GROTON, MA — The past eight years have borne a variety of distinguished professionals to the Lawrence Academy campus.
Established in 2010, the J. William Mees Visiting Scholar Program has enabled the community to learn from and engage with best-selling author Andre Debus III; pop-folk singer-songwriter Dar Williams; mathematicians Adam Boucher and Tim Fukawa-Connelly; science professor Dr. Peter Groffman; Cold War specialist Francis Gary Powers; and award-winning playwright and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“Education is not just for school, and visiting scholars show that ideas and subjects have their highest meaning when they are applied in the greater world,” said Headmaster Dan Scheibe.
“They constantly elevate the work of education beyond the merely academic, and in this sense, they advance the highest goals of our Academy: to inspire action for the greater good. Beyond that, our scholars have been fascinating, stimulating people, and we take great joy and fun in spending a few days in their presence.”
Irshad in person…
Which brings us to LA’s 2018 visiting scholar. An author, educator, and founder of the Moral Courage Project, Irshad Manji embodies what it means to, in the words of Mr. Scheibe, “enact, activate, and actualize”.
Shortly after 9/11, Ms. Manji wrote her New York Times bestseller The Trouble With Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith, a book that took her around the world and first introduced her to the concept of moral courage.
After the book was published, she recalled, “the backlash that I received made a number of people approach me to say, had I ever heard of this leadership tradition known as moral courage? And at the time, I actually hadn’t.”
Defined as “doing the right thing in the face of your fears”, moral courage constitutes the kind of leadership exemplified by Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and the “many others whose names we will never know” who were part of those movements, said Ms. Manji.
Doing the Right Thing
The movements generated by such leaders have spanned continents, and their messages are universal. As Manji learned more about the meaning of moral courage, “I actually got quite excited, because it was an inclusive tradition. It had nothing to do with Islam; it had everything to do with any community that needs accountability from within.”
So began the Moral Courage Project, a multimedia undertaking primarily producing videos of young people “who are speaking truth to power for the greater good”. The team also speaks at schools and offers a number of resources to individuals who are interested in becoming leaders.
“But leaders who have integrity,” Irshad emphasized. “Not leaders who are after material success. Not that I’m against that—just that our focus is on having peace within yourself and doing better for whatever community you identify with.”
It’s Not Easy
None of this work is meant to be easy; in order for real change to occur, you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and this starts with learning how to sit with one’s self first.
“Every one of us has an ego,” said Irshad. “And that ego tends to make people very hard in their identity, so that if anything feels like it’s threatening my identity, then instead of dealing with myself and why I’m feeling this way, we tend to lash out at other people.”
Self-awareness and moral courage go hand-in-hand, but a sense of “world awareness” is also important, which Ms. Manji defines as “awareness of the world around you and what you think, so I can actually see you as a human being and not as a potential threat to who I am.”
Skills to be Learned
“The long and the short of it is that these are skills, and as skills, they can be learned,” said Manji.
“If you recognize that no matter how many people say to you, ‘how dare you’, or ‘who the hell do you think you are’, or ‘you’ve got to wait’ before you can say or do something; if you understand that you are first and foremost a human being, just like they are, there’s no need to wait to begin to experiment with your voice.”
With enough time, attention, patience, and practice, “an essential part of a good life, a well-examined life, and a meaningful life” begins to emerge, and with it, the formation of “global citizens—‘gutsy’ global citizens.”