Moral Imagination, Liberal Arts, and the Good Society

Rebecca Chopp, president


Moral Imagination, Liberal Arts, and the Good Society
By Rebecca Chopp, President, Swarthmore College
TED X talk, March 31, 2012

I grew up in Salina, Kansas. Not many do. Right in the middle of the country, where the slow rolling limestone formations of the Flint Hills gradually flatten out to the Plains, those wide open spaces with few people and fewer trees. Here’s my story in brief: My parents didn’t go to college, as a young child I struggled with a serious speech disorder and my home life was difficult. My resources and understanding of future options were, for me at that time, quite limited.

But I had one powerful inspiration that stretched my mind and opened my heart: the skies, which set anew, set aright my world over and over again. In high school and in college, I loved to go to the western outskirts of Salina, where the plains begin to get squished as flat as a pancake. There’s a long lens on the plains. You can watch storms move in from far away. You can also see wonderful possibilities emerge.

I loved to get up really early to see the daybreak. I’d arrive in the dark, when no one else was around. I loved to stand in the quiet of those early hours and watch the sunrise. Slowly the sky would turn, moving out of its bleak slumber. Light would seep in, red, purple, blue, and orange streaking the sky, bursting forth with new possibilities. It was like watching an entire new universe unfold. Suddenly, powerfully the sky would open up. Magically, colorfully the world would be born anew. It was as if, in front of my eyes, appeared all the possibilities to set things aright and anew.

The dawn provided much inspiration for me at that time. I could dream in that space; I could imagine a different and better world. After attending college and becoming an academic, now 40 years later, I think of those dawns as an awakening of what I will call a moral imagination, that is, to be able to imagine what freedom and justice should be—and what a good society should look like.

Today I want to talk about the art and science of moral imagination as necessary for a good society. What it is, why it is important, and at least one place where it is being nurtured in this country.

The moral imagination is our ability as a society to be guided by the good and the just, to envision our life together in ways in which we may flourish individually, and together. The moral imagination is about the ability to renew the world, to set anew the wrongs and to imagine new possibilities.

Moral imagination isn’t a consumer good; you can’t buy it in a bottle or order it online. There’s no app for it. Moral imagination isn’t objective, something you can master through rote learning nor is it subjective, something you can just feel. Knowledge, virtue, art, and science all combine to create the moral imagination of a community.

We can think of many times in our history when moral imagination has guided this country to a better place: Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln and the preservation of the Union, Roosevelt and the New Deal, King and the Beloved Community.

Now we live in troubled times and face all sorts of complex issues: financial, environmental, health care, politics, civil discourse, and the list goes on. But we can only address these issues if we can stoke the fires of our moral imagination, to see what is possible, to set the world anew and aright.

Great ideas need institutions to represent them, nurture them, and move them forward. In our good society, one institution that does this is our liberal arts colleges. A unique invention for a unique dream of freedom, the liberal arts college is about educating ethical leaders who build the common good through a wide variety of interrelated practices of freedom. I believe that if we are to realize our goal of the good society, we need liberal arts colleges to promote the art and science of a moral imagination.

I know this sounds utterly audacious. It is as audacious as the sunrise over Kansas; as courageous as the passion of Lincoln and King, a Midwestern farm kid and a southern preacher’s son, who, 100 years apart, helped us to imagine ourselves anew as a country of freedom. And as bold as Thomas Jefferson linking education, the good society and freedom by stating: I look to the diffusion of light and education as the resource to be relied on for ameliorating the condition, promoting the virtue, and advancing the happiness of man.

Liberal arts colleges are among the most valuable resources of our future, hard working incubators of vision, engines of moral imagination. This uniquely American institution has been so for centuries. Sixteen years after the Pilgrims landed on the shore of Plymouth Harbor, Harvard was founded, the nation’s first liberal arts college. As the frontier of the expanding United States moved west, new communities organized colleges as soon as they were able. In the 1860s, the great land grant institutions emerged with an even stronger focus on expanding freedom in and for the common good. With each wave of development, higher education evolved to meet real needs in order to fulfill this one great mission: nurturing the art and science of the moral imagination in the good society of freedom. Yesterday, today and hopefully in the future—liberal arts education cultivates and energizes the moral imagination of the good society.

In a country that doesn’t seem to know where it’s going; in a society that feels fractured and lost; in a world where we have to reinvent ourselves and find a new way: look to these small, intellectually and culturally fertile places for hope, for energy, for critique, for vision. Look here for our next multi-colored horizon.

Of course, liberal arts institutions as incubators of moral freedom are themselves changing, and must change more. Indeed one thing I love about these liberal arts gemstones of our society are their ability to continue the best of our traditions while they innovate to meet ripe opportunities and pressing needs.

Critics point to the fact that some aspects of residential liberal arts colleges have barely changed over the last 100 years. Faculty members help students pick majors that shape their progress through structured semesters and well-defined academic years. Students attend classes face-to-face with their fellow students and teachers and drop by their faculty’s offices to discuss the issues of the day or complex problems. This may seem quite old fashioned in this web-based day!

In addition to their classes, students live on or near the campus and engage in extracurricular activities that range from arts to athletics to politics to governing student affairs. Inside and outside the classroom, they learn to create their good society by learning to build the common good and to tend to their individual passions within their obligation to community. Inside and outside of the classes, these traditional approaches hone moral virtues and encourage students to think deeply and act compassionately.

