Section: Opinion

Liberal arts requires engagement with local community

Service projects, learning from locals helps bridge the gap between town and gown

When most students talk about Mount Vernon, they are usually referencing a quick outing to Walmart, a dinner at Fiesta or a visit to Vine Street Barber. There is an important aspect of Mount Vernon that most students miss if they only use the city’s commercial services.

Mount Vernon faces many of the same problems as other cities in the country: poverty, homelessness, shrinking funds for education and lack of health care availability. Admissions brochures proudly tout Kenyon’s commitment to community, but rarely touch on the College’s interactions with the larger community of Knox County.

Sustained and meaningful interaction between Kenyon and Mount Vernon is a necessary component of the liberal arts education as well as a method of empowerment for students and community members alike.

Like many prospective students, I was intrigued by Kenyon’s dedication to community alongside a liberal arts education. While there certainly is a “Kenyon community” on the Hill, it rarely extends into neighboring Mount Vernon, let alone the rest of Knox County. This limitation is counter to the ideals of a liberal arts education, which is intended to teach students how to think rather than what to think.

But when education is confined to an idyllic hilltop full of generally like-minded students, it is difficult to learn how to think. Interacting with conflicting opinions and ideas is a necessary component ofgaining knowledge. Negotiating differing values is crucial both inside and outside the classroom. Kenyon students are challenged to discuss and reconcile opposing strains of academic thought, but rarely achieve such critical engagement outside the classroom. Many students are trapped within the nearly homogenous Kenyon “bubble.”

We should extend our notion of community into Mount Vernon and engage in meaningful interactions that challenge our personal views. A few organizations and programs already exist to promote just this goal, including Partnership of East Knox and Kenyon and Service Saturdays. These groups represent continuous involvement with Mount Vernon through volunteer work, and the formalized system of community outreach makes it easy for students to become involved.

Volunteering in Mount Vernon can be a logistical nightmare. One must find a way into town, locate a place to volunteer at a time that doesn’t conflict with classes and hopefully enjoy the work that needs to be done.

The organizations promoting community outreach and partnership are great, but Kenyon needs more of them. It is so easy to get stuck on the Hill and never leave the comfort of Gambier, but this static character is counter to the notions of community.

Most students are only at Kenyon for a few short years, and it can be difficult to see the value in expending time and effort in a town to which we will likely never return. Engaging with community members and local organizations provides life skills not found in classrooms on the Hill.

There is a fairly significant demographic and geographic divide between Kenyon and Mount Vernon, but the seeming distance between us shouldn’t limit interactions with Mount Vernon to shopping trips and dining experiences. As students, we must take advantage of resources Kenyon offers and establish our own meaningful connections with Knox County, thereby bridging the divide between “town” and “gown.”

Jenna Rochelle ’18 is an international studies major from Colorado Springs, Colo. Contact her at rochellej@kenyon.edu. 

 

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