An op-ed piece by David Brooks in the Feb. 4 New York Times caused me to reflect on the state of mind of students nationwide and the role a liberal-arts education should play in our increasingly complex world.
Referring to the current generation of collegians as “children of polarization,” Brooks has observed a striking tendency among today’s students to avoid broad philosophical arguments, drifting instead toward centrist positions in a valiant effort to balance idealism and realism. Highly suspicious of “sweepingly idealistic political ventures,” students tend to pick and choose arguments from both sides of an issue to arrive at a decidedly pragmatic and anti-ideological
Brooks’ observation stands in striking contrast to the orientation presented by students who, just a few years ago, were arriving on our doorstep with well-developed and often extremely ideological positions. Far from embracing thoughtful challenges to their views, they believed that a college education should merely affirm the validity of their ideas. Our challenge with these students was to encourage them to acknowledge and, at the very least, respect a difference of opinion.
The new “pragmatic” students appear to be sifting through both sides of issues, but I wonder if we should be endorsing this inclination to cobble together modest, middle-of-the-road positions that are merely transactional—like an exchange of business information—and not reached after thoughtful and extensive investigation.
All too often, pragmatic—or transactional—thinkers design their stances to achieve immediate results but lack a true understanding of the depth and complexity that characterize our global society’s most nettlesome challenges.
Picking and choosing those elements of arguments that, perhaps, are safest and easiest allows one to avoid the intellectual and scientific rigor needed to develop a well-researched position that fits into a larger, comprehensive vision. Equally troubling, this transactional approach is not driven by inspiration. It lacks the intensity and passion that motivates those who adhere to a broader idealism and who are ethically and morally committed to making the world a better place—not only today but well into the future.
Brooks’ article led me to revisit a recent book by Harold T. Shapiro, former president of the University of Michigan and Princeton University. In A Larger Sense of Purpose: Higher Education and Society Shapiro asserts that the prototypical liberal-arts education serves “society as both a responsive servant and a thoughtful critic.” A liberal institution’s defining charge is to act as the enduring critic of the status quo, always attempting to be “a force for change, playing a significant role in society’s critical self-examination, helping to allow a shift in the allocation of resources and power” and, perhaps most important, to believe that the world and its inhabitants can achieve “a better set of arrangements.”
I am not certain that one can serve as an “enduring critic” while at the same time opting for the middle-of-the-road path of transactional positions. At Dickinson, we maintain that a liberal-arts education must be “useful” to society. But this usefulness—infused with a healthy dose of pragmatism—must be defined by something bigger than achieving immediate results. It is a usefulness that results in sustained and meaningful progress toward a greater good, underscored by a sense of purpose and a commitment to broader ideals.
Our immediate challenge, it seems to me, is to capitalize on our students’ willingness to evaluate both sides of an issue and to provide them with the intellectual tools they need to lead in an increasingly polarized world.
We need to encourage them to resist the urge to confront only the immediate and instill in them the intellectual curiosity and dedication to weave disparate strands of various arguments into a conceptual framework that provides sustained guidance beyond the issue at hand. The positions and courses of action that follow will, I am confident, rise above the purely transactional to reflect a passionate commitment to achieve “a better set of arrangements,” which is the hallmark of a successful liberal-arts education.