Pasquarella on Public Heath, Justice and the Liberal Arts

Lynn Pasquerella is a philosopher, medical ethicist, and an influential academic thought leader. She heads the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), the nation’s preeminent higher educational association. She’s enjoyed a very successful academic career, having an impact across institutions and disciplines. A scholar who leads, Pasquerella remained active and engaged throughout the pandemic. One her projects from the period is the recently published What We Value, a thoughtful book of three distinct yet related essays. The volume’s subtitle is “Public Health, Social Justice, and Educating for Democracy,” aptly describing the volume’s themes.

The first section, “Moral Distress, Moral Injury, and the Concept of Death as Un-American,” is grounded in Pasquerella’s primary scholarly expertise, health care and ethics. Her attention is on “moral distress,” a term coined in the nineteenth century that describes the power of systems to coerce individuals to behave in ways that violates their ethics. It is a problem for many in the healthcare professions, for the wants of a community or institution may be at odds with those of an individual patient. Pasquerella frames the discussion and then focuses on end-of-life decision-making and how it played out with COVID-19. Keeping someone alive at any cost may not always align with their wants, or the wants of their family. The issues involve questions of agency, policy, economics, politics and ethics.

“On Snowflakes, Chilly Climates, and Shouting to be Heard” is the title of the second essay. Here Pasquarella takes up cultural conflicts in higher education. Reviewing some well-publicized cases, she positions the challenges on campuses within the context of national political conflict. Her approach, moving beyond identity politics, is found in the affirmation of liberal education. That is also the theme of the last essay in the book, “Preparing Students for Work, Citizenship, and Life in the Twenty-First Century.” Pasquerella is a passionate and consistent defender of liberal education, in this volume and throughout her career. She uses personal history, institutional history and broader claims to make claims about the strength, flexibility and ultimate utility of a liberal education. It is vital to American democracy, she asserts.

What We Value is the work of a mature scholar who knows her material well. She has a wide array of rhetorical skills, but the aim here is not about winning an argument. Rather, Pasquerella is keen on framing issues, exploring and asking questions, raising awareness. She is a thoughtful writer. She wrestles with these topics, mixing the atemporal with current politics, highlighting the interplay of values and practice. It is book that leaves the reader more informed, most certainly with better understanding. It is also the kind of scholarship that reinforces the argument that Pasquerella does want to win: there is no better education than through the liberal arts.

David Potash

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