41st Annual Public Affairs Symposium
41st Annual Public Affairs Symposium
"Clash of Civilizations: Culture, War and Globalization"
Dickinson College, February 15, 2004
Opening Remarks of President William G. Durden
Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the 41st Annual Public Affairs Symposium at Dickinson College. The Symposium-better know over the years simply as PAS-emerged in the early 1960s as a powerful public forum to connect the liberal arts curriculum of the college with the "burning point" (the German word "Brennpunkt" comes to mind) events and ideas in the wider world. It was a presumptuous initiative then and remains-with durational intensity-symbolic of what we do at the heart of a "distinctively Dickinson" liberal education today.
We intentionally strive to connect knowledge usefully in and across existing and emerging academic disciplines and place our engagement of ideas-a full and provocative array-in the context of unavoidable global challenges and public policies. Such intentionality is the stuff of liberal education. It is our public morality.
In the early 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States to see our young democracy at work and to take ideas back to France, which at that time was swaying precariously between revolutionary democracy and authoritarian regime. De Tocqueville, of course, wrote Democracy in America to record his observations, the first extended commentary about the state of affairs in the United States. He found that one of the abiding strengths of American democracy in the early 19th century was a deep sense of community spirit. Americans displayed a conscious tendency to come together as citizens, to form voluntary organizations for the express purpose of confronting contemporary problems and to advance collectively, a more humane and functional society.
Today, in the early 21st century, commentators from across the political spectrum are worried about an apparent decline in community spirit in America and a weakening of our civic organizations. This retreat, they believe, poses a real threat to those bonds that hold a democracy together and further weaken communal responsibility and action-leaving us, regrettably, with mere individual ego-unconnected, selfish or uninspired and most dangerous, an intellectual unilateralism, a mind moving in the world without productive alliances of other minds.
In this troubling context-a society in which community and service are less important than self-the importance of PAS to the mission of the College is all the more compelling. We know who we are; we know what we are to do. We prepare unabashedly citizen leaders. We are encouraged still by the explicit intentions of our 18th-century founder, Dr. Benjamin Rush, who was also so intimately committed to the founding of this nation that he risked condemnation by England for treason. Inspired by his vision, we commit to building through the thoughts and actions of our students-later graduates-a just, compassionate democratic society. We commit to preparing them for this responsibility by leading them beyond the unilateralism of their prematurely secure egos to positions that take into account the "other"-politically, historically, culturally, environmentally, legally, spiritually and with respect to human rights.
Such a task is not without its challenges. We build citizens by opening minds to contradictory notions. We confront young people daily with other troubling questions, fill them, at least temporarily, with self-doubt and present them with facts and beliefs that, while reasonable to some, are highly objectionable to others. At Dickinson, the mind has no comfortable hiding place. Most in our community thrive. They relish engaging the wide variety and diversity of thought and action; they grow in four years into informed, inquisitive, engaged citizens of the world. However, as in any collective, some seek to flee our confrontation through self-imposed obscurity, numbing silence and avoidance of forums such as PAS.
But we, as a larger community, persist. We persist in introducing those who would flee to new, sometimes unsettling ideas bit by painful bit. As the most recent Morgan lecturer, Michael Ignatieff, stated last week in this very hall, our faculty and administration demand from all students "adversarial justification" for opinions they hold. This process of reasoned dialectic and demand for logical clarity among our students is unsettling and messy. Our institutional devotion to free inquiry and democratic process can, ironically, be as unsettling and outrageously annoying to our general public. Ideas will be heard in our space that some will find highly objectionable. This will surely happen over the next few days during the PAS sessions. Some will ask us not to have a guest speak because the position espoused is objectionable to some group for some reason.
We are, however, clear about our educative role in American democracy. We do not censure thoughts that are merely intellectually threatening and strongly held. We defend this space, this podium, for free intellectual inquiry of all sorts. If not here, then where? We believe ultimately in the redeeming power of reason, spirit and civility guided by education to prevail and to be that which permits our audiences through reflection and civil questioning to judge for themselves the ultimate value of what they collectively or individually hear and then believe. At Dickinson, we affirm you as rational, spiritual beings. And just as our founder Dr. Rush and his friends-Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Dickinson and Franklin-hold us all capable of self-government, we hold ourselves and you, eminently, capable of governing our own ideas. We resist any external party that would shield us and our reason from direct contact with ideas eloquently presented. Judgment of their value remains our collective right and privilege.