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The Life of the Mind

An Address to the Class of 2005
by Academic Dean Clark Ross

August 22, 2001
Contact: Bill Giduz 704/894-2244 or bigiduz@davidson.edu

As the Dean of Faculty at Davidson College, I have the great pleasure of welcoming you, the members of the class of 2005 and those new students who have transferred to Davidson. Also, I extend appreciation to those who have organized today's program with its emphasis on leadership and service. The involvement this Saturday morning of so many members of our faculty and staff demonstrates our community-wide commitment to service learning, a process by which we both give and receive--frequently receiving more than we give.

For several years, our incoming students read a common text and discussed the reading in small groups with faculty and staff. We frequently chose books that highlighted the discrimination, the exploitation, the ignorance, and the arrogance that plague our world. We have viewed the injustice and humiliation of life under apartheid. We have considered the contempt, neglect, and misunderstanding of those suffering from AIDS. We have reflected on the stereotypical images, those related to gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, beauty, and success, that too frequently predominate within our own society.

This year we have changed our program somewhat. We have provided readings about the liberal arts education; hopefully, you have discussed these readings in small groups with your academic advisors. I would like to speak for a moment about the benefits of these discussions and service projects. Our desire is to demonstrate our conviction that the primary and collective purpose of Davidson College is to engage in a learning enterprise. In this process, we discuss ideas; we reevaluate our own beliefs, in light of newly gained knowledge; and we recognize the legitimate and welcome diversity of opinions that informed and sensitive people hold. In other words we prompt you to continue the intellectual growth that already distinguished you within our large and talented applicant pool.

A second benefit from this orientation to "learning at Davidson" is the recognition that each person can learn something from another, the notion that you are part of a "community of learning." An overall premise is that you as students can expand our horizons, just as we--staff and faculty-- are here to contribute to your education. We also believe strongly that through engagement in service learning, we will each be more broadly educated, better informed about the challenges in our society and better able to address those challenges. We also may learn something about perseverance, spirituality, and values from those whom we encounter in our service projects.

Now, for a moment, I would like to speak about the liberal arts experience. Perhaps, two years ago the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges commissioned a report entitled "Fundamental Challenges for Liberal Arts Colleges." The report cogently speaks to the value and distinctiveness of the liberal arts college, stating that "the strength of the liberal arts college lies not in the range of its offerings but in the depth of the understanding it induces, the general intellectual and human capacities it fosters. The residential liberal arts college, at its best, remains a unique embodiment of a certain ideal of educational excellence."

With pride and without hesitation, I can assure you that our faculty and staff truly ascribe to this ideal of educational excellence. As faculty we continually discuss and contemplate our curriculum. While it is dangerous for a Dean of Faculty to speak for the faculty as a whole, and even more dangerous to do so in their presence, I would like to summarize three points, around which some degree of consensus concerning our curriculum seems to me, at least, to exist.

First, most of us feel that our curriculum is sound in its fundamental respects. Our statement of purpose affirms "that the primary purpose of Davidson College is to assist students in developing humane instincts and disciplined and creative minds for lives of leadership and service." Our educational mission is "to teach all students to think clearly, to make relevant and valid judgments, to discriminate among values, and to communicate freely with others in the realm of ideas." Our academic requirements and our academic opportunities seem inherently consistent with our purpose.

Second, in a world that witnesses continued discovery, rapid technological change, and an evolution, and hopefully elevation, of thought, we need to be vigilant as to appropriate refinements that will enhance our effectiveness in assisting students in developing their humane instincts and creative minds. During your stay at Davidson you will undoubtedly participate in discussions concerning the role of service learning in the curriculum, interdisciplinary majors, and the appropriate use of technology.

Third, I believe that we need to explain to students more clearly, more convincingly, and more appealingly what we do and why we do it. And so, part of my challenge is to translate a "laundry-like" list of requirements into the meaningful educational experience that it should be for you.

All students must complete our ten-course core by entry into the senior year. The core exposes you to the various liberal arts disciplines. We identify six areas: literature; fine arts; history; religion and philosophy; natural science\mathematics; and the social sciences. With the core, we introduce you to the excitement of the different academic challenges that Davidson offers. Fulfilling the core curriculum contributes to your understanding of the differences in methodology and approach that exist across disciplines. In the process, we hope you draw connections across disciplines and recognize that many issues or problems can only be fully understood when different perspectives are considered. Moreover, your venture through the core will likely influence your choice of major and other academic decisions, such as a minor or concentration.

