As I prepared to welcome Bowdoin College’s students back to campus this week, I couldn’t help pondering where we are today in the worlds of politics, of government and of the media — imperfect but essential institutions for a healthy democracy. We have evolved to a most distressing place — to a place in our society and world where intellectual engagement is too often mocked.
Facts are willfully ignored or conveniently dismissed. Data is curated or manipulated for short-term gain rather than to test or illuminate aspects of the truth. Hypocrisy runs rampant and character appears to no longer be a requirement for leadership. Instant gratification and personal aggrandizement are celebrated as virtues over the work of tackling hard problems that ultimately serve the public interest and common good.
Too often, respectful and thoughtful discourse about the tough issues and efforts to find common language for a conversation — let alone common ground for solving problems — are among the rarest of commodities.
This is decidedly a nonpartisan problem. We have evolved to this place over a long period, and there is more than enough blame to go around to all sides. Whatever one’s political and world views, we should all be alarmed. A system where skill, expertise, data, judgement, discourse, respect and character are in short supply is a system in trouble.
A liberal arts education can play an important role in correcting this problem. At Bowdoin, we work hard to create an environment where students can be intellectually fearless, where they can consider ideas and material that challenge their points of view, may run counter to deeply held beliefs, unsettles them or may make them uncomfortable. We do this to prepare our graduates to effectively tackle climate change, economic inequality, race relations and so many other issues that polarize us today.
In a liberal arts setting, intellectual fearlessness is achieved through the development and enhancement of competence, community and character.
Competence comes through a rigorous education — one that builds and sharpens the skills of critical thinking and analysis; the ability to understand the political, social, natural, ethical, cultural and economic aspects of the world we inhabit; the ability to continue to learn; and the disposition to be intellectually nimble, to exercise judgment and to communicate effectively.
We don’t tell students what to think. We strive to teach them how to think, to give them the knowledge and skills to develop the courage to think for themselves and shape their own principles, perspectives, beliefs and solutions to problems.
We also provide students with seemingly endless ways to serve the common good — the notion that we have an obligation to something bigger than ourselves. This serves to strengthen our community and to make our students part of other communities, helping them better understand what binds each of us together.
We want our students to understand and celebrate their wonderfully diverse identities, experiences and backgrounds, while also enjoying and appreciating the deep bonds of being a part of our college community. Being part of a strong and diverse community requires an ability to talk honestly with one another about the real issues. That’s why we push our students to develop skills and an ability to engage in thoughtful and respectful ways with those who have varying perspectives, and with whom they may disagree — sometimes profoundly.
We also seek to promote character — principled lives, work and play that have integrity, an acknowledgment of the gifts we have been given and respect for others and ourselves. Liberal arts colleges are steeped in opportunities to engage intellectually and to reflect deeply across all disciplines about what character means, why it matters and how one might live it. And there are many chances over four years for students to actually engage in challenges that test and develop their character.
At this challenging moment in our society and world, it would be easy to despair. But I do not. I am optimistic because I know the power of competence, community and character. The liberal arts matter now more than ever.