Creating Communities for the 21st Century

Trusteeship
May/June
2013
Number: 
3
Volume: 
21
By 
Rebecca S. Chopp

Higher education serves as a laboratory to teach and to practice the skills required to create and cultivate intentional communities for the 21st century. Given the challenges faced by our country and around the globe, there has never been a more pressing need to envision communities that are diverse and inclusive, that are sustainable, and that combine individual freedom and a commitment to the common good.

Today our culture faces a serious and pervasive crisis, a crisis deeply linked to the failure to find common ground in the midst of deep-seated differences. To address this crisis, our country desperately needs what liberal arts education offers.

The crisis has led us as a society to lose faith in our leaders and many of our cherished democratic institutions. It has led to increasingly polarized communities and has challenged our long-held sense of—and commitment to—the common good. Standard practices of sound democratic communities, such as tolerance, respect for others, and civil debate, have been abandoned; they no longer provide the robust support a thriving society requires. Liberal arts education offers the hope of creating and cultivating new models of community and developing principles and practices that are essential to flourishing societies.

For residential liberal arts colleges, developing moral character, encouraging civic responsibility, and shaping minds across the various disciplines are top priorities. In fact, together they comprise the core of our DNA. Moral character combined with critical thinking creates capacities in the individual for what renowned educational philosopher John Dewey termed “associative living.” Education that cultivates the responsible expression of individual freedoms—in the context of nurturing the common good—is essential to strengthening democratic communities.

Living full-time in a community devoted to human flourishing shapes students’ moral character, awakens their sense of social responsibility, and nurtures their sense of wonder. As artists, engineers, sociologists, politicians, activists, and athletes interact on a daily basis, students discover new talents and skills. They also learn that it takes many multifaceted persons to create a community with common values—values rooted in tradition but guided every day by new information and fresh perspectives. No other higher educational model shapes students 24/7 to develop the self and to cultivate community. No other model functions as a microcosm of our increasingly diverse and interconnected global reality. At Swarthmore, students from many different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds live together (quite literally), providing direct experience in building intentional community.

Constructing new models of community in the 21st century will require an enormous amount of innovation. After all, what is the common good when the “common” must be reinvented in light of this century’s constantly evolving digital environment? As demographics in our country change dramatically, can we create diverse and inclusive communities? And what exactly is citizenship for the nation—or for the world—in this global, technological reality in which we live?

In the face of these daunting challenges, liberal arts colleges are best equipped to accomplish this much-needed “future building,” largely because of the deep-rooted sense of values embraced by our alumni as well as our campus communities. Many of our colleges can be considered “humanistic” expressions of religious traditions, whose values represent clear visions of the common good, visions that guide community practices. Swarthmore, for instance, was founded in the 1860s by Hicksite Quakers who were both radically equalitarian and fully dedicated to working toward the “amelioration of human suffering.” Over the years, thousands of our alumni have accomplished this goal in their own circles of influence. We have every hope and expectation that future graduates will do the same.

In sum, deeply rooted moral values, intellectual curiosity, and intentional community building constitute a potent combination for addressing the crises of our time. All three are essential elements of the liberal arts educational philosophy.

About the Author

Rebecca S. Chopp is the president of Swarthmore College.