The Courage to Do the Right Thing

by Jessica Hanewinckel September 30, 2011


By Jessica Hanewinckel

The 18th century British statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke is famously credited with saying, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” In other words, it takes a certain amount of moral courage to keep the world’s evils at bay.

Volunteers, faculty members and others at San Diego State University have taken it upon themselves to raise awareness of this ethical principle of moral courage through the recently developed the Initiative for Moral Courage.

Their dream is to develop an institute at SDSU dedicated to exploring, studying and fostering moral courage among students and the larger community, says Director of Community Outreach for the Initiative Jackie Gmach. The institute would be akin to Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation Institute, she says. To start the process of someday establishing an institute, the Initiative for Moral Courage has been created through the Department of Religious Studies and the Jewish Studies Program, which received a planning grant from the Leichtag Family Foundation to get the initiative off the ground in its first year, says Rebecca Moore, chair of the Religious Studies Department.

A year ago, Gmach, Moore and Risa Levitt Kohn (who is the director of the Jewish Studies Program and, together with Moore, Initiative co-director) met to discuss the possibility of establishing the institute that would look largely at issues of Holocaust education and genocide education, framed in terms of moral courage. The initiative emerged, naturally, as an outgrowth of that department and program, and more specifically, as an outgrowth of religious issues.

“I think the interest [initially came from the question of] how many genocides and how many exterminations of people for thousands of years have been made in the name of faith, or religion,” Gmach says.

Adds Kohn, the actions of non-Jews who rescued Jews during the Holocaust were also influential.

“I think the original vision took its inspiration from an idea that was launched by Yad Vashem in the early ‘60s,” Kohn says, “and that is this concept of the righteous among the nations…in that there are individuals who, during the Holocaust, acted with moral courage and with strength of conviction to help individuals, often at great risk to their own person. This started as a very Jewish idea, but we recognized almost immediately that it’s got much wider implications.”

Since those first brainstorming sessions, the idea has grown and evolved exponentially.

“Initially I think we began with this idea of the big figures, like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., great figures who stand up to instances of injustice and abuse,” Moore says. “But then…we realized that actually people are engaged in acts of moral courage every day. It could be a child standing up for a friend against a bully in the school yard, or people in the workplace standing up to instances where things are not right. We have expanded the concept of moral courage to encompass a range of behaviors and activities that people are engaged in on a daily basis, but also in terms of the global confrontation of people against injustice.”

They’ve designed the initiative to have three parts, Moore explains: an academic, a community and a global component. They’re carrying out the academic component, initially, through a seminar on moral courage, taught for the first time this semester by Christopher Frost, associate dean of the Division of Undergraduate Studies. Frost, who studied under Elie Wiesel, started a unique model for ongoing community and collegiate thematic dialogue called The Common Experience back in 2003, which he brought to SDSU in 2007. Frost calls The Common Experience a “sustained, intentional conversation” aimed at promoting “a sense of intellectual connection across the campus and into the community.”

“Here at SDSU, when my colleagues started talking about moral courage, for me it was just a natural transition,” says Frost, whose class is open to students in the Honors Program, Religious Studies Department and graduate students enrolled in the Master of Arts, Liberal Arts and Sciences Program. “We’re trying to be very intentional and deliberate about something that’s seeping away from our social repertoire.”

But Frost’s seminar is just the first step in a larger academic goal; in two years, those involved with the initiative hope to have developed an academic minor in moral courage, as well as a certificate program, Moore says.

Representing the community component, the initiative is sponsoring the Symposium on Moral Courage, a combination of music, art and lectures taking place at SDSU, Thomas Jefferson School of Law, the University of San Diego, and California State University, San Marcos, Oct. 26-Nov. 2. This event, which is free to the community, represents an effort to “educate the public about genocide and about the religious, social-political, cultural and other elements that go into genocides [and other injustices],” Moore says. (The global component is the creation of the institute, but because it requires a multi-million-dollar commitment and an endowment, among other things, it’s still a long-range goal, Moore says.)

But the symposium is here now, and its planners have brought to San Diego a diverse mix of experts on the topic, ranging from Edwin Black, author of “War Against the Weak,” about the American eugenics movement’s relationship to the pseudoscience of the Nazis; Leora Kahn, a fellow at the Genocide Studies Center at Yale University and organizer of the photographic exhibit “The Rescuers”; Richard G. Hovannisian, professor of Armenian and near eastern history at UCLA; Rose Mapendo, a global peace activist and victim of war in Africa; Stephen Smith, director of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute; Rebecca Skloot, author of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”; and San Diego’s own Yale Strom, who is directing a Music and Resistance program. Strom is the artist in residence for SDSU’s Jewish Studies Program, which is sponsoring his performance at the symposium, Kohn says.

