Recent news accounts of actions intended to alter the mission of New College of Florida immediately reminded me of the description of the college’s mission I often shared when speaking to local service and business groups, alumni associations and other civic organizations. Tongue only partly in cheek, I stated that “the mission of New College is to be cheerfully subversive of the least attractive features of the surrounding society.” Consequently, the core principles promoting this mission are: rational argument based upon true premises; the appeal to publicly available evidence when making a claim; openness to alternative viewpoints — including the possibility you might be wrong; and respect for those who may view things differently when matters are intrinsically complex.
The features of the surrounding society for which these principles are the antidotes ought to be fairly obvious. I originally included in that list “the capacity to deal with ambiguity,” but someone would always come up to me afterwards and ask if I could be “more clear” about what I meant by that, so I eventually dropped it.
To convey a sense of how such goals were actually promoted on campus, I described discussions both inside and outside of the classroom about such matters as the correct interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” the ratio between natural and human-made causes of red tide, or the relationship between rights and duties in a democratic society. Typically, there is no single resolution, and students will often leave class continuing their debates. They don’t walk out thinking that the classmate with an opposing view is a bad person or somehow their enemy. Over time and in numerous settings, our students are developing the habits and skills of civic virtue, a process that is only enhanced by the diversity of those making up campus life.
In this everyday business of the college, the underlying support structure is provided by the integrity, professionalism and student-centeredness of the New College of Florida faculty, remarkably kind human beings as a group who surely do not deserve the implicit suggestion that they are somehow up to no good. Just ask their students.
Foreign-born Princeton philosopher Walter Kaufmann once lamented a tendency among Americans to believe the goal of education is “to make students pious, positive and patriotic.” This is why collegiate marching bands are so popular, since they provide an image of young people doing exactly what they are told to do. I personally do not believe New College will ever have a marching band.
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On the other hand, I surely agree that the college must continually pursue self-examination and improvement, though I do not believe that its current challenges are the result of serious flaws in its mission. Through its graduates, and often against great odds, New College has established an enviable record of national recognition, achievement, and success, which includes producing a host of elected officials who — tellingly, perhaps — span the entire political spectrum. In short, a quality liberal arts and sciences education is simply not a partisan matter.
Gordon E. “Mike” Michalson Jr., emeritus professor of humanities, was president of New College of Florida from 2001 until 2012 and dean and warden from 1992-97.