With ceremony, solemnity and pageantry, Centre College’s Opening Convocation heralded the official start of the academic year on Sunday, Sept. 1. It is one of three convocations that bring the entire College together. The others are Founders Day in January and Honors Convocation in May.
This year the ceremony introduced a ceremonial mace crafted entirely of wood from the campus by Centre craftsmen and artists in honor of the Centre bicentennial. Vice President for Academic Affairs & Dean of the College Ellen Goldey provided the address.
The Moral Imperative of the Liberal Arts
Thank you President Roush, for inviting me to add my voice to this very special occasion.
It is hard—very hard—for me to believe that it was 39 years ago that I was sitting in opening convocation as a first-year student at Sewanee, another great liberal arts college.
I don’t remember the speaker that day—I was much more concerned about whether my roommate liked me, if anyone would like me, if I was dressed in a way that made me fit in, and what was on the agenda for that evening—the last night before classes started—and reality would set in. Perhaps you are having some of those same thoughts right now.
As a kid and throughout high school, I remember being asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. My dad was a physician, and when I said I wanted to be one too, I got lots of “oohs and ahhs” of appreciation, and that certainly felt good—so I kept saying it. Mostly, I liked nature—ants and frogs and groundhogs and landscapes—so biology was the obvious major for me. I certainly didn’t understand why I was required to take all of those other courses that I didn’t like – and I recognize now that I didn’t like them, in part, because I feared that I might not be very good in them.
I didn’t understand the gift I’d been given by my parents to attend a nationally-ranked, residential liberal arts college. My dad had been the first in his family to attend college, and until our campus visit my senior year in high school, he had never known such places existed, and he’s the one that fell in love with Sewanee.
I liked the idea of going there, more because it was small and far from home, than for all the reasons I should have understood and appreciated. Frankly, even when I graduated from college, I still had no clear idea what it meant to have a liberal arts education. And yet, I know now that it shaped me in ways that it took far too long for me to fully appreciate.
So, I want to make transparent to you what was so obscure for me when I sat in your seat that day. I remember not knowing what the Humanities even were, let alone why I needed to study them. And taking a foreign language was just a burdensome chore I tried to get behind me as quickly as possible—one of my great regrets is that I cannot communicate with people from another global community, because I passed up the opportunity to take more than the minimum required.
You see, sometimes us professors assume too much. We assume that you will just “get it”—that because you are here with us at Centre, you will naturally understand why the liberal arts are so important. Let me assure you, there is a moral imperative I feel as Dean to be absolutely clear with you about what we want you to learn here, and why.
But if I may, let me give you a little more background so that you will know where I’m coming from.
To earn my Ph.D. and the privilege to wear this academic regalia, I studied developmental neurotoxicology. In other words, I tested the effects of potentially-toxic chemicals on the developing brain. The inglorious truth about my research was that I dosed up pregnant rats with various poisons and ran their offspring through a battery of behavioral tests, and as a result my research went very well.
My doctoral training led to four productive years as a Toxicologist at the EPA in Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. During that time, I honed my writing skills and published a number of articles—some of them even still get cited now and then.
During my graduate work, I loved the teaching I got to do, but I rarely interacted with people or ideas from any discipline outside of biology; that’s the nature of graduate school. The truth is, after college we are likely to spend subsequent years building our expertise in an increasingly narrow field. At the EPA, my network consisted only of other neurotoxicologists. Let me just say, I became intellectually narrow-minded.
I am embarrassed now by the ignorant and overconfident young scientist I was when next I started as an assistant professor at Wofford College. I used to wonder—aloud—“Why are we making students take philosophy or religion, when they could be taking another biology course?” I had become a narrow-minded science snob.
