Outside the box, inside a bubble?

One of the more beautiful aspects of moving to another place of the world is the acquisition of new words. Words are telling not only in what they say, but also by the fact of their existence. We find words for things that matter to us. Words are windows into forms of life. And these windows offer the outsider a glimpse of the inside, while at the same time bringing light and fresh air into a room as well.

The bubble of Notre Dame

Soon after coming to the University of Notre Dame I learned the word “the bubble of Notre Dame.” This should not have surprised me; during my first visit to this wonderful University in 1998, fellow Austrian Leopold Stubenberg, who taught in Notre Dame’s philosophy department for many years, told me about Notre Dame as a self-sufficient place, with its own power station, health care unit, post office, athletic facilities, lakes, restaurants, and shops. “It is like a medieval village,” he told me. It is to Notre Dame’s credit, I thought, that there are no walls surrounding the campus. A bubble without walls, so to speak.

It is true that campus life has its own dynamics and its own resources. For a person living on campus the idea of leaving campus is, to a certain extent, optional. You can choose to eat outside, but you do not have to. You can choose to attend mass elsewhere, but you do not need to. You can choose to go to South Bend’s public library, but you may find all the books you need on campus. Being self-sufficient with its own set of resources can lead to a sense of being self-contained.

When I learned the phrase “the Notre Dame bubble,” I understood that “bubble” means “separation,” or “living in your own world.” Undergraduate students in particular may not feel the need to get to know South Bend and its citizens, the local community, and its treasures and challenges. For this very reason, Fr. Don McNeill founded the Center for Social Concerns to engage with local communities and help students connect with community partners. Community-based teaching and community-based research, promoted by the Center for Social Concerns, are invitations to break out of the bubble.

Leaving a bubble is both exciting and risky. In Michael Frayn’s dystopia A Very Private Life, the British author describes the privileged life of a family who lives in an underground home after the planet has become uninhabitable; there is no need to leave the well-protected sphere with its constant temperature and its entertainment programs. It is risky to leave this bubble, which is exactly what the protagonist, a girl named Uncumber, sets out to do. She is willing to take the risks of going outside for the sake of making “real experiences,” of having “real encounters.” Her parents, happy in their bubble, do not understand the girl.

Professionally construed bubbles

Even though Frayn describes a fictional scenario, bubbles are quite common. Graduates from the University of Notre Dame, leaving the bubble of this wonderful University, may later find themselves in different bubbles. Raymond Apthorpe introduced the term “Aidland” and described the dynamics of aid workers inhabiting their own separate world with its own time, space, habits, beliefs, and economics: “Stepping into Aidland is like stepping off one planet into another, a virtual another, not that this means that it is any the less real to those who work in or depend on or are affected by it in other ways” (Apthorpe, 2005: 1).

Adventures in Aidland is the apt title of a book, edited by David Moss, on the construction and transmission of knowledge about global poverty and its reduction through development professionals who encounter not only (or not even primarily) poverty, but especially each other. In a similar vein Sévérine Autesserre has reflected on “Peaceland,” the bubble created and inhabited by international peace builders. Based on a year of ethnographic study in Congo and making use of close to 300 in-depth interviews and hundreds of key documents, she is brutally honest about the dynamics that create a split between the international professionals and the local people. The former can claim high moral ground and have access to resources, global social capital, and specific knowledge:

“The international peace builders’ daily routines, including their security procedures and their insistence on advertising their actions as well as the way that they value external expertise over local knowledge, further widen the split between them and local people . . . The expatriates’ daily routines publicize, perpetuate, and reinforce awareness of these advantages and construct an image of foreign peace builders as superior to local people.”

Next to the putative bubbles of “Aidland” and “Peaceland,” there could be the bubble of “Human Rights Land.” Michael Ignatieff describes how the moral universe of the human rights activist and the human rights intellectual—with its emphasis on abstract categories and on “the universal human being“—differs from the concrete experiences and non-generalizing accounts of “the non-elites.” (Ignatieff, Human Rights, Global Ethics and Ordinary Virtues).

An intellectually honest discourse on human rights needs to be elaborate and refined, nuanced and well-versed in general terms and universal categories. But this discourse comes with a price tag—the costs of creating a discursive world of its own, and beyond that, a social world of its own: “a life world,” with conferences, papers, quotations, and resolutions.

