Expanding the circle of “we”

Anthony Marx is set to become the president of the New York Public Library. And I like the way he thinks:

In his 2003 inaugural address [as president of Amherst College], Mr. Marx — quoting from a speech President John F. Kennedy had given at Amherst — asked, “What good is a private college unless it is serving a great national purpose?”

On Sunday, Mr. Marx presided over his final Amherst graduation. […] And he can point to some impressive successes at Amherst.

More than 22 percent of students now receive federal Pell Grants (a rough approximation of how many are in the bottom half of the nation’s income distribution). In 2005, only 13 percent did. Over the same period, other elite colleges have also been doing more to recruit low- and middle-income students, and they have made some progress.

It is tempting, then, to point to all these changes and proclaim that elite higher education is at long last a meritocracy. But Mr. Marx doesn’t buy it. If anything, he worries, the progress has the potential to distract people from how troubling the situation remains. […]

“We claim to be part of the American dream and of a system based on merit and opportunity and talent,” Mr. Marx says. “Yet if at the top places, two-thirds of the students come from the top quartile and only 5 percent come from the bottom quartile, then we are actually part of the problem of the growing economic divide rather than part of the solution.”

Equal access to education truly seems to be a consistent priority with Marx, who laid out his philosophy in the abovementioned inaugural address:

Today we hear invoked across the land certain truths. Truths are precious when based on critical examination or as part of an unfulfillable search. But truths asserted as doctrine and ideology are divisive. Such dogmas will never protect us for long. Nor should we be protected by them, for such protection stands in the way of thinking.

Many of these threats to our liberty leave us — as I am left — to reflect on the word “we.” It is a powerful word; the most powerful word in politics, for it defines the scope of our solidarity, our sympathy and obligation. It is the first word of our constitution, though even that document faltered in incorporating women and those of African descent within that founding “we.” In our society, those not immediately present have too often been forgotten or left out, unseen over the hills, not part of our privilege. Who is considered worth educating has too often been circumscribed. We have too often constrained who is considered capable of deliberating on truth.

We have sometimes fallen short in meeting our ideals, here and in America. But now we face the staggering challenge to expand those ideals to the world. The “we” continues to expand, as it has done for a half millennium or more. We are pressed to enlarge our engagement and compassion faster than our minds and our institutions may seem capable of envisioning. […]

It is the enlightenment ideal that all can learn and participate.

Indeed. Here’s hoping that Marx’s leadership turns the Library into an even more transformative force for equal access to knowledge and opportunity — for expanding the circle of “we.”

(Photo by Jonathan Blanc/NYPL)

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