Philip Weinstein, Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor Emeritus of English at Swarthmore College
Good morning. And thanks to Kevin Quigley and to Marlboro College for inviting me to participate in this special event: Kevin’s inauguration as President of this liberal arts college.
I have been asked to stress Marlboro’s commitment to service. A straightforward topic, but one that may sound heavy. Something in us may start to nod off at the sound of Service. Like: here we go, the Boy Scout spiel—familiar in advance. Is this because we tend to think of service as selfless? As in: she or he selflessly served their community—for years, for a lifetime. Good soldiers who dutifully gave to others.
But going to a liberal arts college like Marlboro is surely about deepening young people’s selfhood. It’s about graduating as a more thoughtful and informed person than when you arrived. How is a deeper selfhood compatible with service to others? I believe that those with a more vibrant selfhood—attuned to a wider range of calls and possibilities, are most likely to lead lives of great service.
They will do so because effective service requires an interdependence between individuals who are intellectually and emotionally alive—and situations in the world in need not just of commitment, and even less just of money, but in need most of all of understanding. Such service enacts a precious bridging wherein those who serve grasp something of the complex worldviews of those they seek to serve. This bridging is not charity, not the rich giving to the poor. It centers on empathy and imagination, on the capacity to enter the frame of others’ minds and spirits. At heart it is mutual: for we come fully into ourselves only by connecting with others, honoring in them selfhoods kindred to our own. No selfhood stands alone.
How does a liberal arts education promote this stance? What is a liberal arts education anyway? Coming from Swarthmore—where I taught Kevin Quigley many years ago—last year I heard a colleague deliver the baccalaureate address to Swarthmore’s class of 2014. He reminded them of the graduating class of 1914. In hindsight we can see what that class was headed for: the disaster of World War I and the devastating Spanish flu that came after. But at commencement in June of 1914, what could they know about the guns of August? No less, no one here today knows what’s coming down the pike next August. It has not yet arrived. What does the unknowable heart of the future tell us about liberal arts and about service?
For starters, the four years at Marlboro do not claim to arm students in advance, enabling them to know what the future will require. A liberal arts education does not pretend to cheat the risk of time, by giving students a sneak preview of the cards not yet played. Liberal education is not about knowing what students are going to do afterwards and preparing them to do it. Is this claim scandalous? After all, most educational systems all over the world—and the great majority of them in this country too—do just that. They take each 18-year-old as a prospective X and for two, three, or four years, they teach him or her what they need to know to become a successful X.
In America, a small number of schools that we esteem most—Marlboro among them—have made a different decision. Marlboro is deliberately unclear about what it prepares its students to do. More, the education earned here is not about recuperating the hefty sum of money spent to get it. Yes, Marlboro graduates will recuperate that sum handsomely. Last year the New York Times published studies showing that a college degree is worth at least $500,000 more (in a lifetime) than a high school degree. The figure is higher now. But a liberal arts education isn't about the money it costs.
So it’s not about predicting the future, or learning a profession, or recouping what it costs. Then what is it about, and what does that have to do with service? Let me make a strange claim: one thing your education is about is learning to find the world—and yourself in it—more interesting. Learning to pay serious, note-taking attention: to yourself and to the greater world of others that you are part of. Some years ago, at a meeting with prospective Swarthmore freshmen and their anxious parents, a concerned mother asked me: if my son chooses to major in English, what good will it do him? Will it get him a good job? Will it allow him to avoid life’s greater miseries, like divorce? The job part was easy to answer. I told her our graduates do find jobs—in many different fields—and named several of them.
The hard part was the divorce. So I faced the music and said to this anxious mother: no, majoring in English will not reduce the risk of your son’s marriage ending in divorce. But his English major might make his divorce more interesting. That answer struck the mother as useless: what is interesting about a divorce? But if you think about it, a lot is interesting: his role in what worked and what didn’t, his partner’s role in what worked and what didn’t, how it might look to someone on the outside. Interesting as: bigger picture, breathing space. Interesting as: this mess I am in is not unique (literature is full of divorces). It can be learned about, can be endured, can be learned from.
A liberal arts education is not an insurance policy, it does not protect anyone from the unpredictable heartaches endemic to life itself. It is no ivory tower of privilege. Rather it is an intense 4-year period when one learns more broadly about self and world, by exploring the widest range of models for self and world. A liberal arts education deepens and broadens who you are, it helps you to recognize in others an intricate humanity that is (whatever their skin color) essentially no different from your own.
For students to learn to grasp their world and their role in it as more interesting, for them to realize their education provides no master key but rather a way of asking questions creatively, for them to grasp that others are every bit as real and complex as they are—and that their own prospering is possible only in tandem with others’ prospering—this is no formula for service. It tells no one what to do now or in the years ahead. But the service that follows from such an orientation is service the liberal arts are uniquely shaped to sponsor. It is service we foster best.