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Welcome, Class of 2016

In welcoming remarks to the entering Class of 2016, the College’s new provost and dean explores the essence of a liberal education.

Growing up, I sailed with my family on the Chesapeake. From April to October, we spent weekends exploring the tributaries of the Patuxent River; longer trips brought us north, close to where we are now. Spending a great deal of quality time with my parents, sister and brother on a 27-foot sailboat gave me ample opportunity to develop extended seafaring metaphors. At last, now that I am provost and dean of a college on the storied, ecologically significant and beautiful Chester River, some good may have finally come from these childhood musings. 

So on this occasion and in this place, it is impossible to let the moment pass without invoking a nautical metaphor. For what is this step you are about to take if not a step that pushes away from familiar moorings of family and home to set sail on a glorious journey? 

What is the nature of this journey? What is it that we seek when we set out to pursue a liberal education? And what is your role in this journey? What is your role in cultivating a liberally educated mind?

Defining A Liberal Education

But first, what is it, this thing we call liberal education? Contemporary political discourse, with its use of the word “liberal” to mean the opposite of “conservative,” is confusing. Clearly we are going to have to go to an older meaning of “liberal” if we are to get any headway. The older meaning of “liberal,” as having to do with freedom, is probably a better place to start.

The original intention behind a liberal arts curriculum was to provide male children of the Greek aristocracy a “complete body of knowledge appropriate for free persons.” Now keep in mind that the early champions of liberal learning, such as Socrates, Plato and Cicero, were living in highly illiberal or un-free societies. Liberal education, so different from the knowledge a slave or anyone prohibited from exercising free well would require, was bound up with elite status. Nonetheless, consider how radical this idea is—knowledge appropriate for free persons. For all the messiness involved in a social system predicated on entrenched privilege and ascribed roles, the cultural innovation of an education for the purpose of intellectual emancipation stands as a watershed moment in the development of humankind. And ultimately, what a wonderfully subversive cultural innovation as the very notion of a freed mind undermines the system of privilege that served as its origin.

Our Revolutionary Beginnings

Now fast-forward 2,000 years to Revolutionary America. Today we take it for granted that by the latter part of the eighteenth century, England no longer had a legitimate claim of sovereignty over the American colonists. But consider how radical that idea was at the time. The notion that we were no longer subject to the authority of a distant king was inspiring to some but considered foolhardy, frightening and even blasphemous to others. Even William Smith, founder of Washington College, was purportedly reluctant to make a complete break with the colonial power. But following the Revolution, once the path was set, institutions of liberal learning would play a distinctive role in developing citizen-leaders who were intellectually and morally equipped to guide a new nation without the so-called “benefit” of royal mandate, the divine right of kings, or a singular religious doctrine with the force of state power behind it. 

William Smith recognized that liberal education was the principal path to securing a widespread and enduring commitment to civil and religious liberty. Founded in 1782, Washington College was the first to be established in an independent United States. As Smith declared in An Account of Washington College:

“We must attend to the rising generation. [That’s you, by the way.] The souls of our youth must be nursed up to the love of liberty and knowledge… for liberty will not deign to dwell, but where her faire companion knowledge flourishes by her side.”

Thus, knowledge would be the necessary companion if we were to enjoy the fruits of our liberty. But to be a good companion to liberty, knowledge would have to be the fearlessly inquisitive sort—the kind that was willing and capable of challenging power and keeping our tendency to slip into the laziness of dogmatism in check. 

Educating Citizen-Leaders

Notably, Washington College’s mission “to educate responsible citizens who could lead government, start businesses, and promote peace and knowledge” was decidedly secular, and our founding documents explicitly eschewed any religious affiliation or religious litmus test for students, faculty, or administrators. Though the tenth oldest college in the nation, and though Smith himself was an ordained clergyman, Washington College was the first to pursue its course without a clear tie to any religious denomination. The point was not that religious faith and critical thought could not go hand-in-hand. The point was that no singular perspective (religious or otherwise) should have a monopoly in shaping what is learned or who should learn. An institution of higher learning imbued with this ethos would be one that cultivated minds that habitually exercised critical judgment and were ever mindful of the dangers of dogmatism. The argument was implicit, but clear: A liberally educated society was one that could effectively govern itself. Thank you King George, but we can take it from here.

