Understanding the 'liberal' in liberal arts

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

By Brian Rosenberg

Nearly every issue of Macalester Today published during the past two years has included at least one letter or article devoted to the preponderance of liberal viewpoints at the college. Jay Cline '92 observed last fall--with a bit of facetiousness and more than a bit of good spirit--that "there's been an average of 3.7 openly conservative students and 14 closeted right-wingers on campus since 1967." Neither Cherie Riesenberg '72 nor Joe Schultz '06 would disagree, the former expressing concern about "the lack of political diversity and tolerance" on campus and the latter lamenting that "being a Republican at Macalester is a true challenge indeed." A series of letters and columns addressing this topic was published this spring in the Mac Weekly, with students alternately bemoaning and celebrating the left-wing perspectives of their classmates.

It would be disingenuous to pretend that these writers have not identified both a reality and a challenge at the college. Our surveys of incoming students confirm what even a casual exposure to campus culture would suggest: most Macalester first-years self-identify as politically and socially liberal. A recent study of college faculties conducted by political scientists at George Mason University, Smith College and the University of Toronto, moreover, found that "72 percent of those teaching at American universities and colleges are liberal and 15 percent are conservative," a disparity that reaches across colleges of virtually every sort and that increases at what the authors of the study describe as "top tier" schools.(1) No surprise that Macalester is in many respects a thoroughly liberal place.

Having said this, I believe that it is critical to establish some important and relevant distinctions: between passion and intolerance, between personal and professional responsibilities, and between the views held by individuals within our community and positions espoused by the college of which all of those individuals are a part. We do a disservice to a remarkably thoughtful and humane student body if we assume that the depth of commitment to particular causes and concerns precludes respect for others or the willingness to wrestle with complexities. I would submit that the differences in perspective between Macalester students and Macalester alumni, along with the success of our graduates in a broad range of fields and endeavors, are at least partially attributable to our ability to inculcate the virtues of listening and learning.

I also believe that our faculty are by and large adept at maintaining the distinction between their views and responsibilities as citizens and their charge as educators. No group is perfect, and no one should pretend that the maintenance of this distinction is easy, but anyone who takes the time to examine the work done by our students in political science or economics, history or literature, international or American studies, would conclude that what takes place in Macalester classrooms is not indoctrination but instruction of the most rigorous and professional kind.

The most important (and controversial) distinction of all, in my view, is between the views held and causes championed by individual Macalester students, alumni, faculty and staff and the advocacy practiced, or not practiced, by Macalester College. No small number of alumni--and a few students--complain that the actions of the college reflect a liberal bias. No small number of students--and a few alumni--complain that the actions of the college reflect an insufficient commitment to a progressive political and social agenda. While it would be overly optimistic to argue that this points to an institution in equipoise, I would contend that such complaints from both right and left are probably inevitable if the college is being responsible in fulfilling its educational mission. Bill Bowen, former president of Princeton University, current president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a passionate advocate for access and equity in education, declared in a recent speech: "The university should be the home of the critic, welcoming and respectful of every point of view; it cannot serve this critically important function if it becomes the critic itself, coming down on one side or another of controversial issues, or if its integrity is compromised when official neutrality succumbs to unofficial complicity....It is the freedom of the individual to think and to speak out that is of paramount importance, and safeguarding this freedom requires that the institution itself avoid becoming politicized." (2)

Certainly it is incumbent upon us as institutional citizens of local, national and global communities to act responsibly toward the environment, to respect human rights and human dignity, and to speak out against policies that endanger our invaluable societal function. To help us determine when and how to act on such matters, we have established a Social Responsibility Committee composed of students, faculty, staff and trustees. But on issues about which reasonable and thoughtful people disagree, we must be cautious indeed not to preempt discussion or silence dissent by declaring through our actions that some perspectives are right and others wrong. Thoughtful advocates and energetic leaders are best produced by a college that resists the sometimes powerful temptation to engage in advocacy itself, a college that openly promotes civility of discourse and the frank exchange of ideas. To me, this is the deepest meaning of the "liberal" arts: education as preparation for the challenges and responsibilities of personal, political and intellectual freedom.

(1) Howard Kurtz, "College Faculties a Most Liberal Lot, Study Finds," Washington Post, March 29, 2005.
(2) Thomas Jefferson Lecture delivered at the University of Virginia, April 6, 2004.