Four Panelists Weigh in on Civic Virtue, Public Education, and Democracy
As a co-author of the Massachusetts constitution in 1780, future president John Adams wrote that knowledge is necessary to preserve civil liberties.
But knowledge is more than just a buffer against the erosion of freedom—it also represents the pathway to a society of inclusion and openness, Chancellor J. Keith Motley said Wednesday in a campus conversation at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
“We in public higher education are working to inculcate virtues that undergird a healthy democracy–beyond just the inclination to vote. When virtues such as these are cultivated and expressed publicly, I believe they have a multiplier effect upon the culture and polity of a community and the nation,” Motley said.
Motley was joined by Lynne Tirrell, an associate professor of philosophy, and three other faculty members on Wednesday’s panel, Tirrell supported the idea of a multiplier effect, saying people learn better “in company.”
“We learn not only from theories, but also from each other, and carry that forward as shapers of the world of tomorrow. Our diversity is an asset, and if we do not protect access, we will lose a significant measure of our excellence,” Tirrell said.
During a question-and-answer session, one audience member asked the panelists about making education about more than just finding a good job after graduation.
Rajini Srikanth, professor of English, director of the University Honors Program, and an associate provost at UMass Boston, talked about her native India, where educators strongly emphasize math and science skills.
“Now, more than 50 years later, there’s this recognition that what we have are a people so driven by economic need that they don’t understand the way they’re beholden to one another to create community, and that comes from the other kinds of education,” Srikanth said.
Responding to an audience comment about how the word “citizenship” can be an exclusionary term, Srikanth also talked about how national identity can both comfort and divide us.
“I would say that is one of the hardest dilemmas we have to engage. How do you negotiate this desire to have a kind of open, borderless world in which we recognize our commonalities and understand that an action that we take affects someone 10,000 miles away? In that sense, we are actually completely connected. How do we take that knowledge and weigh it against the ways in which, from the ways we were born, we were socialized to thinking of ourselves as being part of a nation,” Srikanth said.
Motley acknowledged that cultivating human virtue through education to preserve liberties won’t necessarily be easy, but he remained optimistic.
“I remain undaunted in my faith that this is the right time, this is the right place, and we are the right people to undertake this lofty endeavor. While we may never arrive at full agreement, we will, as a proud public university, endeavor to keep the debate current and its quality high.”
Other panelists included College of Science and Mathematics Dean Andrew Grosovsky and Associate Professor of Women’s Studies Elora Chowdury. Associate Professor of Political Science Maurice Cunningham moderated the discussion. The chancellor’s full remarks are posted online.
About UMass Boston
With a growing reputation for innovative research addressing complex issues, the University of Massachusetts Boston, metropolitan Boston’s only public university, offers its diverse student population both an intimate learning environment and the rich experience of a great American city. UMass Boston’s nine colleges and graduate schools serve nearly 16,000 students while engaging local, national, and international constituents through academic programs, research centers, and public service activities. To learn more about UMass Boston, visit www.umb.edu.