Unconventional Wisdom: Citizenship and Community at Macalester

Office of the President

Macalester College
208 Weyerhaeuser Hall
62 Macalester Street
St. Paul, MN 55105-1899
651-696-6207
651-696-6500 fax

This "Household Words" column appeared in the Fall 2005 issue of Macalester Today.

By Brian Rosenberg

The following is adapted from President Rosenberg's address to the opening convocation of the academic year on Sept. 8.

Though I do not ordinarily pay much attention to bestseller lists, I did happen to read back-to-back this summer two books very popular among those not otherwise occupied with Harry Potter, each of which, coincidentally, has a rather direct connection to the Twin Cities. The World is Flat was written by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who grew up in Minneapolis and received an honorary degree from this very college in 1992; Freakonomics was co-written by Steven Levitt, who before becoming a prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago graduated in 1985 from St. Paul Academy and Summit School, which sits just a few blocks to our south. More significant than these local ties is the fact that each book seemed to me to speak in some important and interesting way to the work we do at Macalester: to the way we define our mission, shape our programs and imagine our communal identity. It is about these topics that I would like to speak briefly on this occasion, when we stand poised at the beginning not only of a new academic year, but of planning processes for new initiatives, new buildings and new fund-raising campaigns that will do much to shape the future of an institution whose past gives us reason for hope and pride.

Friedman's argument, by now quite widely known, is like many forceful and elegant arguments relatively straightforward. We have only recently, he contends, entered a new era of globalization that is "shrinking the world from a size small to a size tiny and flattening the playing field at the same time." The force driving this new form of globalization, "the thing that gives it its unique character...is the newfound power for individuals to collaborate and compete globally," and the lever enabling this shift is "not horsepower, and not hardware, but software--all sorts of new applications--in conjunction with the creation of a global fiber-optic network that has made us all next-door neighbors." Whereas, moreover, previous eras of globalization "were driven primarily by European and American individuals and businesses," this new era "is going to be more and more driven not only by individuals but also by a much more diverse--non-Western, non-white--group of individuals."1Too many within the United States, Friedman contends, and particularly too many within the worlds of politics, business and education, ignore this new reality, to our great and growing disadvantage.

I would concede the caveat voiced by many of Friedman's critics that he overstates the extent to which the world has already flattened and notes but minimizes the fact that the vast majority of individuals in places such as India and China still live in conditions dramatically worse than those commonly found in the United States or Western Europe. One does not usually sell books by under-stating provocative arguments. Nevertheless the evidence that the world is in the process of becoming a very different place than it was twenty years ago and even than it is today--a place more urban, less Caucasian and more deeply interconnected--is overwhelming. About half the world's population currently lives in cities; within about 25 years that number will reach 60 percent globally and will approach 90 percent within the United States. "Nearly all population growth over the next several decades will be in the cities of developing countries, whose population will double to nearly four billion by 2030."2 Imports and exports, which made up 5 percent of the United States economy in 1970, now total nearly 15 percent of the economy.3 Between 1980 and 2003, the percentage of world industrial patents awarded to individuals and companies in the United States fell from 60 to 52, with concomitant increases in south and east Asia, and similar trends can be noted everywhere in the worlds of science, education and technology.4

We at Macalester overlook at our peril, and at the risk of failing to serve the students we enroll, the evolving nature of the world into which our graduates will move. We face the prospect of irrelevancy and of decreasing levels of public and private support if we do so. Fortunately at this college we can point to a longstanding commitment to precisely those principles and practices that will prepare students for Friedman's flat world: internationalism, an appreciation and critical understanding of diversity, an awareness of education not merely as a private benefit but as a public good. These are not priorities to which we have been drawn as they have become popularly embraced, but ones that reach back through the presidencies of Charles Turck and James Wallace and in some sense to the founding of the college. We are also most fortunate in being situated in an urban environment that, while blessed with all sorts of comforts and riches, still provides us with an opportunity to explore the peculiar complexities and trials of urban life. Our challenge must be to embrace and not turn our back on these characteristics: to take seriously the notion that education at Macalester really should be shaped at the core--at the departmental, programmatic and individual level--by our distinctive mission and location.

This is not to say that we should abandon the teaching of Middlemarch, mathematics, or molecular biology or that we should pursue distinctiveness merely for its own sake. The core tenets of a small-college, residential liberal arts education--an emphasis on individualized instruction, on the development of critical and imaginative thinking, and on a rigorous curriculum of both breadth and depth--have not changed. It is to say that we should acknowledge the extent to which education is preparation for citizenship within local, national and global communities and that changes in those communities should be reflected in the education we provide. Thomas Jefferson's famous observation that "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be,"5 remains as true today as it was in 1816; what has changed--dramatically--are the particulars of both nation and civilization, and what must change therefore is the education upon which such constructs are grounded. We can embrace this truth timidly and half-heartedly, nibbling around the edges of our enterprise and wishing the need for change would disappear, or we can embrace it with energy and enthusiasm and create a college of compelling power and relevance. My hope is that as we develop the new Center for Global Studies and Citizenship,6 as we form and implement our new general education curriculum, as we make decisions about investments and resource allocations, we will have the courage to do the latter rather than the former. Macalester's fundamental goal over the next decade and beyond should be to become widely recognized first and foremost as a college distinguished by exceptional academic quality, but also by a pervasive sense of excitement and innovation, a keen awareness of the changing world into which we are sending our graduates, a distinctive and demonstrable commitment to the education of global leaders in areas including public service, business, law, medicine, the arts, the sciences and education, and a student experience informed and enhanced by a vital urban environment. To accomplish this we need to be prepared not to change direction, but to strengthen characteristics already present or incipient in the college: not to alter our mission, but more energetically to pursue and fulfill it.

