What Keeps Me Up at Night? W&L Alumni Magazine: Winter 2012

WHAT KEEPS ME up at night? An alumnus asked me that last fall. The obvious answer would be the students of Graham-Lees residence hall, just 20 yards from my house.

But more than the occasional noise they create, what keeps me up is thinking about the world our students will enter, and how W&L can best prepare them.

People living in difficult times tend to think of them as extraordinarily challenging. Still, as a political scientist, I find there's something truly unsettling about today's volatility and uncertainty. There are no easy answers to the political and economic questions facing us. Yet, we expect our leaders to answer complicated questions in 30-second sound bites. That doesn't elevate the level of public discourse, and it creates the false hope that there are simple, painless solutions. The Information Age may not turn out to be the age of wisdom and reason.

In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr writes that we are beginning to look at issues differently because we focus on small bits of information rather than the whole argument. Students, especially, spend time darting around in search of information. The problem is a lack of focus, to be sure, but it's also that information is not wisdom. And it certainly is not knowledge.

So how do we educate our students to get a sense of the whole in this new and challenging environment? I do believe the four-week Spring Term is one step in the right direction, since it aims to get students to focus in depth on one topic.

Here's another thing I worry about. Fareed Zakaria, in The Post-American World, writes that "the rise of the rest [India and China] is not the decline of the West." I think he's right, and how we sort out that situation will be complicated for our students. It's not that I want them to have the answers, but I do want them to understand the questions.

So when we think about global learning at W&L,what we're trying to do is get our students to think in nuanced ways. When my classmates and I were students, whatever happened to Greece's national budget was of little consequence to us. It matters much more to our students. I want to do more than just wish them well and send them out there to manage such multifaceted issues.

Here's the third thing that keeps me up: the complexity of integrity and how we convey that to our students. It is increasingly difficult for people in today's world to recognize an ethical question, which may confront us in any setting. How are such questions different now?

As alumni know, our students, much more so than students from other institutions, leave here with a different moral vocabulary and even a moral disposition. They have thought about and debated the question of what we owe to others. They will be tested when they enter a world that presents ethical dilemmas that are anything but simple.

When Roger Mudd '50 gave $4 million to establish a center for the study of ethics at W&L, he was not addressing a perceived weakness. Rather, he intended for us to build upon a strength we already possess. If we weren't known before for providing our graduates with an ethical education, we will be known for it the future.

And that knowledge helps me get to sleep.