This Op-ed ran in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on Friday, April 5, 2002
Friday, April 5, 2002 -- Within the past month, two national newspaper columnists have expressed surprise that Mount Holyoke College has among its varied student groups one that encourages women to consider handgun ownership as a means of self-defense. Mary McGrory of The Washington Post clearly thought it newsworthy that our "pretty college that is thought to be a stronghold of Massachusetts liberal sentiment" would have such a group. And, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times deemed it "bizarre" that any student on our campus would express support for such a conservative cause. But, it is in fact the nation's liberal arts colleges that are the very best place for controversial issues such as this one to be discussed.
The issue of private gun ownership is one that elicits strong emotions from advocates and opponents of gun control alike. Whether, and how, gun ownership should be regulated is a hotly debated subject. Yet the opportunity to engage in constructive dialogue about this, or other controversial issues, is declining in our increasingly fragmented communities. Symptomatic of this decline is the fact that a decreasing number of Americans vote, volunteer, organize, join community or social groups, or run for public office. A crucial question for the 21st century is what kind of mechanisms we will have available to address deeply polarizing issues such as gun ownership, abortion rights, affirmative action, the global reach of corporations and the protection of the environment.
Liberal arts colleges have a critical role to play in encouraging the formation of communities of discourse where pressing social, economic, and ethical issues are the subjects of meaningful deliberative dialogue and collective action. The hallmark of a liberal arts education is the ability to engage diverse perspectives and think critically about them - developing one's capacity to analyze multiple sources of data, draw one's own conclusions, and articulate one's own reasoned responses. Certainly allowing the freedom of expression of diverse perspectives is a critical component of this educational process. But that is not enough. We must also consider how we create learning opportunities that engage students in the consideration of complex questions, that encourage a balance between self-interest and the common good, and that foster a recognition of a shared global future, or as Carol Geary Schneider and Lee Knefelkamp have said, "a world lived in common with others."
This week, I and other leaders at Mount Holyoke College are gathering with our counterparts from two dozen other leading liberal arts colleges to consider how we can best encourage the development of the social conscience, clear vision, and broad perspective essential to make wise choices in a complex and troubled world. This is an issue that touches on the very heart of liberal arts education. Daily we experience the aftermath of smart, highly-educated people who have made poor choices - the Enron debacle is perhaps the most recent example. Prestigious liberal arts colleges educate many of the best and the brightest students from around the globe. We have the privilege and responsibility to strive to graduate individuals who possess integrity, embrace pluralism, are committed to social justice and are ready to answer the call to responsible and active citizenship.
Creating communities of discourse, and fostering deliberative dialogue on important social issues of our day is an important component of helping our students to acquire the wisdom they will need to face the social, political and economic challenges of the 21st century. We may not always agree with the perspectives they bring to the conversation, but we welcome the dialogue as an essential part of the learning process.
Beverly Daniel Tatum is acting president of Mount Holyoke College. She lives in Florence.