The Shaping of a Class

James Wagner, President, Emory University

Emory is fortunate to be among the universities whose applicants for admission far outnumber the spaces available. That phenomenon has led to an artful process described by Paige Parvin elsewhere in this issue—the art of shaping a class, a creative process that in turn suggests that there is an end in view.  What are we shaping a class for? What is our purpose in bringing these students together?

Since at least as far back as Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University (published in 1852), the question of higher education’s purpose has seesawed between answers. Is the purpose to train people for work, or to prepare them for  life more broadly? Is the purpose to broaden their minds or deepen their hearts? Is the purpose to ensure the continuity of culture or to foster creativity and innovation— and thus disruption of culture?

Of late this debate has grown sharper as the costs of higher education and the jobless rate of twenty-five-year-olds both have risen. President Obama wants to rank colleges on how affordable they are and how easily their graduates launch careers. On the other hand, the writer and former English professor William Deresiewicz—in apparently the most-read article ever published in the New Republic—belittles the notion that universities or their students should focus principally on career preparation. Rather, he claims, they should focus on soul preparation—on the development of personhood as defined by a moral outlook and an identity informed by the humanities and the arts.

It is a vast, complex, and important debate, because it helps to determine policies and investments. For Emory, though, it is a debate that was settled long ago by Emory’s founding commitment to educate the heart as well as the mind, and to prepare people for careers, yes, but really vocations—callings—in service to a good beyond themselves.

This ethos is captured admirably by Joseph Mackel, an employee at our Yerkes National Primate Research Center. He had the winning entry in Emory’s first “Compliance and Ethics Essay Contest,” sponsored by our Internal Audit Division. While this division aims to foster an ethically principled business culture, Joseph’s essay points to a larger purpose that goes to the heart of Emory. And although I want to single out Joseph’s essay here, it is interesting that it echoes the comments of many staff members across the university who share similar thoughts with me in town hall meetings and emails from time to time.

Joseph quotes an early version of Emory’s mission statement, which rests on “the premises that education is the most powerful social force of our time for enabling and ennobling the individual, and that the privilege of education entails an obligation to use knowledge for the common good.” It is that combination of enabling while simultaneously ennobling that brings together the practical dimensions of education—“enabling” students to pursue careers, participate in society, become productive citizens—and the more high-minded dimensions—“ennobling” the spirit, sharpening the conscience, lifting up the standards of excellence, integrity, and clear-eyed hope. 

Joseph’s essay also reminds us of the privilege that education bestows and, most interestingly, the difference between this kind of privilege and other kinds of privilege. As he notes, education is “unique among the assets and privileges that many enjoy. In contrast to other advantages, such as money, health, status, and power, education . . . turns those with its advantages towards, instead of away from, those who lack it.” While wealth and power can shield the rich and mighty from those who are poor and powerless, education rightly accomplished opens our eyes and provides what Joseph calls “an accurate, though complex, view of the world” that moves the educated person toward others, not away from them—toward solutions for the world’s ills, not into retreat from them.

In the debate about whether a university education is principally about intellectual enrichment, psychological maturing, aesthetic refinement, or moral strengthening, Emory’s answer has always been—yes. It is all of these things: the education of the whole person.

[emdash]James M. Wagner

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