A Call to Reasoned Purpose

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Last semester’s readers of the Daily Gazette may recall that I penned a column (“Oh, Henry!”) written from the perspective of a very conservative freshman guinea pig enrolled at Swarthmore. Though the results were more fruitful than not, many of my readers found the idea of a fictional position conceptually difficult, especially when it seemed so close to the author’s own beliefs. The weaknesses of the author’s own writing skills did little to ameliorate the situation. The readers subsequently felt the columnist was either pulling a fast one, trying to save himself from the piercing arguments of those who opposed his writing, or was simply too cute in his presentation. It impeded the intent of the author from being achieved.

This semester’s column, rather than following in the same vein of last semester, will instead explore specific issues of our collegiate environment that are of interest to me, and hopefully, to at least some of my readers. While I hope to provide thought-provoking material, my other obligations prevent me from promising that I will reply to posted comments. I am always willing to share a meal with any interested parties who wish to discuss further.

Higher learning ostensibly serving as the main purpose of our institution, this first column will address some issues pertinent to this school. Namely, I contend that Swarthmore has failed to give us an education.

Swarthmore has provided us with the opportunity to make our own education rather than providing us with a moral framework for understanding. In decades and centuries past, Western schooling, from which Swarthmore’s is derived, had a strongly didactic element which tipped the balance up from open-mindedness and down to established truths. This did not, incidentally, mean that the Western ancients lacked critical thinking skills: even a cursory reading of the political or philosophical works of the Greeks and Romans will reveal that critical thought was alive and kicking.

In this preset age, we have swapped the weights: we now have no established truths, and only self-defined realities. This is most evident in the humanities and least in the hard sciences. I leave the position of the social sciences for my readers to deduce. Rather than teaching how to think, what to think, and why to think it, professors have reduced themselves to mere craftsmen of the final element: the art of thinking critically. Though the much simpler (though still very involved) job. The task of teaching students how to think remains, but professors have abandoned their students, most of whom have barely left home and have not yet even reached twenty years on this earth, to somehow reinvent the metaphorical wheel of life’s meaning and explanation. How can this be considered responsible behavior on the part of our faculty, who are men and women who have attained the highest level of learning and wisdom that our current society can attain?

Some readers may suggest that didactic instruction fails because we must discover things for ourselves. While I agree with the basic sentiment that opinions learned and developed on one’s own are treasured more, we are also creatures that seek answers often beyond our own comprehension, or which require unmaintainable effort. By way of analogy, while it is possible to learn to ice skate by oneself, a good teacher will make the process both more pleasant and more effective. The studies conducted by researchers into the human world also show that while personalities may differ, our moral frameworks for understanding the world are strongly influenced by environment. Take the single example of approval of interracial marriage between blacks and whites: in 1958, approval ratings in America were at 4%; only fifty years later, the approval rating was at 77%. We would be hard pressed to claim that this change occurred as the result of each person left to making decisions on their own, but rather because of the consistent pressure exerted by activists (one could even venture to call it education) which resulted in the change of a stubbornly persistent view.

Brown University once promised me with a straight face that “every student at Brown finds his Ithaca.” Maybe it’s true — I do know one student, dissatisfied at Swarthmore, who transferred to Brown. I don’t know if he has found his Ithaca yet. At Swarthmore, however, we don’t even have that promise. So far as I can recall, I have never been given any explanation for the guiding ideas or rationale for Swarthmore. Ethical intelligence, perhaps, but that seems to be more the personal crusade of Al Bloom and less the foundation of the whole school. Once he leaves, will his ethical intelligence last longer than former dean Bob Gross’s “No matter what you say or do to me, I am still a worthwhile person!” (an interesting and controversial message in and of itself)?

That also begs the question: what is ethical intelligence, and what reason do we have to ascribe to it? What is the rationale for a humanist understanding of the world? It has been taken on faith that for some reason we ought to use our skills “for good,” where “good” means a socially left cause (though, to his credit, President Bloom would probably agree that serving a missionary to Uganda or working to abolish embryonic stem cell research could be a form of ethical intelligence).

Now, let me say that a college maintaining a socially or politically left position is no more wrong, in some sense, than a socially or politically right school. While I would say that right is right, as a left-handed person, I can sympathize with the lefty position. However, if we want to fully embrace the liberal position as a college, we should do so without hiding behind false pretenses, or behind official silence. We can be both openly liberal and still accept others. That was once the meaning of liberal, after all.

Consider this a call to reasoned purpose, to be a college which consciously matters – not because it might help our status in the world or attract students through the self-interested protection of both our sacred cows: the endowment and our official or unofficial rankings. Calling the school to be purposeful might turn some away. Instead let us be a college that trains up young men and women not to reinvent the meaning of life for each person, but to nurture them in the critical understanding of what they believe is the more moral way to lead one’s life, whether it be as an artist, an engineer, a chemist, a linguist, or whatever other major we choose.

Those of you who have read prior articles of mine may notice that I am advocating here that the college take a course which will make it more blatantly support positions that I oppose on other principles. This is true. But I did not come to this school to be manipulated by a weird, half-baked system of liberalism. I came to learn what liberalism could offer me by way of education. So far, I have been disappointed.