In 2019, after 25 years with Harvard, I was invited to serve as Gettysburg College’s 15th president. Our family has been embraced by this remarkable liberal arts and sciences institution, launched in 1832 by those who opposed slavery and promoted justice and equality. While much has changed since our founding, the fundamentals of the experience we provide to our 2,600 students endures. Whether it is classical Greek or advanced molecular biology, our classes still center around small groups of passionate, curious learners, taught by talented and dedicated faculty, examining the issues of the day.
Restoring productive discourse also demands a sense of civic literacy that goes beyond learning the mechanics of government.
The value of this educational model, shared by Gettysburg and other liberal arts colleges across the country, is now being questioned. Is a broad-based education a luxury? Or does it continue to impart essential skills that help our graduates live meaningful lives and contribute to society?
In my view, it is the latter. A liberal arts education is as important as ever, in part because of the fraying of civil discourse in America. I strongly believe that the nation’s liberal arts colleges have an important role in changing the current climate of polarization. I especially believe that Gettysburg College, whose history intersects with a defining moment in American democracy, has a particular set of responsibilities and obligations.
Today’s citizens need a broad view of the world as a counterweight to beliefs and biases that are often informed by self-interest and the limits of experience. Colleges like ours widen the perspective of their graduates through rigorous inquiry across the sciences, arts and humanities. We develop lifelong learners and flexible thinkers by requiring study in multiple fields and encouraging cross-cultural global experiences. We believe that this educational transformation happens best at an intimate scale, where faculty know their students and can immerse them in academic research.
Restoring productive discourse also demands a sense of civic literacy that goes beyond learning the mechanics of government. Tomorrow’s leaders must understand the forces that shape political and social movements. To that end, our students participate in the nonpartisan Eisenhower Institute, named for the U.S. president who transcended political partisanship and spoke out against the dangers of division. Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower “adopted” Gettysburg College in their later years and endorsed the role of the liberal arts in teaching people how to navigate a pluralistic world.
Colleges like Gettysburg are also laboratories for leadership. Our students are free to hone their leadership skills in low-risk environments, so as to build their confidence for higher-stakes roles. Our graduates gain the knowledge and values needed for effective leadership, in business and beyond, including the experience of being conveners and champions. They know what it means to take a principled stand but can also examine problems from another’s vantage point—and find ways to bridge differences. Given all this, it is not surprising that graduates of Gettysburg and other liberal arts programs punch above their weight when it comes to positions of leadership in our society.
I am reminded daily that the values anchoring American society were secured at a great price. My office sits in a landmark building that became a hospital during the Battle of Gettysburg. More than 700 wounded soldiers, in uniforms both blue and grey, were treated in our halls. Many died here, in the single bloodiest battle on American soil. That is sobering, but the events that followed keep me optimistic about our nation’s future. Five months after the battle, President Lincoln stood a few blocks from Gettysburg College and delivered the greatest speech in American history. He exhorted people then, and us now, to take responsibility for the “unfinished work” of building a better, more just, more democratic and more compassionate nation, one that should never “perish from this earth.” This begins with restoring civil discourse, a role that we at Gettysburg, and colleges like ours, are keen to accept.