March 2012


Steve WoolpertWe are in the throes of not one but two recessions: not just an economic recession but also a "civic recession." As the new Presidential election season begins, many are worried that our democracy is suffering from excessive self-interest, growing intolerance and a decreasing sense of responsibility to one another. The evidence includes corporate malfeasance, fear-mongering by media pundits, bitter partisanship among government leaders and a disaffected electorate. We risk becoming a society whose members have little sense of common purpose.

A liberal arts education helps remedy these problems by building a "civic culture." Civic culture is the glue that holds people together despite economic nosedives, external threats and divisive political conflicts. Its three key ingredients are social trust (a belief in the reliability of others), political efficacy (the capacity to engage in public life) and democratic tolerance (extending respect to those whose views differ from one's own). Each of these attributes is strengthened by the School of Liberal Arts' core values: freedom of inquiry, the willingness to take seriously the ideas of others, collaborative examination of perennial issues and a commitment to civil, rational discourse.

In fidelity to the Catholic intellectual tradition, the School of Liberal Arts fosters open-mindedness, community engagement and pursuit of the common good. Our teachers give students a fuller understanding of the world and their place in it. They encourage rational exploration of issues, careful examination of one's preconceptions and consideration of multiple perspectives. They use high-impact teaching methods — such as collaborative learning, community-based learning, experiential activities and problem-based learning — that foster democratic citizenship. The School of Liberal Arts cultivates the creative abilities and cultural literacy that are critical to developing fully engaged citizens in the global society.

However, a liberal arts education not only builds mutual respect, commitment to the common good and freedom of inquiry — it also requires them. In the absence of a civic culture, the liberal arts cannot find fertile soil. Without it, students may see openness to alternative perspectives as a weakness, not a habit to be cultivated. Reflecting on his experience as vice chancellor at Bethlehem University from 1993 to 1997, our President Brother Ronald says in his blog:

Here in the States we expect that an atmosphere of calm and reflection will be maintained on our campuses. None of these expectations was achievable at Bethlehem. The classroom atmosphere was often tense. The internal competition between the factions was the single most disrupting and threatening danger to the life of the university. A celebration by a faction would begin with a cancellation of classes accompanied by a loud parade through the academic buildings, with threats to students and teachers who refused to cooperate. If the students knew that an event was about to happen, or if they had just returned to classes from a closure, they were jumpy and sensitive to the smallest sound out of the ordinary.

To function in today's culturally diverse, globally interdependent and technologically sophisticated world, citizens need to reason critically and work collaboratively. Technical skills may become obsolete over time, but the civic values generated by a liberal arts education will not. While hardly a panacea for our political ills, now more than ever the liberal arts are important, not only for today's students, but also for our democracy. I invite you, as alumni of the School of Liberal Arts, to support our efforts to promote good judgment in a world of uncertainty, cross-cultural understanding in a world of diversity and integrative thinking in a world of complexity.

Steve Woolpert
Dean of Liberal Arts

P.S. If you believe in the importance of a liberal arts education like I do, please consider supporting the School of Liberal Arts at Saint Mary's College.

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