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The Ethics of Liberal Learning


One of the biggest transitions you are going through right now is the change from living in a family to living in a community.  There are some similarities between the two: there will be playfulness, a sense of belonging, loyalty, and, of course, conflicts.  But the differences between the two are very significant.

Rollins is a community of learners.  We come together in this time and space for one reason, and it is to foster your liberal education.  What this means, though, is that we are not only a community that is diverse in every way you can imagine, but that diversity is sought and welcomed very intentionally as part of our mission.

This is the way liberal learning works.  If we were a homogeneous community, composed of people who see the world the same way, critical inquiry would be impossible.  Liberal education happens when we learn to listen across differences, learn to understand them, discern common grounds and probe the meaning and rationale of the differences.

The key thing insight here, the basis of our ethic as a community of learners, is the idea that all of this can only work if we treat our differences, and each other, with respect.  This is the foundation of a campus community.

Why do I share this basic idea with you here?  Because as I reflect on some of the ways people treat one another globally, nationally, and here on our campus at times, I despair at the disrespect, at the cruelty, at the neglect to recognize the humanity of the other and treat that humanity with its proper respect.  I despair at the harsh and crude rhetoric that is in play in this presidential election, at the prejudice that is seething in popular discourse.

Notice that all forms of prejudice choose some surface feature of identity – race, ethnic or national or sexual identity, religious confession – and focus on this as a purported grounds for not deserving equal respect.  This campus is but a particular place in a larger society.  For almost all of you, whatever your backgrounds, this will be the most diverse community in which you have lived.  You will be living, eating, playing, and studying with peers who have different backgrounds and identities, different races, different nationalities, different sexual orientations, different religious beliefs, and about all of these, different conceptions and misconceptions.

Remember what I said earlier: we have sought this diversity on purpose!  It is a critical dimension of excellence as a liberal arts college.  Living in a campus community as diverse as Rollins is rich with opportunity but also challenging.  It is something of a field of practice where mistakes are more generously indulged as part of the process of learning.  As you go about your life in this community, I am urging you to aspire to always recognize the ideal of human dignity.  This will mean acting with respect and compassion. It will mean looking for these qualities in others and honoring their intrinsic dignity even when – or especially when – it is hard to see.  It will mean exercising your own dignity, your own capacity for ethical choice.  In the end, the quality of your life will be measured by this above all else.

Fiat Lux!

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