The American Enterprise Institute, in Washington, generously included me in a panel discussion a while back about connecting education to employment. At one point, the president of a community college system seated next to me focused on Davidson.
He called us “extraordinary” and said that employers were looking for the “broad capabilities” we provide.
We talk a lot about the skills and capabilities that Davidson, as an institution committed to liberal arts education, cultivates, but we sometimes struggle to clearly identify them. That’s partly because we haven’t taken care to define our terms. Undefined, the words “liberal arts” connote different things to different audiences and can lead to a confusing perception of what we do. Civic and business leaders sometimes talk about “soft skills,” “deep skills” or “critical thinking.”
There is merit in all of those, and I would describe our students as graduating with the ability to navigate the unfamiliar. That requires many of the talents we routinely associate with a liberal arts education, such as: rigorously analyzing a problem from different perspectives, creatively reframing the questions we inherit, and communicating effectively to diverse audiences.
Davidson also distinctively equips its graduates with the moral courage to steer through that unfamiliarity with compassion and humility. From day one, we welcome our students from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, and we mix them up. They sign the Honor Code that functions like no other. They live and learn together and grapple with their differences. More than three-quarters of them go abroad and step into a different culture. A quarter of them compete in Division I sports. They perform on stage, display their poetry or art for public critique, sign up for internships where they may feel overwhelmed on day one, charge into outdoor adventures, and compete for venture capital to fund their new business ideas. Our students put themselves on the line for what matters to them.
They gain a strength that lasts a lifetime.
In this edition of the Davidson Journal, you will read about Ross Boyce, who went from Davidson into combat as a U.S. Army officer and, after medical school, went to war against malaria in western Uganda with little money or support. You can read about Greg Murphy who refused to watch more of his children’s friends die of opioid overdose and dove into the crisis as a doctor, parent, Scout leader and legislator who worked across the aisle during deeply partisan times to pass powerful new laws. And you can learn about how Mickey Hubbard and Kiara Boone are confronting racial injustice and advocating for equality in their work with the Equal Justice Initiative.
You might recently have read about Shea Parikh, a 2016 alum who won Davidson’s Venture Fund Pitch Competition with his startup company, Jam. Its software uses our phones and other technologies that have reduced face-to-face connections to help create those connections in the workplace. He counts a Fortune 500 company as a new client. When Parikh was a senior, he won funding from the college for an app he created, and he credits Davidson with helping build the confidence to launch Jam.
Or you may have seen a TED Talk by Shalini Unnikrishnan ’01, of Boston Consulting Group, who helped lead the United Nations response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa. When many were fleeing, she was going in.
Davidson courage is not always the physical, run-into-danger variety. It’s often intellectual, questioning inherited assumptions and beliefs or engaging with views opposed to one’s own. It’s stepping into a job knowing that it probably will transform in a year or two. It takes place from boardrooms to dusty deserts, from laboratories to prison classrooms.
It’s a commitment to live for something bigger and more than oneself.
My colleague on the panel in Washington was correct, with one small edit: What our people do is extraordinary.