Before he became president of Luzerne County Community College, the late Tom Moran was a newspaper guy, at one time managing editor of the Sunday Independent. He had a stock answer for anyone who asked, “Why do newspapers only print bad news?”
“Because,” he’d say, “there’s no point in announcing 2,569 houses in Pittston did NOT burn down last night.”
He made a good point, I always thought. Until I began reading the new book “Humankind,” by Rutger Bregman. According to Bregman, our obsession with “the news,” which is almost always bad news, has not been good for us as people. It’s not only made us cynics, it’s also made us generally distrustful of most everyone. We tend to take the bad stuff we see on the news and believe everyone has the potential to be bad. This can ruin our day, if not our life, and yet we can’t help ourselves. We need our daily, and in this age of smart phones, sometimes hourly news fix. Bregman likens this to poor eating habits, and then, quoting a Swiss novelist, adds, “News is to the mind what sugar is to the body.” Meaning, just like eating raw broccoli instead of a jelly donut, a headline proclaiming all the houses did not burn down might not excite us, but it’s better for us in the long run.
The premise of Bregman’s book is that the prevailing belief that mankind by nature is governed primarily by self-interest, and if left unchecked, prone to evil deeds, a belief that has formed the basis of everything from laws to religions, is wrong. Bregman argues, and with real-life examples, that humans are “hardwired for kindness, geared toward cooperation rather than competition, and are more inclined to trust rather than distrust one another.”
At our core, he says, humans are good, decent, loving and caring creatures.
I immediately bought a second copy of this book and sent it to my son in Los Angeles with this note: “As a father of a brand new baby, you have to hope this guy is right.”
Actually, we all have to hope this guy is right.
I know I do. I need to believe in the goodness of humans. And I can provide an example of my own to help make Rutger Bregman’s case.
For 30 years, the door of my office at the community college has stood wide open. I could be teaching a class in another part of the building, or attending a meeting all the way across campus, and still my office is open.
It’s open so students can have access to what’s inside: a refrigerator full of soda and a file cabinet packed with candy, cookies, chips and pretzels. Often, there are boxes of donuts or cupcakes. All of this is free for the taking.
I began providing these things when I became aware of the number of students who show up on campus without a cent in their pockets. In my classes, I developed this routine that has become somewhat of my trademark. If a student says something particularly brilliant or clever, I give them a quarter. At the end of one semester, a student told me that one day he wound up being awarded five quarters, and it meant he could take the bus home instead of walking the eight miles. So, yes, the sodas and goodies are free.
My office is filled with many other things as well. Books and magazines, pens and pencils, all sorts of trinkets, a stapler and tape dispenser, my sport coat on a hanger, a computer, and even my car keys. And throughout all of these years, nothing has ever gone missing. The students help themselves to a drink and a snack and nothing else.
Sometimes a fellow professor might stop in for a soda. I know when this happens because on such occasions I find a dollar on top of the fridge. I leave it lying there. At times there may be three or four dollar bills or more. I don’t touch them. And neither does anyone else. Sitting nearby is a little St. Louis Cardinals batting helmet that once contained a hot fudge sundae from Dairy Queen. I keep it filled with quarters. They go untouched too.
The thing is, if someone were to grab a dollar or two or a few quarters, or even all the dollars and all the quarters, I wouldn’t mind. I’d chalk it up to bus fare. And actually feel good about it.
What this all comes down to, I believe, is that if you treat people as though they are trustworthy, they become trustworthy.
These wonderful, decent, respectful, students may not make the news, but they certainly make me better able to handle the news.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.