Levitt's book, co-authored with Stephen J. Dubner, is more impish and irreverent than Friedman's and speaks less directly to our situation at Macalester. Among the questions it asks and answers are such puzzlers as "What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?"; "Why is a new car suddenly worth so much less the moment it leaves the lot?"; and "Which is more dangerous: a gun or a swimming pool?"7 All of these, while interesting, have little immediate bearing on our endeavors at the college, though I'm sure that many of us would like that question about new cars in particular answered definitively. What caught my attention were two of the fundamental ideas upon which Levitt's worldview is based, each of which is transferable in some sense to our thinking about Macalester. The first of these is that "the conventional wisdom is often wrong": the second is that "dramatic effects often have distant, even subtle, causes."8 Just as Levitt brings these ideas to bear upon topics ranging from crime to parenting to abortion, I brought them to bear upon a question about which, for obvious reasons, I think a great deal: what is and what should be the ideal nature of the Macalester community?

I do not want to minimize in any sense the importance of diversity to our community at the college: racial and religious diversity, international and ideological diversity, are a cornerstone of American higher education and fundamental to our mission. Ensuring access to first-rate post-secondary education for students from lower-income and under-represented groups is perhaps the central challenge for both public and private colleges and universities in the early decades of this century, and our success in meeting that challenge will go a long way toward determining the success of our nation in the world. Today, however, I want to speak not about diversity but about unity, about the extent to which in becoming part of the Macalester community we become part of a shared enterprise and responsibility that does or should provide us with a bond that transcends all of the ways in which we are different from one another. K. Anthony Appiah has written that in the coming years "the identities we need will have to recognize both the centrality of difference within human identity and the fundamental moral unity of humanity."9 I would argue by extension that the Macalester we need to form must embrace both the discrete and distinctive cultures from which we come and the particular culture we form and share once we arrive on this campus.

Conventional wisdom, a term coined by economist John Kenneth Galbraith to describe wisdom that is "simple, convenient, comfortable and comforting--though not necessarily true,"10 would hold that within the Macalester community unity is in relatively short supply. We contain within our 53 acres students from 50 states and more than 75 countries; we offer to our 1,800 degree-seekers three dozen different majors and more than 100 different campus organizations serving a variety of constituencies and interest groups. We spend an extraordinary amount of time identifying, understanding and celebrating our differences. Beyond this, we have a reputation for being somewhat more fractious, individualistic and self-critical than are many of our peers: proponents of such a view might point to such evidence as our historically low alumni giving rate, our high student protest rate and our low faculty attendance rate at monthly meetings to support their position.

I see things somewhat differently. I believe that the sense of shared purpose among students and alumni of this college is powerful and that the desire to affirm the importance of community is palpable. We have surveyed our alumni of the past 60 years and discovered that Macalester graduates from the 1940s to today share to a remarkable extent their support for the college's distinctive identity and often have more in common with one another than they do with others of their own generation. They embrace our commitment to internationalism, multiculturalism and service. We have reached out to our alumni for support and service and have been met with a positive response that has, among other things, driven the alumni giving rate up from about 35 percent to nearly 45 percent in only a few years, a rate of growth rarely seen in college philanthropy, and the number of volunteers up ten-fold. We have begun to schedule events such as Founders Day for the campus and alumni community and have been met with attendance far higher and more enthusiastic than anticipated. And we have spoken with students and discovered that, to them, it is deeply important to understand the history, culture and longstanding purpose of this place to which they for a time belong. We should expect from them no different and no less, and we need to figure out ways to respond more effectively to their desire. We need to recognize that cynicism about the importance of community is something we can ill afford and that reinforcing those things that bind us together is as important as celebrating those ways in which we are individually distinctive.

And why is this strengthening of our college community so important? To answer that question I allude again to Steven Levitt's second idea, that "dramatic effects often have distant, even subtle causes." I truly believe that we cannot approach the work of educating global citizens without simultaneously addressing the work of building local community. We cannot teach citizenship without, at the start, modeling within our own community the nature of responsible engagement, support, debate, participation and leadership. How can we expect our students to become alumni who engage constructively with local, national and international issues if we do not encourage them while at Macalester to exercise thoughtful stewardship over the community they here inherit and inhabit? There is I believe a direct connection between local stewardship and global citizenship; by strengthening the sense of the former, we improve the preparation of our students for the latter. By building community at Macalester, we increase the likelihood that our graduates will build communities throughout their lives.

Near the end of his book, Thomas Friedman paraphrases one of his sources, a Cuban-born computer scientist named Irving Wladawsky-Berger, who contends that "we need to think more seriously than ever about how we encourage people to focus on productive outcomes that advance and unite civilization--peaceful imaginations that seek to 'minimize alienation and celebrate interdependence rather than self-sufficiency, inclusion rather than exclusion,' openness, opportunity and hope rather than limits, suspicion and grievance."11 Nearly every day the news from around the country and around the world reminds us of the urgency, even the desperate urgency, of this need. Through building our own community at Macalester, through teaching and inspiring citizenship beyond Macalester, the creation of such imaginations is our work, and we should do it with great pride, great effort and a fierce determination to succeed.