It would be naive to ignore the many challenges confronting us as Thanksgiving 2011 approaches. The state of the world economy continues to be uncertain, with serious financial questions facing both American and European leaders. Too many American families are still affected by job loss, diminished investment value, or low home equity; too many American college students are deeply concerned about the loan burden they will face upon graduation and about sluggish job prospects for new graduates. Even the finest colleges and universities face tough questions about financial sustainability and public opinion of the value of higher education is declining.
And yet, and yet. Educators of all people have reason to be thankful. Last week I attended a dinner meeting of the Annapolis Group at which the presidents of member institutions heard wide-ranging and interesting remarks from columnist David Brooks. I won’t summarize it all here, although I’ll be thinking about points he made for quite a while.
Mr. Brooks concluded by commenting on the current political stalemate and the most pressing problems that will, in his view, result. And then he ended by reminding the assembled college presidents that, whatever problems lie ahead, our institutions are educating the people who will solve them.
Liberally educated young people — engineers, journalists, business people, community organizers, artists, policy analysts, academics, teachers, volunteers, politicians, museum curators, entrepreneurs — will be the leaders who can think critically and holistically about the choices that face society, whatever those choices might be. Institutions like Sweet Briar (and all its sibling liberal arts colleges) play an essential role in cultivating the qualities of mind and character that such young leaders will need. Because, of course, while they will certainly need technical skills and disciplinary knowledge to succeed, the ends to which they choose to apply those skills and knowledge — the solutions they create — will reflect habits of mind and character such as judgment, flexibility, broadmindedness, creativity, curiosity, and perseverance; qualities instilled by education in the liberal arts.
And so, those of us who are lucky enough to be intimately connected with such colleges have much for which to give thanks. We give thanks for parents who understand the enduring value of investing in their daughter’s educations. We give thanks for young women who have chosen to invest their energy, hopes, and aspirations in the education they receive at our hands. We give thanks for the faculty, whose tireless dedication, encouragement, and support expand young women’s lives every day. We give thanks for the staff members whose pride in the institution they serve shows in every detail of the way they do their jobs. We give thanks for the alumnae who provide moral and financial support to ensure that they pass on to others the legacy they received. We thank foundations, corporations, boards, and legislators who understand that education is a social, as well as a private, good.
Educators are among the luckiest of people, because we know that whatever challenges the world faces, our mission involves us in shaping the solutions. As friends of Sweet Briar give thanks this year, let’s include our connection to this wonderful college in the list of blessings. Certainly Rick and I will be giving thanks for the opportunity to serve.