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Yale-NUS College Panel Presentation

Yale-NUS College, Singapore

Monday, January 9, 2016


Good evening, everyone. Thank you for joining us today. I’m delighted to be here at Yale-NUS and to be joined by my colleagues President Pericles Lewis, Assoc. Prof. of Humanities Mira Seo ’95, and Dean of International & Professional Experience Patricia Hutchinson Craig ’82.

Today I want to speak for a few minutes about three ways that residential liberal arts institutions prepare students for lives of meaning and significance.  First, and most significantly, liberal arts colleges and universities have as their primary mission the goal of teaching students to think, and to think critically.  No other type of institution so effectively prepares students to do the work necessary to sort out fact from fiction, valid arguments from specious claims. We teach students to think critically, to write and to speak persuasively, to solve problems, and to work in collaboration with others. Our students graduate with a love of learning and a sophisticated understanding of how they learn that enables them to appreciate art, music and dance and to assess arguments about the fundamental claims of scientific discovery, political propaganda, or economic models.

One Swarthmore student, Lucas Chen ’16, was so inspired by the liberal arts approach to critical thinking that he decided to create a summer program grounded in its values. The Experience Liberal Arts Colleges Summer Camp aims to provide outstanding Chinese students with an authentic liberal arts education experience and to prepare them for college education. During two 17-day summer sessions in Shanghai, high school students experience 2 seminar-style college courses, group study sessions, office hours, extracurricular activities, and college guidance. This program began as an idea developed through the SwatTank Innovation Competition. Hosted by Swarthmore’s Office of Career Services and Center for Innovation and Leadership, SwatTank gives students the opportunity to develop a rough idea, product, or social enterprise through a year-long Innovation Incubator and support from alumni, faculty and staff mentors. The program culminates in a pitch competition where finalists can win seed funding for their ideas. The success of projects like the Experience Liberal Arts Summer Camp is a testament to the passion for learning that the liberal arts model can instill in our students and speaks to the creative potential of building pathways between curricular and co-curricular work.

Secondly, our institutions prepare students for the unexpected – for life’s unanticipated disappointments, developments and opportunities. In contrast to the linearity of the vocational, technical, or arts model, liberal arts institutions offer students a less targeted, more expansive preparation. We push students beyond their comfort zones and require them to gain some familiarity with multiple ways of knowing. This approach expands the students’ intellectual horizons and makes them better in whatever vocation they might ultimately choose.

The President’s Sustainability Research Fellows at Swarthmore provide an example of this breadth of experience. This year’s program comprises 11 students who are enrolled in a year-long environmental studies course and have been matched with staff, faculty, and alumni mentors to research and design a wide range of campus sustainability initiatives. For example, one group is studying behavioral economics to reduce our energy usage and food consumption through behavior change. Another pair of students is conducting a waste assessment, which has already revealed the potential to increase our recycling from 32% to 81% of our current waste. Others are working to develop our internal carbon charge, a method of factoring the social cost of carbon into institutional decision-making. By forging interdisciplinary collaborations, conducting independent research, and developing project management skills, these students are exposed to the breadth of disciplines and skills required to advance sustainability.

The third goal of a residential liberal arts institution is to ensure that students develop into productive and responsible citizens through opportunities beyond the classroom.  Students learn from each other in their residence halls, in athletic competition, and in student activities.   In a club they may learn how to become a project manager, to lead a team, or to manage a budget.  In the residence hall they meet lifelong friends or learn to negotiate differences in personalities, values and living habits.  These co-curricular interactions often provide opportunities for personal, intellectual and ethical growth that may be as significant as the lessons they learn in the classroom.

Take for example the work of the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, founded in 2003. Through the Lang Center, faculty and students pursue research, teaching and programming with community partners in the areas of Health and Society; Urban Inequality and Incarceration; and Global Affairs. One student who has taken full advantage of Lang’s co-curricular offerings is A’Dorian Murray-Thomas, a recent graduate from the class of 2016. Last year, A’Dorian used the funding from a Lang Opportunity Scholarship to found SHE Wins, a ten-week summer program for Newark girls who have lost a parent or sibling to violence. This program empowers these girls to be agents of positive change within their communities and builds pathways to higher education.  In recognition of this work A’Dorian was named a 2016 Glamour Magazine College Woman of the Year, and this fall the White House recognized her as a Champion of Change for College Opportunity.