In the best tradition to teach the art and science of moral imagination, liberal arts colleges are also among the boldest incubators of moral imagination in our country. These days what we call participatory learning takes place in many classes—and with great success. Participatory learning is based on the premise that we understand content through hands on interaction around problems. Where Descartes once described individual learning as “I think, therefore I am,” we might describe participatory learning as, “We participate, and therefore we are.” Students are learning how to see the world in new ways and how to make a difference. They are solving problems in real time, with real people.

Professor of Dance Sharon Friedler is one of many Swarthmore faculty teaching community-based learning courses. Community-based learning classes are high-impact educational experiences that provide opportunities for students to imagine and create models of a good society. Professor Friedler’s course, “The Arts and Social Change,” brings together students with an interest in social change and community building through the arts. The course establishes what Professor Friedler describes as “tiered mentoring” where members of a professional dance troupe mentor Swarthmore dance students who in turn mentor girls from the nearby Chester Children’s Chorus. Add into this mix the energy of Orchestra 2001, the College’s professional orchestra in residence, the creative talents of Philadelphia artist Anthen whose dynamic drawings capture the poetic motion of dancers, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the course creates real change as students stretch their moral imagination in the form of artistic expression.

This is just one of many examples of problem-based courses that cultivate moral imagination in students. Faculty members are combining the creation of new knowledge with the time-tested traditions of teaching to help students learn through tackling the great problems of the day.

At Swarthmore, as at many other colleges and universities, our students also work outside the classroom to take the lead in projects around the country and world that express and cultivate their moral imagination.
A 2010 graduate, Roseanna Sommers spent two months in Venezuela as an undergraduate, volunteering with Pemón Health, a group committed to raising the health and overall living standards in the indigenous community of Urimán, Venezuela. Roseanna was joined by a dozen other Swarthmore undergrads in pioneering a sanitation project. Their project involved meeting with community leaders, teaching lessons on environmental stewardship in the school, building trash and recycling bins out of chicken wire, and working alongside the people of Urimán to clean up their community. In addition to improving her Spanish considerably, Roseanna also got a taste of what it takes to be the only doctor in all of the thirteen Pemón communities, as she and other students provided assistance to the village doctor in the overextended clinic.

Students today are continually learning how to craft and express a moral imagination for the good society. We may not always agree with some of their efforts, we may sometimes find their idealism a bit naïve. But our good society of freedom is nurtured by their ability to dream dreams, to agitate for change, to reinvent civil discourse, to imagine new relationships of liberty and justice.

In closing, I would like to offer three suggestions about how liberal arts education currently cultivates the art and science of moral imagination in our good society of freedom.

First, our liberal arts colleges cultivate what I call knowledge design. Liberal arts place creativity and agility at the heart of how we structure ourselves; how we support practices of learning, teaching and research; and how we narrate the story of what education is and does for individuals and for the good society. With this approach, liberal arts programs are designing new links between freedom and education. At Swarthmore, we are starting an Institute for the Future of Liberal Arts to support the evolution of the liberal arts across the transformations I have been speaking about. The institute will explore new and traditional structures and practices of knowledge and learning by faculty and students. It will bring, in real and virtual ways, educators and leaders from around the world together to work with students to wrestle with complex issues like sustainability, civil discourse, or poverty. The Institute will provide a space within the liberal arts to engage in moral imagination around the issues of the day.

Second, we look to our liberal arts colleges to provide 21st century models of community. In an era where we have we have too few models of community life that supports a good society, there is an urgent need to imagine and build new inclusive communities as the backbone of democratic society. Liberal arts colleges are teaching and promoting civil discourse, diverse and inclusive community and a sustainable life together. In an era where, as sociologist Robert Putnam has noted, most of us are “bowling alone,” our liberal arts colleges may be one of the very few institutions that can show us how to educate persons in the social practices of living together and thus how to cultivate new 21st century models of democratic community.

Third, liberal arts colleges are using new and traditional means to educate innovative and ethical leaders for the next generations. Inside and outside the classroom, in projects located in the U.S. and around the world, we are supporting our students as they become an ethical force to build and enrich community in the world. At Swarthmore our Lang Opportunity Scholars, our Evans Scholars and students engaged in the Socially Responsible Leaders program are practicing becoming innovative and ethical leaders across a variety of interests, concerns and professions. In these programs and others in liberal arts colleges around the country, we are supporting and even inventing new educational practices that embrace virtue and practical wisdom as well as intellect and aesthetics. We are asserting the right of education to set standards for behavior, expectations of values, and commitments to the common good.

A good society is made by leaders and citizens who have a moral imagination; who use the arts and the sciences to set the world anew; who link practices of freedom in thinking, doing, and belonging in just ways to set aright the world. In the horizon of setting the world anew, setting the world aright, the liberal arts continues its work.

As I imagine the future role for liberal arts colleges in building a good society, I am filled with the same hope that filled my spirit all those years ago on the Kansas plains. I am confident that the colleges in which we teach and study, learn, build community, and express our leadership will help us set the world anew as we begin to imagine horizons that far exceed our current reach. Let us reach together to help build a good and just, kind and civil society.