What was dangerous about my thinking at that time was not my ignorance alone, but the fact that it was willful. I proudly disparaged fields that I knew nothing about—lucky for me, it didn’t take long for my colleagues in the humanities and social sciences to set me straight, and as my mind reopened, I was inspired to help create opportunities to learn across disciplinary boundaries. My first National Science Foundation grant brought humanists and scientists together to team-teach, and it transformed all of us. For six years I taught with a poet and nature writer from the English department, and I have never looked at the world or what it means to be an effective teacher the same way again.
Eventually, I even married the Chair of the Religion department, Byron McCane. Byron is an archaeologist, and so this biologist dean standing before you today has wielded a trowel on archeological digs in Israel and Jordan, and I’ve learned that the Roman Empire, with its mix and clash of cultures, can help us understand the effects of globalization that are playing out today. Why study Latin and the Classics? Because the brilliant architects, mathematicians, historians and philosophers of antiquity left us a treasure trove of wisdom—if only we are wise enough to pay attention to it.
I will go so far today as to say that cross-disciplinary cooperation and collaboration is a moral imperative if we are to ensure the future of our nation’s democracy. We live in troubled times, and certainly we need more knowledge, but right now, what we need most of all, is wisdom.
As a scientist, it is important to understand that science can show us what we can do, but it cannot reveal what we should do. Through the eyes of my humanist colleagues, in particular, I came to understand the powerful and privileged role that science plays in society.
Yes, I know, when powerful people, usually with financial motives, disparage the mountains of scientific evidence of climate change, that makes me angry too, but shame on us scientists if we contribute to the anti-intellectual campaign against the humanities.
You have only to compare the budgets of the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation to the budget of the National Endowment for the Humanities to recognize the privileged ways of knowing in Academia. The power that comes from such privilege can blind us to the moral and ethical consequences of actions cloaked in the mantle of “progress.” Such blindness can lead us to become willfully ignorant, indifferent, arrogant, and righteous—the Ancient Greeks called this hubris, a word that gives a name to a great danger to society.
Here I offer two examples from fairly-recent history that underscore the dangers of such hubris in science.
Some of you have likely heard of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. From 1932 to 1972—40 years!—the US Public Health Service conducted a study on 600 poor black men in Tuskegee, Alabama. Participants were recruited with promises of a lifetime of free medical treatment and, upon their eventual deaths, if they agreed to an autopsy, they would be guaranteed funeral benefits. Two hundred and one (201) men served as disease-free controls, whereas the experimental group consisted of 399 men diagnosed with syphilis—a sexually-transmitted disease which, over time, can cause brain and cardiovascular damage, severe mental impairment and death. These men were never told they had the disease, nor were they ever given penicillin, even though by 1943—just 11 years into the 40-year study—penicillin was the accepted and effective treatment to cure syphilis.
By 1966 the study was being led by scientists at the Center for Disease Control. Peter Buxtun, a Public Health Service investigator of sexually transmitted diseases learned of the study and sent a letter expressing concerns about the ethics and morality of the Tuskeegee Syphylis project. The CDC responded that the study would continue until its “natural conclusion” in which all of the participants had died and been autopsied. Leading medical associations—even the local association of black physicians—supported the decision of the CDC.
What on earth were those scientists thinking?
As I try to imagine the discussions around a conference table at the CDC, I imagine justifications such as “sacrifices must be made to advance scientific discovery” or even the slightly more squeamish, “we’ve gone this far, we should make sure that something good comes of this.”
But the unspoken and ugly rationale was clear from the start—these black lives don’t matter.
When he got nowhere with the CDC, Buxton went to the press—our nation’s free press—and the public outcry led to Congressional hearings and the US Government ended the study in 1972. By then, 128 of the 299 men had died of the disease or its complications, 40 of their wives had become infected, and 19 babies had been born with congenital syphilis.
It wasn’t until 25 years later, in a White House ceremony attended by five of the remaining eight study survivors, that president Bill Clinton looked into their eyes and said; “what the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry … To our African American citizens, I am sorry that your federal government orchestrated a study so clearly racist.”
