As I prepared to welcome Bowdoin College’s students back to campus this week, I couldn’t help pondering where we are today in the worlds of politics, of government and of the media — imperfect but essential institutions for a healthy democracy. We have evolved to a most distressing place — to a place in our society and world where intellectual engagement is too often mocked.
Facts are willfully ignored or conveniently dismissed. Data is curated or manipulated for short-term gain rather than to test or illuminate aspects of the truth. Hypocrisy runs rampant and character appears to no longer be a requirement for leadership. Instant gratification and personal aggrandizement are celebrated as virtues over the work of tackling hard problems that ultimately serve the public interest and common good.
Too often, respectful and thoughtful discourse about the tough issues and efforts to find common language for a conversation — let alone common ground for solving problems — are among the rarest of commodities.
This is decidedly a nonpartisan problem. We have evolved to this place over a long period, and there is more than enough blame to go around to all sides. Whatever one’s political and world views, we should all be alarmed. A system where skill, expertise, data, judgement, discourse, respect and character are in short supply is a system in trouble.
A liberal arts education can play an important role in correcting this problem. At Bowdoin, we work hard to create an environment where students can be intellectually fearless, where they can consider ideas and material that challenge their points of view, may run counter to deeply held beliefs, unsettles them or may make them uncomfortable. We do this to prepare our graduates to effectively tackle climate change, economic inequality, race relations and so many other issues that polarize us today.
In a liberal arts setting, intellectual fearlessness is achieved through the development and enhancement of competence, community and character.
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