Veritas Forum elicits views on work

Audience members at the Veritas Forum reacts to a panelist’s joke. The forum, held on Saturday night, drew a crowd of several hundred students, faculty, and staff to listen to three Carnegie Mellon professors share their views on how and why we should work. Afterward, audience members broke into discussion groups. (credit: Courtesy of Allison Huang) Audience members at the Veritas Forum reacts to a panelist’s joke. The forum, held on Saturday night, drew a crowd of several hundred students, faculty, and staff to listen to three Carnegie Mellon professors share their views on how and why we should work. Afterward, audience members broke into discussion groups. (credit: Courtesy of Allison Huang)

Three Carnegie Mellon professors met in Rangos Hall on Saturday night to discuss “work, the universe, and everything.”

The professors — computer science professor David Kosbie, information systems and marketing professor Michael Smith, and anthropology professor Marie Norman — are a practical humanist, a Christian, and an agnostic, respectively. They met as part of the Veritas Forum, a Christian organization that hosts panels with Christians and non-Christians on college campuses. Veritas Forums have featured panelists such as author Madeleine L’Engle and atheist activist Christopher Hitchens.

The theme of Saturday’s forum was work. Kosbie, Smith, and Norman shared their personal and philosophical experiences with the subject. Each panelist delivered an eight-minute introductory speech. Then the moderator, music history professor Paul Johnston, prompted them with questions from himself and the audience about how and why we work.

The panelists’ thoughts largely focused on two questions: How do we justify our existence, and what is the balance between what we owe ourselves and what we owe the world? Though neither question was ever explicitly asked, the panelists’ answers to the questions they received revealed their views.

Kosbie defines himself as a practical humanist; he subscribes to a universal human code of ethics, independent of any religion. He is also, he said, infamous for working his students hard. According to Kosbie, his students put 50,000 man-hours into his courses last semester.

Kosbie said that he believes people can do great things with hard work, as long as they put their effort in the right places. To demonstrate, he read a list of student projects that he was consulted on in the past week. They ranged from a comprehensive calendar for all Carnegie Mellon events to a version of MapQuest that would map the insides of buildings and help paramedics find injured people quickly. These projects are the kind of work that Kosbie said he appreciates. “When I write a letter of recommendation for a straight-A student, I damn them with faint praise. I say, ‘They got As,’ ” Kosbi said. But if a student with less than perfect grades really achieved something, he stresses that they changed the world, not that they got Bs or Cs.

The audience reacted loudly to Kosbie’s jokes, in addition to the two personal stories he used to demonstrate his view on work. Kosbie told the more serious of his stories in response to an audience member’s question about what his biggest work-related regret was. Kosbie described a dog that had been hit by a car on the highway on a rainy night. The dog backed away from all of Kosbie’s attempts to help it, and the dog eventually went over a steep hill. Kosbie, who was late to a family holiday celebration, did not follow it. “I didn’t go down the hill, and to this day I’m very troubled by it,” he said. “I view myself as a certain person, and yet I can’t. Because, look, I’m a practical humanist. Practice. I didn’t put into practice my own belief.”

Smith, a devout Christian, said that he believes all humans already have God’s acceptance, and that no work we do — or not do — can change that. Smith said that people cannot make up for their sins with good works. “I owe a debt I can’t pay, and Jesus wants to pay that debt for me,” Smith said.

Since we are all accepted through the grace of God, Smith said, we do not need to look toward work to define or satisfy our identities. Smith shared the story of his first semester in graduate school, when he realized that no matter how hard he worked, there were some classes in which he still wouldn’t have been able to achieve anything better than mediocrity.

One audience member asked Smith why we should do work at all, if we are already accepted by God. Smith explained that he feels a personal sense of duty because of his understanding of what Jesus sacrificed for him. He said that work, for him, is a way of saying thank you to God for the gifts he has been given. But Smith acknowledged that such a belief would not be true for everyone: “Conceptually, you can do whatever you want,” he said.

Norman said that her views were not based on any strict philosophy, but were instead the culmination of her life experiences. She said that we, as Americans and as members of the Carnegie Mellon community, place too much emphasis on work and not enough on rest and socialization.

Norman placed particular emphasis on balancing work and leisure so as to increase one’s personal satisfaction in life. She described a blog post by palliative care specialist Bonnie Ware. Ware listed the most common regrets she heard on people’s death beds. The second most common regret was, “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

Norman said that, for their own satisfaction, people need to balance their work with their social lives and community: “You can change the world and still be home in time for the kids’ bedtime.”

After the panel, interested members of the audience met at round tables in the back of the room to discuss their own views. Each table was sponsored by a student organization, and each discussion was led by an organization member.

The forum attracted a large and diverse audience. Among the several hundred attendees were Christians, Muslims, and agnostics; students, professors, and staff; and University of Pittsburgh students. First-year mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering major Taylor Hughes, a member of the New Life Christian Fellowship who helped to run the event, said, “I’m hoping it’ll spark some conversations on campus about the bigger questions.” She said that she thinks Carnegie Mellon students often suppress discussion about broader philosophical questions, but that the popularity of the Veritas Forum may loosen them up.

University of Pittsburgh mathematics graduate student Aaron Greenspan said, “I really liked what Smith was saying. I’m not a Christian, but I really liked what he was concerned with.” However, Greenspan said he wished that the panelists had a more specific prompt for their initial eight-minute speeches. “I thought if they’d been given a prompt, it would have done them a service. It would have made their stances clearer,” Greenspan said.

Fourth-year architecture major Aaron Swartz, a member of Carnegie Mellon’s Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics, generally enjoyed the forum. However, he felt that one or two additional religious panelists might have made it more comprehensive. “I’d be curious to hear someone with a Muslim perspective, or a Hindu perspective, or another perspective. The perspective of a Christian group is so different from mine that I find it hard to understand his argument, and I think that maybe another religious perspective might have helped.”