reality that we are condemning kids to poor educational outcomes, which lead to demonstrably unhappier lives, based on the arbitrary circumstances of their birth.

To fix that, we need well-informed executives, legislators, judges, public policy experts and others making good decisions to level unfair playing fields. We need young and enthusiastic students to volunteer in public schools and housing agencies, to work with nonprofits and in think tanks.

Thankfulness demands we set aside concerns about our private pursuits of health, wealth and happiness to assist those less fortunate, less blessed by the capricious hand of fate than we were. In the oft-quoted words of the Gospel of Luke: “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.”

This winter break after finals, take some time off from catching up on your favorite TV shows to show just how thankful you really are.

 

Michael Magdzik is a senior in Berkeley College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at michael.magdzik@yale.edu .

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