Ben Berger Brings Lang Center Energy, Ideas and a Passion for Connection

Ben Berger is looking for students and professors with ideas, ideals, and the enthusiasm and expertise to realize them. He’s also looking at a world of potential, as he begins a five-year term as executive director of the Lang Center for Civic & Social Responsibility at Swarthmore College. Alumnus Eugene Lang established the Lang Center in 2001 to help promulgate and realize his idea that liberal arts education at Swarthmore and elsewhere should serve to benefit people outside their ivied walls, as well as inside.

Ben Berger. Photo by Laurence Kesterson/Swarthmore College

Ben Berger. Photo by Laurence Kesterson/Swarthmore College

“Gene was ahead of his time,” Berger said, citing Lang’s manifesto, “Distinctively American,” published in Daedalus in 1999. “When he wrote that article, he was on the cutting edge; people were just starting to think ‘How could you make a liberal arts curriculum have a very close intersection with citizenship education and active citizenship, and, how might a center look?’ … If you look back at missions of old universities with liberal arts, they often have language about missions of citizenship, but they’re often thinking of an elite model of citizen. There’s no new thing under the sun, but Gene was restating it for this more democratic time and place.”

Berger likely will devote much of his abundant energy to making connections — between Swarthmore College students and professors and the communities in which they live and work and study, whether overseas in exchange programs or across the SEPTA tracks in Swarthmore and Chester.

“Gene talked about campus, community, classroom. I like those 3 Cs,” Berger said, pointing out that members of the college’s campus community are also part of external communities, where they study and volunteer in Chester or Swarthmore; of virtual communities of scholars in their academic fields; of university and urban communities in Ghana, where many Swarthmore students study. “How do we connect the curriculum to any of those communities? … There should be this back and forth. In higher education it’s so easy to fall into this ‘We’re going to ride in on a white horse; we will tell you what your problems are and how to fix them.’ It’s a dangerous mentality. In this era we’re trying to emphasize humility more.”

The Lang Center annually selects Lang Opportunity Scholars and provides them with support to create a social resource, effect social change, or improve a community’s condition. Funding and academic capital are part of the support, Berger said, but the town of Swarthmore itself is a rich resource for the college community, and one whose potential is just beginning to be tapped.

“Lang is really a network, providing social capital: relationships among faculty, students, people in different communities, active citizens,” Berger said. “In this town you can’t go to the swim club or a barbecue without bumping into a nuclear physicist or a business leader or a physician or a professor at some other school, all well-educated and highly experienced, and doing what Rebecca Chopp called ‘living liberal arts lives’ — being active citizens, somehow finding the time to do Doctors Without Borders or work on the Chester Fund … I started talking to friends in the community … we found people in town who had expertise relevant to Lang Scholars’ projects, and we got them talking to each other” at a series of dinners, Berger said “We had one for Global Public Health, and we’re going to do more. It was phenomenally successful.”

Staying Connected to Students and Faculty

Berger, who has served as Lang’s interim executive director since last July, is an associate professor of Political Science, and will continue to teach on “a one-half teaching load, teaching straight Political Theory” this coming year. “We love the students … but the students are gone in four years, and we stay here for a longer time. If you want to keep a lot of energy going on, you have to show faculty members how this stuff relates to their teaching, so I’ve tried to keep a really active teaching regimen, to be at meetings, talking to other faculty to ask, ‘What are you doing, how can we help you?’ We want to set up a few programs within the Lang Center umbrella that will be run by faculty members with particular expertise … One will be called the Urban Inequality Initiative. That will be led by Keith Reeves, political science, and Nina Johnson, sociology; they both teach Inside Out courses to incarcerated students alongside Swarthmore students …that’s a very moving process.”

Now, at the outset of a 5-year term as Lang’s executive director, Berger intends to fully implement some ideas that have been percolating during his interim term. “When I started here, I knew I would love to start up a PPE program — philosophy, politics and economics. We are doing that. I want to connect it up with the engaged orientation that the Lang Center has; we’ll call it Engaged PPE. It’s not a formal program yet, it’s a class, and the curriculum committee still needs to vote on it for it to become a minor. Econ, Poli Sci, and Philosophy are all on board … and we have Hans Oberdiek (emeritus professor in philosophy) to teach a gateway course in the fall called, ‘Introduction to Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.’ He taught in the original PPE program at Oxford, so he’s an amazing person to do it. PPE would have a capstone element. It might be something as simple as applying ethics to policy, turning our orientation to the public eye, suggesting how an intellectual discipline can interact with [for example] medical ethics or political.

“Facilitating curricular additions has been one of my hopes for the Lang Center, and also to support external programs like Peace and Conflict studies and Environmental studies which have an experiential component to a lot of their classes … that kind of connection of the curriculum to the community in a formal sort of way.”

The Lang Center also supports pre-senior internships for students to work in the community, either abroad or at home, Berger said. “We can match up students with an appropriate internship or travel opportunity that ties in with their studies or interests. We have money to help the students connect their coursework, volunteer in the community, engage in activism on campus. Life is extracurricular … what the Lang Center can do is help make things co-curricular. That’s one of those buzzwords. It ought to be defined as the intentional connecting of the curricular with the extracurricular.”

To enhance the Lang Center’s value as a resource to all Swarthmore College students, Berger said, “We’re in the process of searching for a coordinator with academic expertise who can advise students in how to take fellowships and connect them with campus work, curriculum, and other opportunities. This would be somebody who can advise a student who says, ‘I want to be an engineer and yet I’m really passionate about education. Is there a way I can navigate so as to suit my passion and also get a liberal arts education?’ We hope this new person will be very familiar with curriculum, know what the faculty is doing, how the academic world works, and have a passion for pursuing justice.”

Sounds like a job for another Ben Berger.

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