Apart from the core, we have other academic requirements for all students: a composition or W course during the first year, a foreign language requirement, a cultural diversity requirement, and physical education requirement. The composition requirement can be satisfied with W courses offered through the Department of English, those offered through other disciplines, such as Religion, Biology, or Political Science among others, or the Humanities Program. We aim for the teaching of first-year composition to be truly a "faculty-wide" endeavor, underscoring the importance of good writing and communication skills, regardless of ultimate academic pursuit. Within the W course we also reinforce our commitment to the honor code, explaining to you the specifics of researching and writing with academic integrity.

Our foreign language requirement serves to remind you that within our world, a continuum of between only 10 and 25 percent of the population consider English as a native language, or more broadly, as the official, working language of their country. In studying another, or maybe even two, foreign languages you will learn more than another tongue; you will learn about other cultures, recognizing, in the process, the contributions of others to the human experience. Our cultural diversity requirement ensures that you consider with a degree of depth a society or culture outside the realm of Western Europe or North America.

At an appropriate time, actually by the end of your sophomore year, you must declare a major. Your engagement with a major ensures that you will consider in-depth the issues and methodology of a discipline, such as Music or Chemistry, to name but two of our 21 department-specific majors. Some will elect a self-designed major through the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies. As you contemplate a major, I have two bits of advice. First, do NOT feel bound by what you today expect will be your major. Enter into your exploration of the core courses with an open mind. And secondly, above all, chose a major because you are challenged and intrigued by the discipline. I promise that your future prospects will not be significantly limited by your choice of major. Your prospects are much more a function of your academic success and growth.

You will have other curricular options: minors, concentrations, and study abroad. Consider each carefully. A minor, typically five or six courses within a discipline, permits you to have another area of in-depth study. The concentration, of which we have 10 including Applied Mathematics, Ethnic Studies, Gender Studies, and Neuroscience, typically represents an interdisciplinary approach to an area of study. While urging you to consider the opportunity of a minor or a concentration, elect one for the right reason: a true interest in the material that you will study. Do NOT feel that you need one simply for the purpose of a resume, that is finding a job or getting into graduate school. For such purposes you need to show success in what you have done, as well as, knowledge and enthusiasm for what you have studied.

Finally, study abroad. A large majority of our students will spend some time outside of the United States, either in formally studying abroad for course credit or in pursuing an independent research project. You will grow intellectually and personally; you will appreciate better the diversity of our world; and you will prepare yourself for the myriad of challenges that await you after Davidson. We certainly appreciate that some of you will have an appropriate consideration that precludes your studying abroad. However, I hope that for no one of you the reason will be the comfort of the known or the fear of the unknown. If such a thought crosses your mind, you really do need to study outside the United States.

The benefits of your liberal arts experience, really your Davidson education, should be life-lasting. Some will express these benefits in highly pragmatic, even crass terms-- the enhanced probability of getting into medical school or of getting a job as a Wall Street investment banker. In a slightly more sophisticated manner, we can say that the liberal arts education provides you with strong analytical skills, flexibility, powers of expression-- written and oral--, and confidence. Our belief is that your study, your self-examination, your quest for wisdom and understanding of virtue-- the liberal arts experience at its best-- will spark a life-long curiosity to learn and will sustain a commitment to use your education for the gain of the wider community, and not simply for more narrow individualistic profit.

For us to succeed in this educational quest, however, you must be willing to accept significant responsibility. At Davidson you will not be passive learners of narrow technical skills which can be soon outdated, not long after your graduation. Rather you will be challenged to think, both in and out of the classroom. Some of your preconceptions will be disassembled and then put back together, sometimes, in similar and stronger form, other times in rather different ways. But this examination of yourself and your society is at the heart of your work during the next four years

Unfortunately, this assessment of a liberal arts education would not be complete without commenting on the struggle in which liberal arts colleges find themselves. This is a struggle that assumes Armageddon-like qualities for those of us who are true believers. We confront the reality that the cost of supplying a liberal arts education has sharply increased in the last two decades, currently exceeding $30,000 at the best schools. Concurrently, at this higher price, a significantly smaller proportion of high school students and their parents see the full advantage of the experience you are beginning. The report to which I previously referred states, with regret, that "Young people--or at least relatively fewer of them-- do not go to college to become fuller persons, better citizens, or more lively intellects. In postwar America, college education is justified by the additional lifetime income it will produce." As a result, today fewer than 100,000 college students of more than 14 million, not quite 1%, have the experience of a attending a selective, residential, liberal arts college. And, increasingly, those in this category are drawn from the highest income groups in our society."