Another dimension of developing productive and responsible citizens arises from the commitment of leading liberal arts institutions to both recruit an increasingly diverse population of students, faculty and staff, and to cultivate more inclusive communities. At a time when our local and global communities are all too often fractured by racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and religious differences, and when people from opposing ends of the political spectrum seem increasingly unable to communicate across their differences, residential liberal arts institutions provide students with rare opportunities to work, play and live in communities with people different from themselves. 

As we have learned all too well, the real work of diversity and inclusion involves a commitment to providing everyone with opportunities to be seen, heard and respected not only despite, but rather because of their differences.  It requires an openness to enter into difficult conversations and a willingness to learn how to listen intently and patiently to the opinions and voices of those whose viewpoints may differ from our own. 

This work is not only the role of political science departments, or even of history departments, a field that is often understood to be the most humanistic of the social sciences.  Rather, the liberal arts more generally, and humanities in particular, must play a central role. The humanities in particular help us to understand the contingency of the present moment and of our own identities.  Departments of literature and culture, philosophy, classics, art history, musicology, linguistics, to name only a few, take us outside of our own epistemologies, of the times in which we live, of our cultural background, and of our identities.  Through disciplines such as these, we encounter other ways of knowing, and we learn to appreciate the value and the validity of diverse narratives.  Ideally they open us to listening to and learning from perspectives outside our own and prepare us to exercise the empathy needed to hear other opinions before asserting our own voice. As David Palumbo-Liu so eloquently observes: “More than ever, the public needs to know that in the face of brutality and crudeness, the humanities in various manifestations can put us in touch not with elitism and snobbery, but with compassion and an aspiration to be better in ourselves and toward others.”

As an undergraduate and a graduate student, I was trained in English departments, so my own work is grounded in the humanities, but my own scholarship and teaching have become increasingly interdisciplinary over the course of my career. I have found it to be exhilarating to move beyond the confines of my own perspective and disciplinary training and engage in dialogue and problem solving with others who bring different areas of expertise to bear on an issue or a text. I believe that at their best and most fruitful, these types of conversations and partnerships allow us to see beyond our own perspectives. They reveal the synergies or areas of overlap between disparate points of view, and they help bring into relief the features that define our disciplines.  It is thus little wonder that the source of so much new knowledge — in areas such as neuroscience, environmental studies, peace and conflict studies, and public health – and solutions to some of the most urgent problems that we confront as a global community – can only be found by bringing together divergent disciplines. 

Perhaps because of the rewards I have reaped personally and intellectually from my own experiences working across institutional boundaries, as an administrator I place a great deal of confidence in getting people to sit down with others with whom they don’t believe they have much in common. At Swarthmore I’ve supported a suite of initiatives designed to help students and other members of our community learn to engage with unfamiliar ideas and with those with whom they might disagree.  For example, I asked our Center for Innovation and Leadership, Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, and the Aydelotte Foundation for the Liberal Arts to develop collaborative programming.  They decided this year to organize public events, discussion groups and workshops on the topic of “Public Discourse and Democracy.”

This series provides opportunities for campus constituencies to develop together ways of engaging in intellectually sound and productive conversations about their most deeply felt ideas with those who hold differing perspectives.  The kick-off event, that took place in September, focused on the book Hearing the Other Side:  Deliberative versus Participatory Democracy by Diana C. Mutz, Professor of Political Science and Communication at Penn. Science Center 101 was packed, and the q&a was lively and spirited. The second event titled “Dialogue vs. Debate” featured an alumni panel with Desiree Peterkin Bell ’00, Davia Temin ’74, and Hansi Lo Wang ’09, three alumni who work in communications. The panelists spoke engagingly about their professional experience with creating constructive dialogue and cultivating respectful public discourse. Through programs like these, we aim to create a beloved community where we learn to face difficult issues with courage, scholarly rigor, and compassion, engaging with each other intensely, yet respecting our differences.

A liberal arts education is valuable, then, because it teaches students to think critically, prepares them to adapt to change, and empowers them to collaborate effectively at work and in diverse communities. These life skills are not easily measured by conventional metrics, such as the salary earned at the first job after graduation.  A more proper measure of a liberal arts education is how well that exposure to different ways of thinking, knowing, and experiencing the world broadens our students’ perspectives and inspires their creativity and resilience.

I encourage those of us who have benefited from or who have dedicated our lives to teaching at liberal arts institutions to tell the powerful story of this educational model. As we share our stories, others will see how a liberal arts education can transform the lives of those it touches and prepare them to solve the most persistent and complex challenges that face societies around the world.