There is a tradition of thought at Dartmouth that sees our primary mission as preparing students to change and improve the world. I greatly admire this tradition and respect it, but I also feel the need to challenge it.
This tradition dates back to at least the late 1940s, when Dartmouth was under the leadership of College President John Sloan Dickey. Summoned to the College from his work in international diplomacy, Dickey encouraged students to take on the task of global transformation. In this spirit, he established the mandatory Great Issues course and reminded students “the world’s troubles are your troubles.”
More recently, in a series of addresses, President Jim Yong Kim has revived this theme. Drawing on his own career in global health including important work against the AIDS and tuberculosis epidemics with Partners in Health Kim has affirmed that preparing students to tackle the world’s problems is Dartmouth’s most important mission.
Kim dwelled on this theme in his inaugural address. Pointing to threats posed to the global natural environment, the deepening chasm between rich and poor, the ravages of epidemic disease and the widespread denials of human rights and freedoms around the world, Kim stressed the centrality to Dartmouth’s work of preparing students able to address these challenges. “The historical moment in which we live demands that your generation unite, as never before, learning with action, passion with practicality,” he said.
In that same address, Kim rejected the idea that an emphasis on practical accomplishments diminishes the importance of the liberal arts or privileges engineering or economics over the arts and humanities. That view, he affirmed, rests on an artificial division between the intellectual and the practical. “There’s nothing more practical,” he insisted, “than the philosophical work of learning to be clear and coherent about our deepest values; nothing more practical than the artistic work of bringing shared values to compelling expression.”
Despite this ringing defense of the liberal arts, however, the emphasis still remains on the practical. We liberally educate ourselves in order to better transform the world.
It is this way of thinking that I want challenge, but I do so with some reservations. After all, I am an ethicist. I’ve helped direct the Ethics Institute for many years, and I agree that ultimately each of us must use our talents and our learning to better the world around us. So in that sense, I agree that addressing the world’s problems is a part of Dartmouth’s mission.
Nevertheless, I do not think that fostering global change is the first or most important part of a liberal arts education. Rather, I believe that our central goal must always be the moral, intellectual, aesthetic and spiritual development of each individual student. If that student goes on to help improve the world, wonderful. But it is that student’s growth and deepening as a person that comes first.
This alternate understanding of education has its own long tradition. Socrates and Plato adopted as the motto of their educational efforts the phrase “Know Thyself.” They believed that the unexplored life was both wasted and dangerous.
In keeping with this tradition, we at Dartmouth strive to challenge and strengthen each student’s approach to the world by answering various questions. “How do you know what you think you know?” Additionally, “What are your values, and how do you arrive at them and sustain them?” These questions resonate throughout the curriculum. They are raised in the philosophy, religion or literature classroom when students’ ethical, epistemological or aesthetic assumptions are brought into conversation with those of some of the great thinkers in human history. They arise in the laboratory, when a scientific assumption is exposed to rigorous questioning and procedures of testing. They reappear in the arts and humanities classroom when students are called on to defend their evaluations of aesthetic works on the basis of evidence, not just opinion. And they arise when students are asked to engage in self-conscious creative activity on their own.
Personal formation of this sort does not divide the humanities from social or natural sciences. This formation takes place in all the disciplines of a liberal arts college. But it is above all, personal formation, growth and maturation of the individual.
Some students will go on to become significant leaders who will change the world for the better, and that is certainly good. But some will just be better people more thoughtful, more critical of careless assumptions, more compassionate, more complete in themselves, better citizens, better friends and better parents and that must be our first goal.
The danger also exists that if we lose sight of this goal of individual growth and development, we will produce people without a well-formed personal center. In the hands of immature and thoughtless people, a commitment to changing the world and practical skills for doing so can be harmful. The historical procession of destructive leaders both here and around the world shows how real this danger is.
So yes, let’s encourage students to undertake global change. But first of all, they must use their time at Dartmouth to change and better themselves.