The same can be said about the world of diplomats; diplomats talk to each other and live in spaces protected by international law. Ambassadors usually interact with high-level officials, elites, and other ambassadors. Jérémie Cornut, a Canadian political scientist, has described the challenges and confusions embassies dealt with during the political dynamics that ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak during the Arab spring in late January and early February of 2011 in Cairo. Diplomats who were interviewed at the time about their experience shared the difficulties of being able to “read the situation” given their social distance from “the people on the streets.” Diplomats do not physically reside in the places where most Egyptians live. A diplomat commented: “We live in [upscale neighborhoods] Zamalek and Maadi, the person of the people is our cleaning lady, our driver, our gardener, but we have no contact with the working class.” Cornut explicitly referenced the term “getting out of the bubble” by changing habits, changing clothes (“abandon the tie and the suit”), and changing the way of spending time in particular physical environments.

Many bubbles, one phenomenon: the construction of self-sufficient worlds with their own laws and levels of comfort.

Thinking outside the box

The Keough School of Global Affairs is a professional school that prepares young women and men for global service and global missions. They become humanitarian aid workers, international peace builders, human rights experts, diplomats.

We do our best to prepare our students for these roles by exposing them to many ideas and ways of thinking. This is what universities do. While perhaps creating bubbles of their own, universities usually invite members of the academic community to think outside of the box. Terms like “innovation,” “originality,” “paradigm change,” “cutting-edge research,” “ground-breaking studies” point to the rewards offered to those who break out of habitual modes of thinking and working.

There is a twofold paradox at work here: First, the paradox of the need for a protected sphere that allows for ways of thinking outside the box. Bubbles offer the safety required to challenge established practices and landscapes of thinking. The ivory tower enables not only undisturbed safety, but also a new way of looking at things. Second, the paradox of being invited into a box before being encouraged to leave it. Standard processes, mainstream thinking, accepted habits, common rules and regulations—in short, the whole process of institutionalization of thinking and research—create “boxes.” And we spend a lot of time learning and teaching how to think inside these boxes. The Romantic idea of the iconoclastic genius has its dangers and downsides which we do not want to foster in students. These two paradoxes become particularly painful when the first is translated into the second, i.e., when the ivory tower becomes a box with its own language, “schooled thinking,” and laws.

What to do, then, with the box? In the Christmas season, many of us received gifts, received boxes. And many a parent said to the child who just received (something in) a box: open the box!

These are three magic words: open the box. A wonderful and relevant term could be “permeability.” Make the box permeable, so that it can have light and wind. In the myth of the flood and the arc of Noah we find the wonderful passage once the flood subsided: “At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made” (Genesis 8:6). Noah opened the closed system of the arc and created permeability.

Permeability is the flow of people, ideas, resources between worlds; it is a sign of a vital intellect to be open to these flows, to be curious, to be willing to learn and willing to unlearn. “Open the box” is the invitation to step out of one’s intellectual (and maybe spiritual) comfort zone. Leaving a bubble, opening a box can be risky. Permeability may be costly—less protection, less predictability, less privacy.

There has to be more than curiosity as a motivation to leave the bubble and open the box. Curiosity runs after “the new” and sometimes the world outside the box is not new and exciting. Sometimes the world outside the box is dark and dull, or dark and dangerous.

More than curiosity

Again, there has to be more than curiosity as a motivation to leave the bubble and open the box. What is this “more?”

I would like to say: the thirst and hunger for “More.”

The best motivation for leaving a bubble is a deep sense that there is a thirst your bubble cannot quench, a hunger that cannot be satisfied. Being too comfortable in the bubble makes it hard to leave. Being too fond of one’s closed box makes it difficult to open it.

The Keough School’s mission of integral human development is, then, maybe not so much “the integration of everything,” but the experience of an open door, even an open wound.

Janusz Korczak, the Polish pediatrician who ran an orphanage in the Warsaw ghetto under unimaginable conditions and who was killed with the children in a concentration camp, told the children who left the orphanage to move on into the world: “We did give you one thing: a longing for a better life, a life of truth and justice.”

This longing for a better life, this hunger for truth and this thirst for justice are the gifts required to leave our bubbles and open our boxes—and to begin this new year.


Clemens Sedmak is professor of social ethics at the Keough School of Global Affairs and interim director of the Nanovic Institute for European Studies.

This article is part of a series of blog posts published by the Keough School of Global Affairs. Dignity and Development provides in-depth analysis of global challenges through the lens of integral human development.

Photo: Sofia del Valle, a graduate of the Keough School Master of Global Affairs program, traveled to Ghana in 2018 as part of her Integration Lab experience to gain a deeper understanding of cocoa farming and supply chains.



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