Conference Deemed a Great Beginning
Photo: Andrea Burns
Daniel Tatum, acting president of the College (far right),
shares ideas with conference attendees.
It's not every conference that ends with a beginning, but that
was the case with In Search of Wisdom: Liberal Education for
a Changing World, three days of intensive conversations about
the future of liberal education. "I think of this point in
our event as an opening," Acting President Beverly Daniel
Tatum told the leaders of two dozen of the nation's foremost liberal
arts colleges as the conference drew to a close. "We have
done some great work together and I think are really now moving
into another phase and I really do think of that as an opening."
From noon on April 4 to noon on April 6, a mix of speakers, panel
sessions, workshops, roundtable discussions, study circles, periods
of reflection, a town meeting, and opportunities for multi-institutional
planning focused creative thinking on the question of how colleges
might best inspire their students to attain, in Tatum's words,
the "balance, integrity, vision, a clear sense of collective
responsibility, and ethical leadership" needed for "wise
stewardship of the world."
Among the schools represented were Amherst, Antioch, Barnard,
Bowdoin, Brown, Bryn Mawr, Connecticut, Macalester, Morehouse,
Smith, Sarah Lawrence, Wellesley, and Williams colleges, as well
as Colgate University, Duke University, Saint Lawrence University,
the University of Michigan, the University of Puget Sound, the
University of the South, and Wesleyan University.
In her keynote address, "Pursuing Wisdom: A Countercul-tural
Journey," Elizabeth Kiss, founding director of the Kenan
Institute for Ethics at Duke University, spoke of the need to
learn to disagree in an atmosphere of mutual respect and good
humor. The willingness to discern another's point of view and
to respectfully disagree is a component of wisdom, she argued,
and an antidote to the passive tolerance of differenceswhat
columnist Ellen Goodman calls "whateverism." "Honesty
and civility make disagreement possible," she argued.
Two other elements that lead to wisdom, Kiss said, are the ability
to discern areas of agreement and disagreement at the same time,
and the need to bear in mind our common humanity. In these ways,
"the liberal arts can help us cultivate humanity, cultivate
Those common bonds were in evidence in "Honoring Wisdom
Traditions,"an interfaith service held in Abbey Chapel. Representatives
of ten faith groups on campus presented offerings, hymns, and
chants on the subject of wisdom. "There is one truth,"
chanted three Hindu students from their Scriptures, "but
the wise know it by many names."
The April 5 celebration was a reminder that "we can be both
acutely different and profoundly united," said Andrea Ayvazian,
the College's dean of religious life, "not settling for religious
diversity but striving for true pluralism, true religious pluralism."
Between the celebrations, talks, and panel discussions were a
series of study circles, roundtables, and workshops where educators
shared perspectives and ideas. Those culminated in a "Next
Steps: Town Meeting," event on the morning of April 6, where
participants put some of their best thinking to paper. By the
end of the session, their ideas filled the walls of the Morrison
and Andreola Rooms at the Willits-Hallowell Center. That information
will be compiled, digested, and published in some format, Tatum
Carol Geary Schneider '67, president of the Association of American
Colleges and Universities, told participants that educators are
turning again to the notion that the liberal arts should emphasize
"the responsibilities our students have to the society of
which they are a part." The conference's work is "very
much in the center of a national dialogue," she said, "not
so much adding new dimensions to liberal education but reclaiming
and reinvigorating some aspects of liberal education that are
part of its history, but not part of its recent history."
Mount Holyoke, she noted, is one of 400 institutions that have
signed on to "Presidents' CALL," a pledge to help educate
the publicboth within and outside of higher educationabout
the value of liberal education for all college students in the
twenty-first century, whatever their chosen field or vocation.
Citing The Tipping Point, a book by Malcolm Gladwell that
examines how social movements gain momentum, Tatum expressed her
belief that the conference had brought together the right people
around the right idea. "It seems to me that our institutions
are the right context for this message to take hold," she
said in her closing remarks. "Ultimately, what you really
need to do is concentrate your resources in the right way. I certainly
feel that energy in this room, in terms of what has been accomplished
and what can be accomplished back in our home communities."