In commenting that many college students are motivated primarily by higher future income, the academic report on the state of the liberal arts raises an issue that I trust you will think of today and into the future. Are the pursuit of financial gain and our rather uncritical acceptance of a narrow, conforming definition of success overwhelming our society and creating some vexing crises? Our presence here this morning does not originate with the belief that you--the incoming students are necessarily trapped in such ignorance and insensitivity. Rather it emanates from the conviction that we as a community--each one of us here present-- can benefit from reassessing our own thoughts, beliefs, and actions. For if we perpetuate patterns of narrow and selfish thought and action, we will continue to disenfranchise many within our world. So many are disadvantaged and discriminated against, both by their minority status-- gays or African-Americans, or by unjust social arrangements-- those of a lower caste in parts of South Asia, or Hispanics and women in the U.S. labor market. To the extent that we can understand the experiences of people who at least superficially differ from ourselves, we will be better able to shatter damaging stereotypes.

For this reason, Davidson College strives to become more demographically diverse. Our scorecard reveals both progress and continued challenge. While we had an all male student body for approximately 130 years, today our male-female ratio shows gender parity within the student body. International students are well represented within your ranks. We readily admit, however, that we have been less successful in attracting African-American and Latino-American students. I am so pleased that with the class of 2005 we have enhanced our racial diversity. We also, by force of fiscal reality, have not been able to achieve a greater degree of economic diversity. While maintaining our relationship to the Presbyterian church, we concurrently are open and welcoming to those of different religions. We at Davidson have come to recognize that combining individuals of diverse background and heritage can produce a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

As you know, the phrase "political correctness" is sometimes used to suggest a lack of tolerance for certain dissenting views. I trust you realize that our mission this morning is far deeper than one aimed at inculcating into you common views, while purging you of dissenting ones. My fervent hope is that you will feel free and will be encouraged to explore, within a framework of honesty and respect, different stances that you can defend with serious and cogent argumentation.

As I draw to a close, let me summarize in the form of a challenge the primary themes that I have tried to convey to you. Please reflect on them; I hope they will become life-long goals for you. I can assure you that I also need to hear and reflect continuously on them.

  • 1. Always try to do your best. But, define best in accord with your personal abilities, attributes, and ambitions. Do not judge yourself in comparison to others; it is like chasing the wind. No matter where you might ultimately fall academically within a class, you still can have the satisfaction of having "done your best" and grown academically, as well as in other ways.
  • 2. In doing your best, use your talents in ways that help you and others. With a true life of "service" the distinction or dichotomy of helping "you" versus "others" can fade in a way that leads to true personal fulfillment.
  • 3. Be open to new ideas and to new people. Experiment, take calculated risks, and be excited by what Davidson and the world have to offer you.
  • 4. Live honorably and in harmony with the community. Respecting the honor code--submitting your own work or properly citing the contributions of others, being truthful with respect to College business, and respecting the property of others are necessary. But, we should all strive for more--an honest assessment of our effort, a proper and humble perspective with respect to our achievements, and a candid appraisal of our treatment of others.

    I believe full well that you, like me, understand these words. But, I find it helpful to be reminded at a significant juncture in life-- for me the beginning of a new school year, for you the beginning of your Davidson career.

    And, finally, I congratulate you on having the wisdom and the courage to take a path that is less traveled these days. I promise you that the sage decision that you have made will be well worth your financial sacrifice. In return for these benefits, we expect you to be emissaries to the wider community, beacons showing, despite the contrary societal trends just mentioned, that liberally educated leaders and citizens are vitally important for addressing effectively and humanely the challenges of the 21st century. Be aware that these four years can go by very quickly. Remember that you yourself must be an active participant within the liberal arts education. While we will prompt you this morning, and tomorrow, and until you graduate, the ultimate success of your educational experience depends on you and your own curiosity and commitment. Thank you for your attention.

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