Marcus Whitman and the Role of a Liberal Education

Gavin Victor, Opinion Columnist

If the goal of a liberal education is to develop students into thoughtful citizens, the incorporation of the study of Whitman’s colonial history into curriculum is a great strategy. Marcus Whitman can serve as a catalyst for thought about our nation’s contentious history. Just as the Whitman community is now acknowledging and acting upon our past, the United States is, and should continue, to do the same.

Whitman students chose this school for a reason. While it may not have been a driving factor for all of us, the fact that Whitman is labeled a “liberal arts college” means that we as a student body value a liberal education.

A liberal education — dating back to Greece and Rome — exists to give students the ability to deal with complex problems and act as optimal citizens and community members. It has its roots in the Socratic method, proposed by (you guessed it) Socrates. As such, our college focuses on the testing of a student’s own ideas. We want our ideas tested, so that we can progress in the skills of idea formulation and modification.

Ideas being tested and changed through discussion… that’s what happens in democracy! Liberal education is perfect practice for democratic engagement, and that’s the point.

Whitman as an institution has recently made a lot of changes, changes that move the college away from its founding ideals. Whitman has traditionally idealized the concept of the “missionary,” as seen in its former mascot. These changes reflect an intra-institutional shift, from one worldview to another. The college disagreed with its own traditions and chose to change them. This specific analysis and action is great preparation for living as an active community member in the U.S.

Encounters, the required course for first years, sets the tone for Whitman’s style of liberal education. Coursework creators recently made the choice to incorporate into the curriculum the study of Marcus Whitman, along with the Maxey Hall art exhibit “A Proper Monument,” which showcases historical pieces relating to the Whitman colonial history. It should be noted that this exhibit surely doesn’t glorify Marcus Whitman. The coursework creators decided it was important to be cognizant of the past, regardless of what it says about our institution, and I am glad they made that decision. This is not only important for the direction and profile of the school — it fits in perfectly with the goal of a liberal education as well.

In the same way Whitman College addresses Marcus Whitman, the United States and its citizens must address the controversial actions throughout American history. So, when we go out into the world, we will have some experience in not only being tied to a character whose motives and actions we had to analyze, but in having input and affecting change where we deem fit. That, I think, will be extremely valuable.

In discussing Marcus Whitman, we students are forced to think about a controversial aspect of history and decide how we act upon it today. We must analyze the roots we are connected to, an act of great importance for a community mostly comprised of United States citizens. Moreover, we must act in accordance with our newfound conclusions.

This is a model for progress. Ignoring the past doesn’t make it go away, nor does it fix its residual issues. Focusing on Marcus Whitman and his actions is an exercise in what it means to be a participatory American citizen in this age, and a liberal education exists to do exactly that.