What is the true purpose of Williams College as an educational institution? In a broader sense, I am asking what the telos of pedagogy, as a universal project spanning millennia in human society, might be. Despite the apparent complexity inherent in such a question, I would argue that the vast majority of reasonable responses are not all that difficult to comprehend. Given the highly relevant and intrinsically immanent character of this inquiry, it would seem necessary to attempt to conceive of a semblance of a universally applicable response. In this light, the intuitively authentic root of education is the double-edged project of improving of humanity through the pursuit of knowledge and understanding.
The difficulty of deciphering a response as such, however, lies in its lack of interpretive stability. How one understands the meaning of improvement and, by extension, the good with regard to our human existence is at the essence of any such interpretation. To this effect, we might ask, “What is good, with regard to humanity?” Like any challenging question, its helps to begin by understanding what it is not. Thus, we can rightly argue that thoughtless destruction, needless suffering, domination and oppression are not good for humanity. Take something as well-known and pertinent as environmental destruction, and we have an illustration epitomizing the antithesis of the project of education. That this is the case is hardly argued by any serious intellectuals; rather, what is up for debate is the question of what to do about it.
Returning to the ethos of education, we can look closely to Williams’ stated “Mission and Purposes” in efforts of deepening our understanding. On its website, Williams presents the mission of the institution as seeking to provide “the finest possible liberal arts education by nurturing in students the academic and civic virtues.” The “civic virtues” are defined as including a “commitment to engage both the broad public realm and community life, and the skills to do so effectively.” This sentiment is concluded in the final paragraphs : “To serve well our students and the world, Williams embraces core values such as welcoming and supporting in the College community people from all segments of our increasingly diverse society and ensuring that College operations are environmentally sustainable.”
In effect, Williams presents itself as serving the world, presumably in efforts to make it a better place, and likewise, instilling a spirit of community and service. These “civic virtues” are not to be misconstrued as being in opposition to the academic virtues, characterized by free, creative, deep and critical thinking. On the contrary, in the spirit of a critical mode of thinking, the action or practice of an individual or institution is understood as indissolubly bound up with their respective thoughts and ideas. Thus, the motivations, intentions and actions of Williams must necessarily revolve around its stated project of “serving well our students and the world.” That this formulation positions the students before the world, such that they would appear to come before the world in terms of institutional priorities, ostensibly implies that Williams is concerned primarily with the needs of their students, and only secondarily with those of the world. When one thinks this through, however, the inherent contradiction of such a position becomes clear, insofar as all of the students are completely a part of and dependent on the world as a whole. This is to say that the issues facing the world as a whole are the issues facing the students of the College.
Absent from the colleges stated “Mission and Purposes” is the word or concept of profit, specifically, as it is commonly construed in the economic sense of the word. As such, it would seem, based on the College’s self-presentation of its own telos or purpose as an institution of higher learning, that Williams ought not to function and make decisions in a capitalistic mindset. If profit were the operational basis through which this institution functioned and organized its constituent parts, then it would inevitably be a structured much like a corporation, blind to the needs of humanity as a whole. To this effect, the functioning of the College through the narrow purposive lens of profit is antithetical to its stated ethos and intentions.
In a critical vein of thinking, the aforementioned conclusion situates the actions of Williams College in direct conflict with its stated goals and motivations. This contradiction manifests itself most comprehensively in the material, economic endowment of the College. One cannot reconcile the investment of this endowment in corporations that completely disregard the improvement of humanity with the stated mission of helping the students and the world. With a profit-based outlook, the College is presently investing in companies that function solely for the sake of profit and thereby drive the interconnected global catastrophes of climate destruction, poverty and inequality, neo-colonization and war. Investing in enterprises not simply supporting, but impelling and driving these catastrophes, is both morally outrageous and in clear opposition to the College’s stated goals. Contradictions such as these are seemingly irrational, although, on a deeper level it is evident that there is not really a contradiction in the first place. This is the case given that the College’s statements are just that. They are words without meaning, gestures made for political and rhetorical purposes in contrast to truth and authenticity. It is time for everyone at Williams College to stand up to these injustices in which we are being intimately implicated and demand that the College stop investing in anything that causes destruction and oppression. When this college ceases to support such inhumane corporations and their actions can it authentically present its mission and purposes as centered around justice, civic and academic virtue and most importantly, helping the world.
Mendy Bindell ’16 is an English major from Albany, N.Y. He lives in Hubbell House.