For the past three years. I was Dean of the Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University, in Jupiter, FL, about 40 miles north of the main campus in Boca Raton. The honors college shares its campus with two of the world’s most renowned science research institutes, the Scripps Research Institute—Florida (the only one outside of California) and the Max Planck Institute for Neuroscience (the only Max Planck Institute outside of Europe).
The Max Planck Society is based in Germany, and they are widely known for world class research in many disciplines, and students from the honors college gained remarkable research experience through interning with Max Planck neuroscientists. And I’d be happy to help some of you do that, too.
However, there is a very dark phase in the history of the Max Planck Society, which was established after World War II upon the ruins of what had been the Kaiser Wilhelm Society.
During WWII, two Kaiser Wilhelm Society scientists collaborated closely with the Nazis, who were systematically murdering the mentally ill or mentally impaired—along with countless Jews in concentration camps—and as the victims were killed, these scientists collected their brains.
After WWII ended, it would be 56 years, in 2001, before the President of the Max Planck Society made the first public apology for the Kaiser Wilhelm Society’s active collaboration with the Nazis. Ten years earlier, all of the known brain sections stored at Max Planck with dates corresponding to WWII had been buried and a commemorative plaque erected. However, just four years ago, in 2015, more brain sections dating from WWII were discovered in the collection.
A powerful press statement was issued: “We cannot state strongly enough the shame we feel when faced with the actions of scientists at our institute’s antecedent during the Third Reich. We commit to exposing this somber history and will use it to reinforce the teaching and transmission of the ethical prerequisites of scientific endeavors.”
So, I ask you now to join me in reimagining that Tuskeegee study with a different set of empowered advisors—historians, literary experts, ethicists, and scholars of religion—in addition to clerics and representatives of the very community under study. I believe that study would have ended with the discovery of penicillin as an effective cure for syphilis – instead the study continued for another 30 years.
And what will prevent scientists from ever again perceiving the holocaust as an opportunity to advance human brain science—instead of an evil on a scale never before seen in human history?
Byron and I happen to have very dear German friends, and as a nation they have owned up to the horrors of their past. We need our humanists and artists to protect us from our selfishness and from the pressures of both the mob—and the market—that can lead us to lose our empathy and our humanity.
This is why, here at Centre College, we require you to take courses in three divisions—Division one, the arts and humanities; Division two, the social sciences; and Division three, mathematics and the natural sciences. But a liberal arts education only “works” if you embrace the learning and appreciate the imperative of learning across these different divisions. It only works if you understand that we are all ignorant about that which we have yet to learn, and that our ignorance can make us foolish if we fail to recognize it; but it can make us dangerous if we are willfully certain that there are disciplines that have nothing to teach us.
Here at Centre, all of us have responsibilities that extend far beyond our personal goals and desires. Our country is in a moral and ethical crisis fueled by income inequality, bigotry, and unprecedented technological influence on social norms. The world cannot afford for those of us who have the advantage of a liberal arts education—who know the value of evidence, reason, and moral action—to let apathy, ignorance, or fear of those from backgrounds different from our own, to chip away at our shared humanity.
Yes, you earned your place at Centre by working hard, but don’t ever forget how lucky you are to be here—there are, after all, close to eight billion people on this planet—and only a tiny fraction has access to a college like this one. Centre offers you an increasingly rare, practical and transformative education—and, as our alumni will assure you, when you are done, you will be so very ready for what’s next.
So, make sure your education here is both broad and deep. With an open heart and an open mind, explore and engage with the arts, humanities, social sciences, mathematics and the natural sciences. Become fluent in another language, study abroad, do an internship. And don’t forget to have fun—get involved, volunteer in the community, cheer on your peers at sporting events, risk making a new friend. In short, don’t just get your degree from Centre, earn it. This is one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country and in the world, and you and I are so very lucky to be here.
So, together, let’s get to work!
by Ellen Goldey, Vice President for Academic Affairs & Dean of the College
September 1, 2019