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Symposium Explores Seminal Issues in Liberal Arts, under Auspices of Newly Endowed Aydelotte Foundation

By Sherri Kimmel

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President Rebecca Chopp moderates the first panel of speakers. From left: Ellen Schall ’69, Sean Decatur ’90, President Chopp, Rebecca Bushnell ’74, and Philip Weiser ’90. Photos by Laurence Kesterson

Nine nationally prominent alumni/higher-education leaders gathered Feb. 22 to energetically exchange candid views on how the liberal arts can thrive and enrich individual learners and American society as a whole. About 200 alumni, Board of Managers, and community members attended the four-hour Future of the Liberal Arts symposium in the Eugene and Theresa Lang Performing Arts Center.

The program featured keynote speaker Mary Schmidt Campbell ’69, dean of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, who shared her insights about the role of the arts in a liberal arts education, and two panels—one on the future of knowledge, moderated by President Rebecca Chopp, the other on fostering a democratic society through education, moderated by Janet Dickerson H’92, former Swarthmore dean.

The symposium began on a most upbeat note as Board Chair Gil Kemp ’72 announced a $5 million commitment by James ’79 and Anahita Naficy Lovelace to endow the Frank Aydelotte Foundation for the Advancement of the Liberal Arts.

Going forward, the College will pursue its work to advance the liberal arts under the auspices of the new foundation, named for the College’s seventh president and founder of its Honors Program. The new foundation encompasses the Institute for the Liberal Arts, which sponsored the symposium.

Following Kemp’s announcement, Campbell talked about how she “brought to the Tisch School an overwhelming bias for the liberal arts.” Reflecting on her own college experience, she said, “Swarthmore has always been congenial to the arts, and the arts have always lived very easily here.”

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Mary Schmidt Campbell ’69 emphasized the importance of the arts.

Bushnell made the case for innovation in the humanities and talked about their connection to the world of work. Decatur linked the goals of liberal education to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “three dimensions of life”: discovering one’s own passion, connecting one’s sense of empathy to the community at large, and recognizing a larger spiritual dimension—the larger universe beyond oneself. Schall talked about the process by which students who arrive at college as “surveyors” become “explorers,” while Weiser remarked about collaborating—getting outside one’s self—and being willing to fail.

For the second panel discussion, centered on democracy, the four panelists were Phyllis Wang Wise ’67, chancellor of the University of Illinois–Champaign; Tori Haring-Smith ’74, president of Washington & Jefferson College; Christopher Edley Jr. ’73, former dean of the UC–Berkeley School of Law; and William Boulding ’77, dean and J.B. Fuqua Professor of Business Administration at Duke University. Wise discussed several current challenges: access for students when state funding has declined, the need to educate politicians about how education contributes to the common good, the role of new learning technologies in higher ed., and the question, “Are we training students for the workforce or educating them for life?”

Haring-Smith noted that college should be “a conversation—in the classroom and out of the classroom” and furthermore “a conversation that prepares you to participate in democracy.” Edley highlighted the need to “understand the perspective of the other person. This is something that needs to be taught. … Understanding someone else’s humanity is increasingly important in a democracy.” Boulding emphasized the importance of teaching reasoning skills, putting knowledge in the service of society, and collaborating, “especially with people who have different perspectives.”

Panelists concluded by discussing the challenges of scaling the liberal arts experience at a small, private college for larger, public institutions. Edley suggested that doing so “would be a huge contribution,” with Boulding agreeing that “scalability is important,” whereas Wise remarked, “I don’t think you can or should scale Swarthmore.” Solving the issue of scalability is a topic for another day, another symposium.

For more on the Lovelace commitment to the new Frank Aydelotte Foundation for the Advancement of the Liberal Arts, click here. To watch the symposium, click here.

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