As part of the weekend’s inauguration programing, President Elizabeth Bradley moderated two panels on Saturday, Sept. 23. The first of the two panels commenced at 1:30 p.m. and was titled “Liberal Education in a Globalized World.” The second panel, at 3:00 p.m., was called “Health and Health Care: Where are we going?.” Both events featured prominent thinkers from both the U.S. and the international community.
As President Bradley took to the lectern Saturday afternoon, she was greeted with warm and lengthy applause. The audience consisted both of members of the Vassar community, as well as friends and fans of Vassar’s new president. She began by addressing the central question of the panel. “What’s the project we have here [at Vassar]?” she asked. “What are we standing on?”
Bradley introduced the members of the first panel. First was President Emerita of the University of Chicago Hanna Gray. Gray focused primarily on the history of liberal education and humanism—how a so-called liberal education has evolved over her 65 years in the field. Also on the panel was President of the Association of American Colleges and Universities Lynn Pasquerella. Pasquerella focused primarily on accessibility to education.
Minister of Finance of the Republic of Ghana Ken Ofori-Atta participated in Saturday’s first panel as well. Ofori-Atta focused on the economic and political challenges of a liberal education, particularly in the developing world.
Azamat Kumykov, the panel’s final member, is a businessman from Russia and a Yale graduate. Kumykov spoke on the often overlooked relationship between liberal education and the private sector.
Once the speakers were introduced, each had the opportunity to speak on the topic of the afternoon. Gray went first, reflecting on the conflicts, both modern and historic, over the practice and practicality of multidisciplinarianism in higher education. Practicing the liberal arts, according to Gray, is commonly seen as a kind of dilettantism—a frivolous and aimless practice undertaken without commitment.
In contrast, Gray stressed that a liberal arts education must be seen as an important form of preparation for the entire being. The liberal arts, she noted, help a student learn how to evaluate evidence, how to deal with complexity and how to facilitate individual thought. The solutions to the current struggle of the liberal arts, she noted, are not merely curricular. “The practice of the liberal arts is only as effective as the animating spirit behind it,” she said, identifying the need for broad, ideological change.
Pasquerella spoke next, telling her own story of accessing education. She talked about a liberal arts education not just as a practical commodity, but as a life-changing factor in many people’s lives. She considered what she sees as a growing economic and racial segregation in the liberal arts, remarking that a radical reckoning with current structures is necessary for closing that divide.
After Pasquerella was Minister Ofori-Atta. Ofori-Atta spoke of the economic impact of the changing demographics in his home country, Ghana. Specifically, he regarded the question of sharing educational resources in a place where they are relatively scarce, in order to get young people educated and employed. Many people in Ghana, he said, view a liberal arts education as a luxury. However, in light of the current educational system of Ghana, which is seen as a more practical, vocational education, Ofori-Atta can’t help but wonder, “Is there something more we should be doing?”
Ofori-Atta lamented the widespread corruption in Ghana and the toll it takes on the country and its population. A liberal education, Ofori-Atta argued, is necessary to create citizens rather than just people who are living in a country. “It’s a question of teaching leadership and responsibility as part of a student’s training,” he said.
Finally, Kumykov spoke. He told the audience about “Grand Strategy Russia,” a program that exposed established and wealthy Russian businesspeople to a diverse liberal arts pedagogy, including history, philosophy and politics. Regarding the importance of such an education, Kumykov reflected on his own family’s history. He shared that his family was severely affected by the Russian Revolution, when his grandfather was deemed as an enemy of the people. His father was able to
ascend socially and economically through education, eventually becoming a physics professor. The lesson from this, Kumykov emphasised, was the transformative power of education to rescue his family from their previously dire situation. “One thing that no one can take away from you,” he said, “is your education.”
After presenting individually, the panelists took questions from the audience.
The second of Saturday’s panels tackled the complex and pertinent issues of health and healthcare. This panel consisted of four speakers as well. Patrick Geoghegan, O.B.E., was the first speaker as well as the panel’s moderator. A former National Health Service executive in the U.K., Geoghegan spoke about his charity, The Silver Line. The Silver Line is a phone line available to elderly individuals in the U.K. suffering from loneliness. During the panel, Geoghegan cited a study that suggests that loneliness can be as damaging to someone’s health as smoking 25 cigarettes a day.
Following Geoghegan was Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Professor of Environmental Health Services Ellen Silbergeld ’67. Silbergeld’s focus Saturday afternoon was that of prevention. She posed the question, “What are we doing to keep people healthy?” “Health is not just the absence of disease,” she asserted, arguing that prevention is a necessary, yet often overlooked, aspect of health and healthcare.
Next was Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers founder and director Jeffrey Brenner ’90. Brenner talked about the imbalance in the U.S. healthcare system.
Last was Angela Ofori-Atta, a clinical psychologist out of Ghana. Angela remarked on the importance of mental health, especially in the developing world, where it is often ignored. She emphasized the necessity of task-shifting, telling the story of Ghana’s “psych corps,” young mental health professionals who employ cognitive behavioral intervention preemptively to citizens of the country.