Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Education is key to producing leaders, trustee says in lecture

A liberal arts education can help reunite the qualities and ideals that produced great, historic leaders in America, according to Josiah Bunting, a member of the Randolph College board of trustees.

Bunting spoke Monday at the College. The author of a published biography on Ulysses S. Grant and a forthcoming book on George C. Marshall, he discussed the common qualities that made great leaders in the past.

He introduced his audience to a new word—prosopography.

“Prosopography is a branch of history which is concerned with groups allied in a common purpose or brought together by some extrinsic cause,” Bunting said.

In his lecture titled "Where Have the Great Ones Gone?" Bunting focused on a few generations of great leaders and the common experiences that prompted greatness.

A classical education united the Founding Fathers. Education in their time consisted of a significant amount of solitary study and thinking. The most-read texts were histories. “They were familiar with how previous republics, and how successful republics, or unsuccessful attempts at republics, were made,” he said.

Next in his discussion was the generation of 1880. Taught by people who had fought in the Civil War, this group of people later fought in WWI. The group includes Marshall, who served as Army Chief of Staff during World War II and as Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense later.

“The generation of 1880 furnished an extraordinary cohort of Americans who led us through the last years of the Great Depression, the cataclysm of the Second World War, and the post-war years,” Bunting said.

He also discussed the generation of young soldiers who fought in World War II. While they accomplished much for the country, they are slow to seek or accept praise, Bunting said. “They are modest. It’s hard to get anything out of them,” he said. “They were raised in a culture that was not dominated by celebrity and terrible political dissension.”

Some qualities found in all three groups include sound judgment; concern for the future; patient collection of facts; and a willingness to understand the positions of those of differing political opinions.

Service was a common theme in their lives. “There was a clear sense that you could put your knowledge to the service of national aspirations,” Bunting said. “It was a time of idealism.”

“I hope you’re all thinking about 2011 as I’m saying these things,” Bunting said.

Many of the qualities that made great leaders in the past are noticeably absent today, he said. People do not spend long hours studying single topics. Politics are locked in partisanship and gridlock. Fewer serve in the military.

Bunting did not paint an entirely negative picture, though. He said the country can produce more great leaders through education that causes people to think deeply and openly.

“I think there is hope for the future,” he said. That hope can be found in “small liberal arts colleges like Randolph, where teachers, in their own lives, constantly visible around students, are themselves the mature product of liberal education and the good it can do.”