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Leadership, Liberal Arts, and the Common Good: An Inaugural Symposium

By Laura Markowitz ’85


Christopher Edley ’73

IN THE HOURS BEFORE HER INAUGURATION CEREMONY, PRESIDENT REBECCA CHOPP joined about 300 members of the College community at a symposium that addressed two urgent questions facing America today: How should we re-imagine civil discourse? And what should the College be doing to create tomorrow’s leaders in environmental sustainability?

The first panel discussion, “Re-imagining Civil Discourse,” was moderated by Robin Wagner-Pacifici, the Gil and Frank Mustin Professor of Sociology.

Unless the words imminently incite violence, hate speech is protected under U.S. law, “no matter how obnoxious,” said Christopher Edley ’73, dean and professor of law at the University of California–Berkeley School of Law. Yet although the government may not regulate hate speech, the public doesn’t have to stand by mutely and allow it to go unchallenged. “The solution the law recommends is more speech,” Edley said. “You are free to argue your point of view. You are free to condemn hate speech.”

Edley believes the responsibility for creating civility lies in a citizen-created, popularly enforced code of discourse. “Recognize that a disposition toward truth-seeking is a civic virtue to be taught, cherished, celebrated, and demanded,” he told the audience. “Be self-conscious about building institutions that are guardians of civility”—including, he said, institutions of higher education.

“We must appreciate that none of the important issues are simple,” he said. “One of the things you learn in law is not just to be disputatious but to appreciate the best argument on the other side … to work really hard to try to discern the kernel of truth in what the other person is saying. If you do that, you’re in the position to demand they do the same for you. That’s the beginning of civility.”

William Saletan ’87, national correspondent for the online magazine Slate, agreed that “you have to engage people whose premises differ from your own so you can persuade them.” But he also pointed out that although the “inter” nature of the Internet offers possibilities for the cross-pollination of ideas, too often we end up segregating ourselves along ideological lines. “Some bloggers called it ‘epistemic closure,’” said Saletan, which means “confining yourself to a mutually reinforcing network of partisan commentators and news sources.” This happens on both the right and the left, he added.

Among Saletan’s suggestions for improving public discourse was refraining from taking an opposing view just to be against someone, because then you’re defining yourself by your enemy. He advised attendees to entertain criticism, even when it comes from the other side. And, to academia, he said, “look in the mirror. Some of the worst fomenters of ideology are professors.” To create civil discourse and counter epistemic closure, “we have to continue to be agents of our own learning,” said Saletan, “and to be involved in communities that aren’t just deliberative, but diverse.”

The Internet may fragment audiences, but it also allows them to talk back, said Andrew Perrin ’93, associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill and author of Citizen Speak: The Democratic Imagination in American Life (University of Chicago, 2006). “Political participation is a good in itself.” He said that’s true even if the information “is hopelessly irresponsible,” which he admitted occurs regularly with certain popular commentators.


Symposia were held during inauguration weekend.

Alternating between reasons for optimism and reasons for concern about civil discourse in America, Perrin cited some eyebrow-raising statistics from recent polls: 57 percent of Republican voters believe Barack Obama is a Muslim, 45 percent believe he was not born in the United States, 34 percent compare what he’s doing to what Hitler did, and 24 percent of Republicans think he might be the Antichrist. Yet voter turnout and attention to news and public affairs is up, and most Americans know people who disagree with their views. Around 80 percent endorse levels of tolerance toward ‘out’ groups such as gays, socialists, and atheists. Seventy-eight percent express tolerance of these groups, even if they don’t like them.

“My big concern in my otherwise optimistic shtick is there are fewer and fewer forums in which extreme views and bad information can be carefully disputed,” Perrin said. The average sound bite in 1968 was 42.3 seconds; in 2009, it was 5 seconds, he said.

The larger issue, according to Perrin, is that civility may not be the right value to embrace. “Incivility is a weapon of the weak, an entry point for people who don’t have a way in,” he said. “These emotions and symbols are the tools real citizens use to approach real problems,” and talk radio, television, the Internet, and the press help to mobilize people, so Perrin recommends engaging with uncivil as well as civil discourse to expand participation.

Edley offered a last thought: “[T]here are better ways and worse ways in which to conduct public affairs. These are hard problems. We need smart people to think about them.”


Robin Wagner-Pacifici, the Gil and Frank Mustin Professor of Sociology (left) moderated a discussion that included (left to right) Christopher Edley ’73, William Saletan ’87, and Andrew Perrin ’93.

MOBILIZING SMART PEOPLE TO FIND SOLUTIONS TO PRESSING ENVIRONMENTAL problems was the main theme of the second panel discussion, “Sustainable Living,” moderated by Carr Everbach, professor of engineering and co-chair of Swarthmore’s Sustainability Committee.

The panel opened with Christopher Laszlo ’80, cofounder and managing partner of Sustainable Value Partners, a consulting firm that helps Fortune 500 companies integrate sustainability and corporate social responsibility. “Critical thinking and scholarship now have to be in the service of action,” he said, arguing that Swarthmore should encourage its best and brightest to pursue careers in the business world because business “has the power, global reach, and nimbleness to tackle global problems.”

“When I was at Swarthmore in the late 1970s, there was an anti-business bias,” recalled Laszlo, “as if those who went to business school had not quite made it as compared to those who went on to more scholarly pursuits.” But today, new market forces are pushing “green” and social responsibility into business because it’s the smart thing to do. Laszlo said future leaders will need a breadth of knowledge not typical of today’s business leaders, and that Swarthmore should do more to help students find their path to business school after graduation.

Anne Kapuscinski ’76 agreed with Laszlo that future leaders in sustainability will need a broader knowledge base—as well as new skill sets—to be equipped to lead and guide the transition to environmentally sound, socially just, and economically viable alternatives. The first Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of Sustainability Science at Darthmouth College, she also founded the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Social, Economic, and Ecological Sustainability.

“Sustainability studies is an appropriate response from the education world to one of the greatest challenges of our time,” Kapuscinski said, quickly pointing out that students from all disciplines—not just the environmental sciences—are needed. “I don’t think it’s realistic to think we’ll all end up with the same mental models and epistemologies, but we have to understand each other’s differences so we can find overlaps and meeting points, and find solutions to accommodate different ways of thinking.” She said the curriculum has to include training students to lead and facilitate teams of diverse people to define and then implement solutions to sustainability challenges.


The alumni panel on sustainability included (left to right) Christopher Laszlo ’80, Anne Kapuscinski ’76, and Matthew St. Clair ’97. It was moderated by Professor of Engineering E. Carr Everbach (not pictured).

Matthew St. Clair ’97 is a good example of the kind of leader Kapuscinski described. As the first sustainability manager for the University of California’s Office of the President, he has led sustainability efforts across the 10-campus, UC system for the last six years. He suggested that Swarthmore needs to support and model sustainability to its students by making environmental values and environmental justice as much of a core Swarthmore value as social justice. He suggested that the College develop a sustainability mission and vision statements to use as a reference point in its strategic planning, consider making sustainability literacy a requirement, and create an Office of Sustainability.

“I think this generation has a key role to play,” said St. Clair. “The same thinking that got us here isn’t going to get us out of it. When we decided to send a man to the moon in 10 years, people thought it was impossible. We did it in nine. When the first person walked on the moon and cheers went up in the control room, the average age in that room was 26. It’s going to be the young generation that will make this change.”

Laura Markowitz ’85, a freelance writer based in Tucson, Ariz., also contributed “Let’s Talk About It,” which appears in this issue.

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