The respectful sharing of different points of view is essential to the mission of a residential liberal arts college. In fact, it is the essence of that mission. Everyone's thinking is improved by critical exchange and listening to alternative points of view. The flip side of this core value is that there is no place in a campus community for racism, homophobia, gender bias, religious intolerance or the other kinds of prejudice that exist in the larger societies that surround us. Bigotry closes minds rather than opens them. It can make for a hostile climate that undermines students' ability -- and their right -- to thrive, to contribute fully and freely even as they seek their own aspirations.
Immanuel Kant, one the most influential philosophers in Western intellectual history, in his 1785 treatise on ethical theory, said, "we must always act so as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only."1 Later he says that, "this principle is the supreme limiting condition of the actions of each man," meaning that whatever degree of freedom you might have, it never extends to treating another only as a means to your own ends.
What does it mean to treat other persons as ends-in-themselves and never merely as means? Well, the central idea is that every human being deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, that in all of our interactions, even with those with whom we disagree, or whom we don't like, or who may even disgust us in some way, we must engage them in ways that recognize their humanity.
For Kant, what is metaphysically distinct about humans is that we have free will; that is, we can make choices and control our behavior according to the exercise of reason. It is only because of this that humans have the capacity for morality; if you can't choose, you can't choose otherwise, so creatures that are not capable of rational choice are not capable of ethical deliberation - that is, they are not capable of critically reflecting on how they ought to act.
We can. And for Kant this makes all the difference. The capacity for choice, for ethics, gives humanity a rare quality of dignity. We have what he calls "intrinsic worth." This dignity, or worth, imposes limits on how others should treat us and on how we should treat others.
For most students, no matter what their background, a college campus is the most diverse community in which they have lived so far. They live, eat, play and study with peers who have different backgrounds and identities: different races, different nationalities, different sexual orientations, different religious beliefs, and about all of these, different conceptions and misconceptions.
At the College of Wooster, and at many other institutions, the choice to seed diversity is intentional. It is a critical dimension of excellence as a liberal arts college. Living in a campus community as diverse as Wooster's is rich with opportunity but also challenging. It is something of a field of practice where mistakes are more generously indulged as part of the process of learning.
This fall, as a new group of students arrived to join our community, I urged them to aspire always to recognize the ideal of human dignity, to act with respect and compassion, to look for these qualities in others and to honor their intrinsic worth even when -- or especially when -- it is hard to see. More specifically, I urged them: to be gentle with one another, collaborating in the project of helping each other come to a deeper understanding of what we do not fully understand; to be courageous when courage is called for, calling out disrespect wherever and whenever they see it; to engage in dialogue especially when dialogue is difficult or uncomfortable; and in all things to manifest respect for the dignity and humanity of their peers and partners in this noble project we call liberal education.
The entire enterprise of living and learning together, our very mission is only possible if we treat our differences, and each other, with respect. This is the cardinal virtue of a liberal arts college like Wooster: the sine qua non of a community of learners.
This essay is adapted from President Cornwell's Convocation address on Aug. 27, 2013.
1Kant, Immanuel. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. 2nd edition. New Jersey: Pearson Publishing, 1989. Print.