Old Chapel: The Big Ask

LaurieWEBIt was a beautiful May day, a few weeks before Commencement, and some students and I were sitting outside, enjoying the warm afternoon and the deepening greens of the mountains around us. We were talking about the end of the academic year, their approaching graduations, and their hopes and fears. Like most college seniors at the finish of their undergraduate careers, they expressed a healthy mix of anticipation, preparedness, eagerness, and nostalgia as they talked about the prospect of the future.

Some of these students also discussed how difficult it had been for them to discover their own voices and learn how to express them, especially when anything they said could be reposted online, and mocked or critiqued. In our conversation, we talked about how many faculty members, myself included, had experienced such unwanted cyber-exposure and survived, and went on to write more, and they all could too.

Then a student said something to me that I’ve been thinking about ever since: “Yes, but when we are still finding our voices, when we still don’t know who we are and need to experiment with those voices, that’s a big ask.”

It is a big ask. In a sea of constant digital connectivity, in an online world where anonymity is both a bane and a blessing, and where anything you post or publish can be met, almost immediately, with a scathing response (sometimes anonymous, sometimes not), it’s a big ask.

But, I propose that it’s a necessary ask, and one of our primary obligations as educators is to help students find ways to discover their voices, and to provide opportunities for them to express those voices without fear. The moment someone finds his or her voice, and then has ways to express that voice, is the moment of personal transformation in education.

I believe this challenge is all the more acute today because we live in an era where public approbation and disapprobation comes fast and furious, and is happening on a much larger scale than ever before.

But such challenges are also a part of history. I grew up in Danvers, Massachusetts, formerly known as Salem Village. While today Danvers is a thriving Massachusetts town, many of its citizens are still aware of the historical legacy of the Salem witch trials 300 years ago and what happens when a community does not allow for free, curious exploration without judgment. One of the little-known healers of the Salem Village community in the period right after the trials was Reverend Joseph Green. He helped citizens rebuild their town by allowing just that—for both accusers and accused to speak. In my view, he was an educator par excellence.

My academic work in India is also focused on helping people come to voice, and be committed to their own forms of creative expression. One project I am working on is a study of women learning and teaching Sanskrit, a language that they’ve been barred from mastering for over 3,000 years. It is fascinating to witness how these newly empowered teachers of a sacred language share that power with others in their classrooms.

Another project is focused on ancient forms of dialogue in India. Storytelling often takes the form of dialogue between two or more characters and shows how they grapple with a particular dilemma or challenge. In fact, reading the dialogues of ancient India can be much like reading the exchanges on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn today.

Many of these ancient conversations are between teachers and students and take place within intentional communities in forests and in mountains. When I read them now, they remind me of Middlebury and how powerful the bonds of teacher, student, and community can be in helping young people find their voices.

So for deep, long-term reasons located in the past, as well as the more immediate reason of creating a vibrant exchange in the present, I believe Middlebury has a responsibility to make that “big ask.” We need to create more environments to encourage students—literally to give them courage—to claim their voices in the public sphere.

This is the most urgent educational task before us today.

Patton can be reached at president@middlebury.edu.

And follow her on Twitter: @LaurieLPatton.

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  1. I cringe when I read Middlebury’s new president asserting that “the most urgent educational task before us today” is “… to create more environments to encourage students … to claim their voices in the public sphere.” I have no idea what she means. It certainly doesn’t seem related to acquiring and applying a liberal arts education. Yet she says it is Middlebury’s most urgent educational task. I found the entire column so unclear that it was distressing. This is the thinking and writing of the leader of one of the country’s top liberal arts colleges?

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We hope to create a lively discussion on MiddMag.com and invite you to add your voice. Please keep comments civil and relevant to the news item at hand. MiddMag.com may remove comments that do not follow these guidelines.

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