Of the variety of media the symposium is implementing to present moral courage, Kohn says, “we wanted to introduce the topic to the university and the community from a number of different perspectives. We have art, the photography component, lectures that touch the traditional academic component and that are community-wide, and then we have the musical component. We’re trying to make it an all-encompassing event so there’s something for everyone. There’s not just one way to come at this topic.”

Rebecca Skloot’s keynote address has been a project of Frost’s. Skloot will discuss her book about Henriettaa Lacks, a poor black woman who died of cancer in 1951, and whose cells doctors used, against the wishes of her family, to further medical science in the second half of the 20th century. Frost is teaching Skloot’s book in his seminar and will extend the “conversation” to the community with Skloot’s visit Nov. 2, exploring issues of science and bioethics.

“Henrietta Lacks died exactly 60 years ago, and we can all read this book and say, ‘Oh my gosh, what were they thinking? How could they have been operating that way as doctors in the medical profession? How could our society have still been in the thick of the Jim Crowe laws?’ … In retrospect, we seem to be able to see ethics more clearly, so the way we’re trying to frame this is to pretend it’s now 2061, and people are looking back at 2011. What things will they be asking about us where they say, ‘My gosh, what were they thinking?’”

Edwin Black will discuss similar scientific and ethical issues in his lecture about how the infamous Nazi eugenics experiments carried out by Hitler and Mengele originated in the halls of American universities, corporations and philanthropic institutions, many in California.

“The universities, medical establishments and legislatures in California and 27 other states consciously engaged in genocide against their own citizens, originating the ideas of mass sterilization, confinement in camps, and even euthanasia that were ultimately transferred into Nazi Germany through a conscious effort of scientists, politicians, philanthropists and academics in the U.S., many of them central to California,” Black says. “For instance, some 60,000 Americans were sterilized in more than 27 states during the “Nightmare Years” of eugenics. At all times, a quarter to a third to a half of those sterilizations took place in California. This was not a movement of men in white sheets burning crosses at midnight; this was a movement of California’s men in white lab coats and three-piece suits standing at high noon in the statehouse in the medical convention.”

Even the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum neglects to mention the important role the U.S. played in the Holocaust regarding eugenics, Black says. Universities like Duke, Wake Forest, Stanford and others were even involved, but today they don’t discuss it, he adds.

“In fact, [Charles] Goethe in California [who founded the Eugenics Society of Northern California and California State University, Sacramento], actually sat in on one of the eugenics courts as a judge and bragged that through the Human Betterment League’s efforts, they had influenced Nazi Germany.”

Both Skloot and Black may have found in their research that a failure to demonstrate moral courage has led to horrific injustices in the world, but it’s the hope of people like Frost, Gmach, Moore and Kohn that those who attend the symposium will feel compelled to act with moral courage in their own lives.

“Starting with the extreme cases is certainly not a bad thing, “ Frost says. “Exaggerated examples help us see things that are much more subtle because we consider them so normal,” Frost says. “We have to, on one hand, show examples that vividly illustrate certain aspects of what we mean by moral courage, but then come right back into our current community and our current issues and say, ‘Ok, what are the ways in which we can exhibit or fail to exhibit moral courage in these aspects of our lives?’”

And from early reactions, Moore says, the community understands the importance of the endeavor.

“We’ve been really pleasantly surprised and gratified to find out that people are very concerned about a number of issues in the world today and feel that the development of moral courage at all levels of society is a critical issue,” she says.


For more information, contach Gmach at or call (858) 382-3254.




The Symposium on Moral Courage

Schedule of Events


Oct. 24-Dec. 15

Library hours

SDSU Library

“The Rescuers,” a photographic exhibit on display

Wednesday, Oct. 26

7-8:15 p.m.

Rhapsody Hall, SDSU

“Music and Resistance: Yale Strom and the Hausmann Quartet”


Saturday, Oct. 29

6:30-8 p.m.

SDSU Library

VIP reception, by invitation only, for “The Rescuers” exhibit opening


Sunday, Oct. 30

Geology, Mathematics and Computer Science (GMCS) Building, Room 333, SDSU

1-2 p.m. “On the Holocaust: Edwin Black”

2:15-3:15 p.m. “On the Armenian Genocide: Dr. Richard G. Hovannisian”

3:30-4:30 p.m. “On African Genocides: Rose Mapendo”

4:30-5:15 p.m. “Reflections on the Symposium with Leora Kahn and Dr. Stephen Smith”

5:15-6 p.m. Symposium Reception


Monday, Oct. 31

11:30 a.m.-12:50 p.m.

Thomas Jefferson School of Law

“On the Armenian Genocide: Dr. Richard G. Hovannisian”


Noon-1 p.m.

University of San Diego, Joan B. Croc Center for Peace and Justice

“On African Genocides: Rose Mapendo”


3-4 p.m.

California State University, San Marcos

“On the Holocaust: Edwin Black”

Wednesday, Nov. 2

5:30-7 p.m.

Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, Balboa Park

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Rebecca Skloot”

*Schedule correct as of press time but is subject to change.


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