Op-Ed: Succeed, A Critical Analysis of the Whitman College Mission Statement

Christopher Reimann, Whitman College Junior

The Whitman College Mission Statement reads:

Whitman College is committed to providing an excellent, well-rounded liberal arts and science undergraduate education. It is an independent, nonsectarian, and residential college. Whitman offers an ideal setting for rigorous learning and scholarship and encourages creativity, character, and responsibility.

Through the study of humanities, arts and social and natural sciences, Whitman’s students develop capacities to analyze, interpret, criticize, communicate, and engage. A concentration on basic disciplines, in combination with a supportive residential life program that encourages personal and social development, is intended to foster intellectual vitality, confidence, leadership, and the flexibility to succeed in a changing technological, multicultural world.

(Emphasis added in non-italic text)


Applying to college, everyone generally asks, “Why do I want to go here?” It was an important question then. It may be more important now. Understanding why we want to learn what we want to learn requires understanding why we want to attend the institution that teaches us. To understand why we want to attend this institution we must understand why the college wants to teach us, what kind of knowledge they want to teach, and compare it to our goals in learning. To realize this relationship we must fully recognize the college’s telos.

The most concise presentation of Whitman’s pedagogical aspirations lies in the school’s Mission Statement. At first glance, this statement is a bland assortment of opaque adjectives and virtues the school hopes to disseminate, but it merits a closer reading. The mission statement (found in its entirety at the top of the page) can generally be broken into three sections. Through a well rounded liberal arts and science education we as students should come to embody “creativity, character, and responsibility.” Whitman hopes to inculcate us with the ability to “analyze, interpret, criticize, communicate, and engage.” Finally, the school hopes to foster our “intellectual vitality, confidence, leadership, and flexibility.” As students, we are imbued with these qualities to go forth and “succeed.”

But what are creativity, character and responsibility? What does it mean to analyze, interpret, and criticize? Or to foster leadership and flexibility? What does it mean to succeed? They sound like something to aspire to, but are they?

Exploring the definitions of these words, taken from the Oxford English Dictionary, provides a clearer image of how the college hopes to mold us. The first grouping of traits (creativity, character and responsibility) asks us to think outside the box, to standout, and to follow through on obligations. These are important qualities for a college to teach, and Whitman seems to do a good job with this. The second grouping calls for us to take in information, reason with and pass judgment on it and impart said knowledge to others. Again, these are important human qualities to strive for, and again, Whitman largely succeeds in this endeavor. But this leaves out the last word of this grouping, “engage.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “to engage” is “to pledge, offer as guarantee (one’s life, honor, etc.).”  At Whitman, students will learn to think creatively, stand out, and absorb and interpret information. We are also asked to pledge ourselves to something, with no answer as to what.

Finally, in the last collection, Whitman hopes to foster our energy for knowledge, our ability to trust “in or rely on a person or thing,” and our ability to lead. But Whitman also hopes to foster our flexibility, or in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, our ability to “become malleable,” or “to bend to pressure.” Leadership requires the “influence necessary for the direction or organization of effort in a group undertaking.” Yes, this requires the ability to hear others opinions, but it also requires the ability for an individual to stick to their guns and not bend to pressure. Why then does Whitman only focus on being flexible?

Many of these skills and qualities are valuable traits that students should have. I probably wouldn’t be able to write this Op-Ed without some of these skills that Whitman has given me. But the mission statement isn’t over. Before agreeing to aspire towards these qualities and skills, we should ask: Why does Whitman want us to learn them?

Students are taught these skills “to succeed.” To succeed is to “come next and take the place of another.”  To succeed is to follow. With this, the rest of the mission statement comes in to stark clarity. Students are not being fostered to go out and change the world; we are being fostered to fit into a changing one. We are meant to engage, but only as long as it is in the succession that already exists. We are meant to be flexible so the world can change us. Are institutions of higher education supposed to provide students the ability to succeed? As a student of this college, I want something more. I want the tools to understand the world. I want the tools to know when the world is defining me and when I am helping define it.