Principle 1. Swarthmore acts to advance uncompromising excellence in the study of the liberal arts, embracing both rigorous inquiry and imaginative thinking.

Swarthmore is characterized by a distinctive tradition of intellectual intensity shared by faculty and students and represented in our alumni. This tradition is embodied by the Honors Program and shapes the overall culture as well. It is fostered by the close studentfaculty collaboration made possible by a low student-faculty ratio and by the character of our residential community set on a campus of natural beauty.

Since 1922, the Honors Program has symbolized the rigor of Swarthmore’s academic programs. The experience includes seminars, research, performances, and other exercises that represent intellectual curiosity, passion, and the ongoing search for truth. The students’ final assessment is performed by visiting examiners who not only test our students; they also evaluate the faculty and academic programs. They often remark positively upon the distinctive intellectual culture they encounter here. 

Craig Williamson, Alfred H. and Peggi Bloom Professor of English Literature and Honors Program Coordinator

Swarthmore’s approach to teaching and learning, whether in an art studio or theater, in a biology laboratory or economics seminar, in a community practicum on religion and the environment in the city of Chester, Pa. or fieldwork for an anthropology/sociology thesis in Nicaragua, is to encourage students to understand and question the significance of what they learn. Swarthmore supports opportunities for experimentation, the fortuitous collisions of ideas, and even moments of discomfort and unease from which students can learn and become more confident. Faculty members and students work hard to refine analytic thinking, particularly the ability to ask hard questions and then formulate answers; the capacity to evaluate, interpret, and synthesize evidence; design lucid and well-substantiated arguments; and instill the habits of intellectual agility. Working collaboratively, faculty and students test received wisdom; engage respectfully with differing views; forge viable courses of action for difficult issues; and strive to deal with limits, contradiction, and ambiguity. The passion that unites faculty and students involves engaging intensely and responsibly with ideas, both for their intrinsic and lasting value and because of a commitment to the common good.

The culture for students, faculty, and staff outside the classroom also encourages critical and imaginative thought. The Swarthmore community treasures discovery and wonder. Whether in a discussion at Sharples, on the bus to a soccer game, or walking in Crum Woods, we celebrate the life of the mind. Playful and serious, analytic and passionate, the culture at Swarthmore promotes the critical and creative integration of ideas—and the good that such ideas can contribute to the world. In a time in which the public intellectual is rarely found, much less celebrated, Swarthmore stands as a beacon for the idea that careful and creative thought matters.

To uphold our tradition of intellectual rigor and intensity, we must attend to the changes in information and knowledge that may well comprise the most important opportunities and challenges of the century. In this expansive culture of knowledge, how do we develop the flexible structures, empowering networks, and innovative collaborations that will serve the multiple dimensions of teaching, learning, and research for a 21st century model of academic rigor? How do we bring to bear the intellectual capital of various fields and disciplines on enduring, complex issues such as peace, justice and poverty? To ensure that our most fundamental commitment to rigor and creativity endures, we must address these compelling questions.

As faculty we are guides and fellow travelers, helping students to build the intellectual agility so critical to a life of discovery. Our task is to light the way, knowing that our students will shape a world characterized by new problems, new methods, new evidence, and new possibilities. 

Stephen O’Connell, Eugene M. Lang Research Professor of Economics

Swarthmore’s excellence depends on its ability to attract the most gifted and motivated students and to set them to work with a superb faculty of scholar-teachers who exemplify for students the creation of new knowledge and artistic production and possess a drive to share their knowledge with others. The College offers to the larger world a model of intellectual engagement with the challenging issues of our times, a model that is also illustrated by its alumni, many of whom are leaders in their chosen fields throughout the world. Swarthmore stands ready to demonstrate visibly to others how the liberal arts can be used for the common good.