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Grinnell’s Mission Statement

Grinnell, like most institutions, has a mission statement, a carefully worded [1] description of the primary goals of the institution. From my perspective, a College mission statement has a variety of primary purposes. First, and most importantly, the mission statement describes the College carefully. Second, and nearly as importantly, because the mission statement describes the core values and goals of an institution, it is used [2] to guide decisions. As the institution decides what programs to create, what faculty positions it needs, which activities to fund, and so on and so forth, it should use the mission statement to prioritize among choices. Third, the mission statement serves to brand or advertise the institution. Students and donors selecting an institution need to know what the institution is about. We would hope that they look to the mission statement for that information.

Given that import, I worry that people don’t read the mission statement enough. So, let’s consider Grinnell’s mission statement.

When Grinnell College framed its charter in the Iowa Territory of the United States in 1846, it set forth a mission to educate its students for the different professions and for the honorable discharge of the duties of life. The College pursues that mission by providing an education in the liberal arts through free inquiry and the open exchange of ideas. As a teaching and learning community, the College holds that knowledge is a good to be pursued both for its own sake and for the intellectual, moral, and physical well-being of individuals and of society at large. The College exists to provide a lively academic community of students and teachers of high scholarly qualifications from diverse social and cultural circumstances. The College aims to graduate individuals who can think clearly, who can speak and write persuasively and even eloquently, who can evaluate critically both their own and others’ ideas, who can acquire new knowledge, and who are prepared in life and work to use their knowledge and their abilities to serve the common good.

Inspiring, isn’t it? At least I find it so. It speaks to our dual missions of education and community service. It states carefully what we expect to be the foci of that education. And it’s even relatively articulate. Let’s take it apart.

The first sentence ties us to our history. It reminds us of why it was founded, and what our original mission was. It also leads into the rest of the mission statement, in which we describe further what it means to educate students and what the honorable discharge of duties of life are.

I was going to try to describe the second sentence, but all I found was that I was rewording it. I think it stands incredibly well on its own.

The third grounds us as community and talks about the three benefits of learning: for knowledge, for self, and for society. In an era in which practical education is increasingly emphasized, it reminds us that we should also learn for the sake of learning. It also begins to explain what honorable discharge means: We use our knowledge for the benefit of society of large.

The fourth sentence revisits the theme of community and reminds us that a successful community embraces diversity. The sentence is also a bit elitist: We don’t educate just anyone; we educate those of high scholarly qualifications. The advertising is poking through a bit here, but I think it’s also an important part of our guidance. We focus on making strong students stronger, not on making competent students more competent.

And then we hit the wonderful final sentence, which tells us what it means to be educated. As importantly, it also remind us once again what honorable discharge means.

As a faculty member, I find that this final sentence helps govern what and how I teach. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t interrogate the sentence. For example, what makes something persuasive these days? Since many arguments are now supplemented by data and by images, we have a responsibility to help our students be data literate and able to supplement their writing with appropriate images [3]. Similarly, to evaluate ideas critically, now that those ideas are often presented with data and images, one must understand data and images.

I’ve found that my department works particularly carefully to prepare our students to acquire new knowledge, at least within the discipline. We focus on core ideas and principles, because we know that students can base new learning on that. We teach three different programming language models in the introductory curriculum so that students can master new ways of thinking. We’ve found that we’re particularly successful in that endeavor.

These days, I’m thinking a bit more about what it means to be prepared in life and work to use […] knowledge. Increasingly, I think it involves living life sensibly, and knowing how to manage time and wellness. People who are over-stressed and over-burdened are not as well prepared as those who can manage themselves. That’s certainly worth thinking more about.

You know what? That final sentence should also describe all our community members, not just our students. Our faculty, staff, and administrators should be people who strive to think clearly, speak and write persuasively and even eloquently, evaluate both their own and other’s ideas, and acquire new knowledge. Finally, while there are many ways we individually serve the common good, we serve the common good together by supporting and developing our students.

[1] We hope it’s carefully worded.

[2] Well, it should be used.

[3] Okay, I feel I have that responsibly; I don’t know about others.

Version 1.0 of 2016-12-26.