Time to reform our mission: College’s emphasis on civic duties needs to be reconsidered

The other day, I saw a former student whom I recognized from Senior Week. At every ceremony, he could be seen on stage, accepting some plaque, award or engraved beaker. His hair was usually unkempt, his collar crinkled and his tie adorned with miniature cows. This time round, he swaggered into Tunnel City, wearing a tailored suit, power tie and polished loafers. He was visiting Williamstown on behalf of the investment bank for which he now works.

This scenario repeats itself often at Williams: a student graduates at the top of his class, writes an acclaimed thesis and has the opportunity to pursue his field of study into grad school. Said student is then wooed by Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Bain . . . (log onto the OCC Web site for a complete list).

Though the financial sector certainly has its merits, it isn’t the most “civic” of fields. I can think of many occupations that “out-civic” investment bankers and venture capitalists: activists, journalists, politicians, doctors, teachers, coaches and professors, among others. Many former Ephs, aware of what is perceived as their descent into the underground realm of the corporation, argue that they are simply making money now to contribute later. They rightly cite alums like Steve Jobs as justification for their actions.

I do not want to enter a discourse about the “civic-ness” of certain occupations. What interests me is how the paths Williams students frequently choose routinely do not correspond to the College’s mission statement. According to the Williams Web site, Williams seeks to engrain certain civic values, including the “commitment to engage both the broad public realm and community life.” If Williams measures its success based on the extent to which its alums pursue their civic duties, the College doesn’t score very high.

I do not think Williams is failing in any way, and I think it is unfair for the College to come off as anything short of extraordinary. Williams does not need to change its course; it needs to change its mission statement.

People who know a lot more about the subject than I do have long debated the duties of universities. Should Williams make students into moral people, or is it enough for Williams to simply make them into people who understand the world better? According to the College’s mission statement, Williams’s charge extends far beyond broadening its students’ scopes. The College also has a moral imperative.

It should be acknowledged that, as a liberal arts school, Williams has an effect on students much different than that of a technical school or even a place like Harvard. The tight-knit Williams community, as exemplified by close relationships between professors and students, contains a certain moral dimension: when we get to know someone really well, we are often influenced by their moral leanings.

That said, it must be remembered that, in classical antiquity, the term “liberal arts” signified the education of a free man, as opposed to that of a slave. The College should keep this in mind when it contemplates its mission statement. As an institution dedicated to freedom in learning, Williams need not preoccupy itself with imbuing its students with “civic values” that often entail a moral judgment. It is enough for Williams to widen students’ bases of knowledge.

The College’s mission statement gets this part right. It emphasizes the importance of nurturing academic virtues, including “the capacities to explore widely and deeply, think critically, reason empirically, express clearly and connect ideas creatively.” My favorite classes are always those that help me develop these abilities. I learn the most from professors who avoid moralist conceits and from essays that ask me to consider the merits of arguments on both sides of an issue before coming to a conclusion myself.

Given that much of what we read, watch and listen to at Williams has moral content, it is sometimes difficult for professors to avoid assuming moral stances. Yet, they are remarkably good at refraining from casting these judgments. Professors present contentious issues – ones that, if discussed at the dinner table, would involve a choice – as simply objects of study. The onus is on students to make their own decisions.

Since those who carry out Williams’ mission do not occupy themselves with instilling moral values in their students, neither should the College’s mission statement. Whether a student fulfills his “civic” duty will depend on what he himself decides. All the College can do is open students’ eyes to knowledge and possibility. So, Williams, please don’t feel badly that our alums make so much money.

Anouk Dey ’09 is a political science major from Toronto, Ontario.

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