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Mount Holyoke College News and Events Vista The College Street Journal Archives

April 12, 2002

Wisdom Conference Deemed a Great Beginning


Photo: Andrea Burns

Beverly 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 differences—what 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 wisdom."

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 said.

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 public—both within and outside of higher education—about 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 here … and what can be accomplished back in our home communities." n

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