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An unsolicited and humble reflection on education for the common good

May 3, 2024

This piece represents the opinion of the author .

It’s a challenging time to be in higher education. It’s a challenging time to be a leader. And it’s a hell of a challenging time to be a human on this planet who cares about other humans.

I chose to work in higher ed, because I believe in the promise of shaping a better world through, and for, our students. I landed at Bowdoin, in part, because it was “founded and endowed for the common good,” a place where we charge ourselves with producing “leaders in all walks of life.” Given the enormity of challenges in the world, we need, more than ever, to support our students by equipping them with skills and encouraging their motivation to help.

Amidst all this challenge, I feel encouraged by students who are motivated to improve the flawed world they’re inheriting. Yet in ongoing conversations with students, I worry we’re missing the mark on creating an environment where students can learn and practice the skills that will operationalize their motivations. But there are moves open to us—because while we’re not all in the classroom, we are all educators.

As staff and faculty, we must model the ability to listen to and express complex and nuanced perspectives. When was the last time we had coffee with someone with a distinctly different perspective and listened without seeking to counter their view? When was the last time we contemplated whether it was possible to advocate while seeking maximum benefit, rather than assuming zero sum? To me, this way of being is foundational to serving the common good effectively and sustainably, no matter your agenda.

Next year promises little respite from the same issues, not to mention new and different ones we don’t yet see coming. Can we recommit to threading the needle between honoring our viewpoints and challenging ourselves to engage with other perspectives? Can we see controversy as an opportunity to complexify narratives, rather than to flatten them? Can we model persuasion and reason without hyperbole? Can we bridge instead of divide?

If you have ideas for how to continue the conversation, please reach out.

Katie Toro-Ferrari is the senior associate dean for student affairs and dean of student engagement and leadership. 


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  1. Class of '27 says:

    I fully respect the author’s attempts at prompting introspection, but I cannot help but feel that the underlying message of this piece is an unconditional call for civility, even if it requires stifling the difficult conversations that have been facilitated by principled – and at times, necessarily confrontational – forms of student activism. It is not thoughtful to remain silent on issues of grave injustice solely because they are polarizing. Again, I fully respect the author’s perspective – and share her concern for the strength of our community, but there are times to embrace discomfort – for example, amid a genocide – and stand firmly for what is right, even if that risks alienating some.

    • Katie Toro-Ferrari says:

      Author here– for what it’s worth: I hear you. It’s hard to capture all of the nuance in 350 words or less. The point I tried to make–
      perhaps poorly– is that it feels to me that we increasingly default to confrontation and condemnation. There are other tactics, and while they may not always be the best match for the issue(s) at hand, we forego the ability to leverage them if we don’t start by understanding where other people are coming from. As someone who cares (deeply) about building a better world, I worry about the atrophying of empathy as a tool for productive disagreement. (For what it’s worth, I really would love to continue this conversation IRL so please reach out to me over email if you are game!)

      • Joseph says:

        Hi Katie,
        I have thought about your comments and concerns. I share your feelings about ‘this’ dilemma. I think we must heal ourselves first, then we can truly help others. Oh, in small ways we can be helpful to others, however, how do we learn to transcend who we are due to what we have learned while in such a degenerate, violent society that focuses primarily on generating dollars ? Where is real knowledge and how can we attain it and know who we really are?

  2. Philip al Mutawaly '24 says:

    1. We are not children misguided in our “motivation to help.” We’re adults telling you to stop normalizing a genocide. This is conservatism disguised as a moderate stance. The status quo IS genocide. Whether you actively support it or argue we should do nothing while we sit around and get coffee, Palestinians are still being annihilated. What viewpoints would you like to discuss? Should we, or shouldn’t we, act to stop the annihilation of people? That should not be a hard choice.

    2. I don’t get a sense of care for nuance from this article. I’m getting discomfort from administrators who can’t handle conflict or being put under scrutiny because it’s bad for business. SJP is giving this college a chance to be on the right side of history. But the college refuses. And for what? Two investors? To preserve a community that sticks its head in the sand? What you really want, and I think you should just say this, is to have this ‘conversation’ the administration has been begging for, then go home, feel good about yourselves while doing nothing material and leaving the checkbook untouched; do your land acknowledgment and then nothing. My answer? Cowardly.

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