The Last Word
By Dr. Marjorie Hass, Provost

Mission-Centered Education

By now, I hope you have all had a chance to read Muhlenberg’s newly drafted strategic plan (see it online at http://pollster.muhlenberg.edu/restrict/initiatives/toc.asp). The thinking that led to this plan began over a year ago with a review of our mission statement and statements of purpose. As we listened to the voices of those who love and respect Muhlenberg’s proud traditions and future promise, we were confirmed in our belief that Muhlenberg should remain on its own path and calculate the way to excellence through its distinctive approach to the liberal arts. This conviction left us ready to renew the College’s statement of its mission. In its opening, the statement says:

Muhlenberg College aims to develop independent critical thinkers who are intellectually agile, characterized by a zest for reasoned and civil debate, knowledgeable about the achievements and traditions of diverse civilizations and cultures, able to express ideas with clarity and grace, committed to life-long learning, equipped with ethical and civic values, and prepared for lives of leadership and service.

This is no puny goal, no wishy-washy claim to be all things to all people. It doesn’t say to our students: “Sure, go ahead and think or do whatever you want; we don’t really care,” nor does it hand them a ready-made doctrine or creed articulating the sure path to truth. Our mission statement probably wouldn’t pass muster with any of the partisan combatants in the so-called “culture wars.” Committing to our mission means we accept that knowledge is the aim of education and that it is most precious when pursued in the spirit of justice. The privilege of learning brings with it a responsibility for action. Muhlenberg’s statement of mission challenges us to engage with the liberal arts in ways that prepare our students—and ourselves—for citizenship and community accountability.

The association of intellectual pursuit with the pursuit of a just world may seem old fashioned to some—attached to a naïve faith in human potential now invalidated by the genocidal horrifics of twentieth-century “progress.” But the work of teaching and learning at Muhlenberg animate the ideal of knowledge in the service of justice in ways that reveal a sophisticated intellectual ethics—one that gives equal recognition to the dangers of a fanatical commitment to truth and to the dangers of post-modern withdrawal from its pursuit. Rather than signifying a return to the enchantment of positivism, working in this spirit demands the courage to face the rawness of the real and the responsibility to maintain hope in its midst.

For me, the fundamental spiritual question is always this: Can we face the world as it is—in all its wonder and brutality—without illusion and affirm it as “tov me’od” (very good)? Or must we retreat to a make-believe world where nothing is too awful or too awesome to disrupt our second-rate comforts? I look to a Muhlenberg education to provide its students with courage and hope, with reason and passion, so that they may pursue the entwined ideals of understanding and social progress. As the community of those who care for this College, who serve as the memory of its past, the stewards of its present and the guarantors of its future, we must seek tirelessly to translate this mission into a functional educational practice.

Among the concrete ways we intend to make good on the lofty promises of our mission will be significant investments in what we are calling praxis pedagogies—those ways of teaching and learning that connect theory to practice, invigorating and extending classroom learning with opportunities to test theoretical knowledge in real-world situations. Praxis pedagogies include methods that contribute to expanded student learning and take advantage of our unique campus environment:

Student-faculty research and artistic collaborations: In our laboratories, studios, studies and workshops, students learn in a hands-on environment that rewards curiosity. Collaborative projects often result in performance, presentation, or publication.

Service-learning: More focused and analytical than an ordinary community service program, service-learning courses put classroom learning to use in the community, challenging students to apply theories, test assumptions and see the real-world effects of their course material.

Values exploration: We will expand the ways in which students encounter curricular diversity and enhance coursework exploring the ethical dimensions of different disciplines and professions. Off-campus study, international study and travel and diverse course perspectives will help students develop a sophisticated understanding of the relationships between our own and other cultures.

Our ambitious investment in these praxis pedagogies will include adding 10 new faculty positions in key academic areas, building science facilities that make research-based learning available to all students and expanding our studio spaces in the arts. The plan also calls for an expanded summer research program for students and increased opportunities for students to work alongside faculty as research assistants. Additionally, an expanded financial aid pool will be created to broaden the circle of those who are able to benefit from what Muhlenberg offers and to bring diverse voices to our community. Currently 66 percent of our students receive financial aid from the College—we want to expand this even further.

There are many things we would ask from our alumni as we seek to live out our mission. I hope that you will serve as passionate advocates for Muhlenberg’s model of education. Articulate how a liberal arts education shaped your life and share these insights with us—and with those you know who might be our future students or faculty. Volunteer to serve as mentors to current students—as role models, career coaches, cheerleaders. Your presence and support offers so much to the young men and women looking to take what they have learned at Muhlenberg into the wider world. And of course, we need you to return to Muhlenberg as often as you can—to share your thoughts about our progress, serve as loving critics and challenge us to live up to our mission.

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