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A Note from the Director

by Rosetta Marantz Cohen

Rosetta Marantz Cohen, Director, Kahn Liberal Arts Institute
Photo by Jon Crispin

Observing the political logjam in Washington this year, it has been hard not to feel that intellectual debate, based on reasoned argument, is a dying art. I cannot remember the last time I saw our elected officials engaged in anything like it. Real dialectical thinking establishes as its goal, not winning an argument, but actively searching for truth. It requires that those engaged in it confront and then reconcile opinions wholly contrary to their own. Hawthorne wrote that the moral and intellectual health of a nation is predicated on this kind of discourse: "Habits of companionship with individuals unlike ourselves," he wrote, "whose opinions we must go out of ourselves to appreciate are critical to an educated citizenry."

In his recent book on the state of the liberal arts, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (2012), Andrew Delbanco argues that now more than ever before, liberal arts education needs to cultivate this kind of dialectical thinking. As we know, creeping professionalism and a growing reliance on technology have moved many institutions away from the intimate discourse of the seminar room. At Smith, that is less true than elsewhere. Still, sustaining reasoned debate is a challenge. Many students—especially female students—defer automatically to authority, or else avoid disagreement and confrontation because it makes them uncomfortable. As a teacher, I know I am always seeking out strategies for courting contrary opinions, and for generating, especially in advanced seminars, a genuine dialectic.

One of the founding principles of the Kahn Institute was to nurture debate and disagreement among ourselves, as faculty. When we established that projects should be composed of scholars from different disciplines it was partly to encourage this. The year-long format and weekly meals are intended as a way of promoting trust and collegiality so that as the year unfolds, faculty can more comfortably disagree with one another and become more open to the opinions of colleagues who have become friends. Each year, some topics lend themselves to dialectic more than others; and some faculty enjoy engaging in debate more than others. But the benefits of sharing contrary opinions and perspectives are always at the root of what we do.

Recently, I attended a gathering of representatives from other liberal arts humanities centers where there was much discussion of this topic. Several center directors shared descriptions of programs they had run at their own institutions to facilitate extended debate on controversial issues. Clark University, for example, holds sessions called “Difficult Dialogues” where faculty come together over the short term to debate highly controversial issues. Other colleges run seminars, led by pairs of faculty with opposing views on key issues—the Mideast conflict, for example. Organizers identify subjects of interest, seek out colleagues with whom they know they disagree, and then develop together a reading list of materials that will allow them to substantively engage with that range of positions.

These ideas all seem interesting and worth trying here at Smith. The open format of the Kahn Institute, its indifference to concrete outcomes, and its grounding in human relationships all position us as an ideal place for difficult dialogues.

While a more formal call for ideas will go out in the coming months, I wanted to let you know that we at the Kahn would welcome proposals for this kind of faculty-run discussion—on any controversial topic of your choice, and spread over several weeks or several months. I hope you’ll think about organizing one.

Rosetta

 

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