Monthly Column March 2017
Civility, Kindness Are Important Virtues
The curriculum for a University System of Georgia institution such as Dalton State includes a liberal arts core. As someone with a liberal arts undergraduate degree in chemistry, I understand firsthand the value of such an educational foundation. Although my coursework focused strongly on chemistry and closely related subjects, I also had the opportunity to study other subjects such as history, art, and literature. I tell students this is how I was able to become a college president. My educational background was broad enough to allow me to experience a variety of subjects and perspectives on the world and it helped prepare me for the myriad of life experiences I have encountered in the decades since my graduation.
An important part of a liberal arts education is learning how to process and analyze information and then synthesizing it into knowledge and wisdom that can be applied productively. For many students, college is the place where they see and hear different perspectives, maybe for the first time, perhaps shaking the foundations of what they had previously thought and known. This is an essential part of the college experience which shapes our students into educated men and women. Even if what we hear does not change our position on a subject, I believe we must actively analyze our values and beliefs in order to fully embrace them. In fact, respect and collegiality are among our core values for Dalton State.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously observed “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the head at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” The extent to which we can do this and still be decent, civilized human beings appears to be dwindling. Public discourse over the past months has become increasingly harsh, characterized by strident voices and mean tweets. We’re not so much talking to each other as we are making a lot of angry noise.
I read just the other day about students at a Vermont college who literally turned their backs on an invited speaker who represented a differing point of view. They created so much noise that the speaker could not be heard, and a scuffle after the event resulted in injury to the faculty member who had moderated the program. Stories like this sadden me. Whatever happened to polite but stimulating debates that do not involve personal insults and listening respectfully to provocative ideas and simply agreeing to disagree?
It is civility that allows us to approach difficult conversations with dignity and courtesy. It imposes boundaries on our speech and behavior and permits us to advocate passionately but politely in any situation.
Several Dalton State faculty members are participating this semester in a program called “Engaging Students in Difficult Dialogues,” about creating a tolerant and respectful environment for challenging classroom discussions. In addition to teaching them content, we want to equip our students with the tools they need to have respectful, tolerant conversations on difficult topics on and off campus.
At the heart of civility is respect and also a measure of kindness. There must be a degree of empathy to allow us to view a situation from someone else’s point of view and to give their ideas the thoughtful consideration they deserve, even when we disagree with them.
Kindness is a virtue to which we can all aspire. Dr. Cheryl Owens, a member of our nursing faculty and director of our student health service, addressed graduates at our December commencement on the value of basic kindness as a companion to their diplomas. “Remember it is easy to hate,” she told the freshly minted graduates. “It is easy to be selfish. It is easy to get angry and be frustrated. It takes true strength and courage to be kind in all circumstances. “My greatest hope and prayer is that each of you will be known not only as well prepared and well educated graduates of DSC but as passionate and compassionate human beings,” she said.
You may have seen our recent story and video about Trevor Gregory Printup, the Dalton State student who stands on a corner of the campus several times each week and greets fellow students, faculty, and staff as they pass by. For someone who is having a bad day, Trevor’s greeting can be a ray of much needed sunshine. For those having a good day, it can put an extra bounce in the step. Trevor’s example reminds us that kindness and civility are never out of fashion, and that the world is a better place when we practice them in all our human interactions.