So let us fast-forward again, this time a mere 230 years from 1782 to 2012. Now that we are secure in our confidence that we are capable of self-governance; now that we are certain that critical thinking ought to trump dogma of all kinds, are there any journeys of this kind left for us to pursue? Ahh, there’s that metaphor again. The journey. Is our journey to prepare minds fit for free inquiry a completed project? I’m guessing not. 

Dogma, the enemy of critical thought, comes in many forms—from cable TV news anchors to an expert’s insistence that no other perspective ever need be considered. The uncritical mind—the mind that is captured by dogma—is not free to push back against prevailing winds. Such a mind merely drifts. It may get somewhere, but it will be without purposeful intent. There may be times when the prevailing winds—for example, the dominant ideas within our discipline—take us exactly where we want to go. But it is much more often the case that we need to take the harder journey and head upwind. As any sailor knows, such a journey is never straight. We have to tack this way, then that, crisscrossing the channel to get to where we need to go. Like the captain who knows how—slowly but decisively—to head upwind, the liberally educated person is one who possesses the capacity and propensity to make progress by pushing against the prevailing winds, to interrogate knowledge, whether received from experts or through popular culture.  

The Importance of Critical Thinking

Cultivating the ability to interrogate knowledge—both the articulated premises and conclusions of an argument and the unarticulated assumptions and paradigms that serve as its foundation—takes time, mentoring and practice. Cultivating this ability is what you and your professors and your fellow students will do together. Yes, along the way you will learn facts, theories, creative techniques and tools of investigation. But if you are mindful of the possibility, you will also learn the craft of asking, “How do I know that that argument is right? What new thing might I learn, discover, or create if I looked at an idea, work of art or scientific experiment from a different vantage point? What important questions have yet to be asked and explored?”

One of the challenges we face along this journey will be discerning the difference between dogma and wisdom hard won. The liberally educated person, like the captain who masters the skills necessary to keep her crew and craft safe, learns well every lesson available that has been bestowed as a gift to the current generation. Growing up on the Bay, I learned the rules of buoy markers—red right returning and green port on entering. The rules of navigation, rules that make it possible for larger craft to safely journey up river and return to port, exemplify wisdom hard-won. A simple code of red and green markers captures in a form ready-at-hand the wisdom of countless generations. But I also remember the excitement that small day sailors and rowing dinghies offered, less reliant on the rules that had been passed down, allowing access to places the big boats just simply couldn’t go.

Free To Explore

After setting anchor for the evening, my sister and I would often take our leave of the larger vessel in a small clunky rowing dinghy. Together we would explore the edges of the inlet and the marshy patches of a creek that the larger craft could never reach. In recalling these excursions, I remember one thing most vividly. I remember feeling free. This was no doubt in part due to the physical liberation I enjoyed in these moments, away from the confines of family togetherness. (I am thinking of the liberation you might be feeling now, casting off as you did, only a few short days ago.) 

But it was more than a physical liberation. As I look back on it now, there was another kind of freedom at work. I was exploring the as yet unexplored. I had learned and used the lessons that were offered to me from my teachers: lessons about being on the water, lessons about tides, lessons about beauty. But there was now, in this moment, something unscripted about what I was discovering. There was no clear signpost, or map, or chart telling me which way would bring me to my intended destination. In these moments, it was up to me to navigate these uncharted waters and to make the discoveries I would make. Perhaps you have felt the same way if you have ever written a story that revealed some new truth, or found a solution that no one else had seen.

When this sense accompanies you in all spheres of your life; when you know that you are called upon to navigate uncharted waters; when you are confident that you are equipped with the lessons of the past to discover and to create the new; when the prospect of this discovery or creativity thrills you; this is what it feels like and what it means to be a liberally educated person. This is what it means to possess a mind fit for free inquiry.

Charting Your Future

My challenge for you is this: That you will take up William Smith’s call to pursue the kind of knowledge that is intellectually emancipating; that you will set sail on this journey with the deliberate intent of learning what you can from one another and from your professors who have committed their lives to this enterprise; that you prepare for and welcome the moment when you will enter into uncharted waters and come away with some new discovery to share with us all; that you expect and welcome the fact that much of the time you will be heading upwind, close-hauled, hiked high out on the rail, using the creative tension of wind and direction to beat your way toward your intended purpose. 

Welcome to this journey and to the Washington College community.  If you do this right, it will be one hell of a ride.