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The Liberal Art of Giving by William D. Adams, President

As they struggled to understand the new world that emerged from the tragedy of September 11, many Americans experienced a resurgence of civic spirit and awareness. Private support for victims of the attack and their families was swift and generous. Volunteer agencies and organizations reported increased levels of support. Voter participation rates briefly climbed, and patriotic feelings blossomed. For the first time in 30 years, I heard American college students talk positively and seriously about the prospect of military service.

This renewed interest in things public, along with the broad awakening to the importance of international issues and understanding, was one of the few positive outcomes of the enormous tragedy of last fall. But how long will such interest last? It's hard to say for certain. The forces that pull us back into the shell of narrowly private activities and interests are powerful. At Colby and on other college campuses, one senses already something like a return to business as usual, despite efforts to keep these matters in the forefront of our conversations and thinking.

Whatever their long-term impact on the nation as a whole, the events of September 11 have served powerfully (and I hope enduringly) to remind us of the importance of civic engagement as one of our fundamental educational goals and values. Among the many things we are trying to foster among our students here, the commitment to make a difference in the public sphere is one of the most essential. That commitment can and should take many forms in the wider world, of course, and we cannot know or predict precisely the many paths our students will take to its realization. But we can and must impart an understanding of its fundamental value and importance.

There is an old and deep tradition of moral philosophy claiming that such public commitments are built in part on a more fundamental sense of obligation to others arising from the facts of our social life and history. Our individual lives unfold within a broader network of reciprocal dependencies and duties. No one is self-made; all of us depend in some way on the efforts and gifts of others. And so we are obliged to complete the circle--to give back to the world and to the others who gave to us.

How, at Colby, is this sense of obligation to be nurtured and connected to real people and needs? One of our "academic precepts," the body of principles that describes Colby's distinctive version of liberal learning, points the way by identifying the importance of "exploring the relationships between academic work and one's responsibility to contribute to the world beyond the campus." Across the curriculum, in each of our intellectual explorations and commitments, we need to keep our responsibility "to the world beyond the campus" steadily in view and in front of our students.

But in addition to practicing well and extensively this broad precept of liberal learning, we also need to take advantage of more specific academic opportunities we might have to strengthen connections with "the world beyond the campus." In our recent thinking about the future of the College, we have been intrigued by the possibility of building on Colby's existing strengths in areas of public and international affairs as one important axis of connection to the public realm our precepts speak about. We also have decided that a greater emphasis on service learning and community service must be a part of Colby's future.

As we think about making connections between our academic pursuits and the broader world, we should also take pains to teach the remarkable example of Colby's own history of giving. Like most institutions of private higher education, Colby is a place that simply would not exist without the steady affection, attention and generosity of generations of alumni and friends who have cared about this place and helped it grow and thrive. There is probably no better example of the power and significance of social reciprocity and giving back than the College itself. We succeed today because of the commitment of those who came before us.

In this as in so many other areas, the most powerful teachings are those that provide compelling models of the lesson. Colby is a wonderful model of a lesson that is now more important than ever to our students and our country. By teaching that lesson and other forms of the liberal art of giving, we make good on our fundamental commitment to prepare our students for lives of consequence and engagement.


Better to Give:
A surge in community service refelcts Colby tradition and national trends

Profiles in Giving

Asking Why
Campus activists question factors that lead to need

The President's Page: "The Liberal Art of Giving"

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