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Helen Bodell
Director of College Counseling
January, 2011

Gabrielle Giffords on Liberal Arts and Women's Education

The overwhelming tragedy in Arizona, and attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, is deeply disturbing news.  It has put a focus on divisive questions of gun control, immigration rights, and freedom of speech.  In learning more about Gabrielle Giffords—her educational background, her strength of conviction, and her deep engagement in life—I was not surprised to learn that she was educated in a single-sex environment, Scripps College. The following tribute to Gabrielle Giffords from the President of Scripps adds an important dimension to our picture of this dedicated and courageous leader.  It speaks not only to Giffords’ intelligence and courage of conviction, but also to the value she places on her liberal arts education honed in a single-sex educational environment.


Gabrielle Giffords' Message
By Lori Bettison-Varga (1/11/11) President, Scripps College

The entire nation is reeling with the devastating events in Tucson and the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords. While we do not yet know the full details of this tragedy, nor do we understand the true motivation that led to the killings, authorities indicate she was the clear target. We all struggle to understand how anyone could do something so heinous.

Scripps College, a small, women’s liberal arts college is Gabrielle Giffords’ alma mater. So we are particularly heartbroken by the tragic events and are rallying around Gabrielle and her family. As we hold her in our hearts, we are unified in our voice that Gabrielle embodies the values of Scripps College and a liberal arts education, and thus represents the best the nation has to offer.

Gabrielle is a role model, not just for our students, but for all women and for all Americans. She did not shy away from her calling to be a leader. With grace and determination, she has become an outstanding and courageous public servant. Gabrielle Giffords’s career shows that she is fiercely independent — framing her positions on issues thoughtfully and humanely, and, in the words of our founder, Ellen Browning Scripps, "with confidence, courage and hope."

Listen to her own words. In her 2009 commencement address at Scripps, Congresswoman Giffords told our students: “The safety of the world depends on your saying ‘no’ to inhumane ideas. Standing up for one’s own integrity makes you no friends. It is costly. Yet defiance of the mob, in the service of that which is right, is one of the highest expressions of courage I know.” Prescient words.

Public service, in all forms, is courageous. Respectful disagreement — the ability to hear another’s viewpoint despite your own, without hate and distortion — has been lost in the current political climate. Gabrielle Giffords believes in her calling to enact change through the political process in an open, honest, and authentic manner, without harsh criticism or inflammatory rhetoric.

Gabrielle deeply appreciated her liberal arts education: the exposure to different ideas, different ways of thinking. In her words: "What Scripps forced you to grapple with was a peeling back of the human onion in order to discover the supreme value of the soul and how crucial it is to maintain personal integrity and honesty." She believes in free exchange of ideas, understanding difference, and taking a stand based on rational and critical reasoning. As Martha Kantor said to the Annapolis Group in 2010, "A liberal arts education teaches us [that] empathy is hard-learned, but demagoguery is easy."

What can we take away from this tragedy? We have a responsibility to the victims and their families to learn from this event. A senseless act must be turned into an opportunity for this country to unify, to learn from Gabrielle Giffords about the power of constructive and collaborative dialogue. To embrace human dignity, to resist the temptation to point fingers and blame, but to change the discourse for the betterment of our future. We are, after all, a democracy — a democracy that requires an empathetic and knowledgeable citizenship and respects the right to disagree.

Lori Bettison-Varga is president of Scripps College.

© Copyright 2011 Inside Higher Ed

Gabrielle Giffords’ commencement address to Scripps Class of 2009, “Find the Calling of Your Heart” provides insight into her educational formation and value on single-sex education. Her words are powerful, prescient-- and worth reading.

Gabrielle Giffords-- and all those involved in this terrible tragedy-- are on our minds and in our prayers.  

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