Verbum Ultimum: Real Life Starts Now

Tone-deaf College communications miss the point of a liberal arts education.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 1/15/21 2:00am

Just over a week ago, the U.S. experienced a national catastrophe. The Trump-incited siege on the Capitol, which used violence in an attempt to overturn a democratic election, was a galling attack on the heart of American democracy.

In its wake, many deft comments were made. Politicians, pundits and public figures alike spoke out to condemn the violent attack. Many acknowledged the event as one that was impossible to disregard — one that required the attention and action of the public. Such sentiments, however, were noticeably absent from Dean of the College Kathryn Lively’s subsequent email to Dartmouth students, which declared that “[d]espite everything that is happening in the world, no matter what tragedies or disappointments you may have faced, the academic term starts now.” The email, arriving a day after the siege, displayed not just a tone-deaf insensitivity, but a profound disregard for the civic responsibility Dartmouth ostensibly promotes.

In her email, Lively suggested that, despite the severity and consequence of the Capitol siege, students’ time and efforts would be best served by focusing on classes. Her statements, for one, are callous, particularly as the administration faces continued scrutiny over the mental health ramifications of its restrictive COVID-19 policies. Further, the implication appears to be that Dartmouth students should actively put aside the complex, distracting world around them in favor of concentrating on their studies. It is a liberal arts education, she claims, that will — sometime in the distant future — provide a panacea to the problems of today.

The central issue with this logic is that it assumes a liberal education and engagement with the wider world must be, or even can be, mutually exclusive. The liberal arts prepare students to serve as citizens of a democratic society. To ignore the world around us is not an effective way to learn; classroom learning complements, and does not supplant, the real world. The suggestion that students shrink away into Zoom rooms at a pivotal moment in American history betrays a profound and troubling misunderstanding of what a liberal arts education means.

Five of the senators rushed to safety during the Capitol siege — Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand ’88, D-N.Y., John Hoeven ’79, R-N.D., Angus King ’66, I-Maine, Rob Portman ’78, R-Ohio and Tina Smith TU’84, D-Minn. — are Dartmouth alumni. Dartmouth students go on to positions of great responsibility, and correspondingly, civic responsibility must play a central role in Dartmouth’s liberal arts curriculum. Lively’s email calls to mind college at its worst, a simple slog through exams with a valuable degree at the end. 

This will not be a normal term. Instead of asking students to pretend that it is, the College, now more than ever, should show both compassion and a commitment to real educational values.

The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, the executive editors and the editor-in-chief.

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