Prior to my first year at Agnes Scott College, I was accustomed to an environment that discouraged critical thinking and critique on the material we were discussing. Consequently, the expectation to be able to critically analyze beliefs, perspectives, and information in my Leadership 101 class, Race, Gender, and Social Change, was a challenge for me to overcome. The first challenge appeared when we were asked what we believed leadership was on the first day of class. I initially believed that leadership was an individual who stayed at the front lines and encouraged positive change in various ways. Due to the knowledge I’ve gained throughout this course, as well as my development in my critical thinking skills, my definition of leadership has changed drastically. Compared to before when I thought leadership was focused solely on one individual, now, I believe that leadership is willingly taking responsibility to make difficult decisions while simultaneously creating an environment in which those around you can also contribute to the cause.
The first assignment instructed us to analyze William Cronon’s essay “Only Connect… The Goals of a Liberal Education.” All first years are required to read it, and it is seen as Agnes Scott’s standard of a liberally educated individual. Of course, since I arrived from an environment that discouraged individual thought, it was difficult for me to criticize his work. Cronon states that liberally educated individuals are able to listen to others, read and understand any material, can talk with anyone despite differences, are astounding writers, can problem solve, are rigorous, humble, action-based, nurturing, and most of all, are able to connect with others. At first, I had no criticism of Cronon— since Agnes Scott claimed his essay was a standard for all their students, I figured there were no criticisms to be made. However, after another run-through, questions emerged. Cronon states that a liberally educated individual must adhere to the characteristics on his list, yet no person can truly meet all these requirements. Also, Cronon primarily focuses on the individual, but shouldn’t it be emphasized that a liberally educated person should be able to encourage, and work with, others around them? Furthermore, Cronon is a white man preaching to others his ideals of a liberally educated person. Obviously, he has privileges that others can never achieve, therefore, his view of a liberally educated person is biased. While I do believe that a liberally educated individual can be what is on Cronon’s list, I do not believe that they must fulfill every requirement on it. A liberally educated person can have flaws and still be able to work around them.
Although Cronon had views that are controversial and biased, Stacey Abrams has views that are comparatively much more universal. In September, Abrams came to Agnes Scott College to speak about her book, “Lead from the Outside,” in which she reflects upon her struggle to become a leader as a woman of color. She states the hardships that she has gone through, from racism, sexism, and even the despondence she faced at her loss in the 2018 Georgia governor’s race. When asked how to be a leader, Abrams states that no matter what, a leader cannot be afraid to fail. This statement is much more universal than Cronon’s because while Cronon is preaching about requirements a liberally educated individual must meet, Abrams encourages comfort in flexibility and the risks that come with it. Since she is a woman of color, and since she has struggled with proving herself to the world, I connected much more to Abram’s outlook than Cronon’s privileged one. Every woman in my assigned readings had the same outlook on leadership as Abrams, and it resonated throughout their arguments. From Betty Friedan and her explanation of the absence of women’s sense of fulfillment to Rebecca Walker and her stance on the third wave of feminism after the Anita Hill hearings, these women, raised in eras of sexism, could not afford to be afraid to fail. Otherwise, their message would never be seen in a world where men have the dominant voice in every conversation.
While these readings enhanced my understanding of leadership, I was also challenged to actively practice this belief. In my LDR-101 class, we were randomly assigned to be in groups, and we maintained these groups throughout the semester with assignments and projects. Working in my assigned group was a challenge for me at first, considering that none of us knew each other. However, the further we developed ideas together and understood each other’s working habits, a sense of balance was established. While our first project together, a case study presentation on Zitkala-Sa, was subjectively lackluster compared to the other presentations, our group dynamics had grown significantly stronger due to this assignment. We learned how to work with each other despite our differences to create a product bigger than the sum of its parts. Additionally, with this experience I grew significantly as a leader and defined my role— I often took the initiative to keep everyone on task, created group meetings so that we could evaluate our progress, and made sure that we met the deadlines we had set for ourselves. This development in defining my leadership skills has not only made a significant impact on my leadership outside of the classroom but also has allowed for our group work to go much smoother than it had before.
Race, Gender, and Social Change was a class that changed my mindset and my ideals of leadership completely. The class challenged my perspectives and beliefs that were instilled by previous environments that did not want me to think for myself. Not only that, but Leadership 101 also aided me in my journey of learning how to think for myself and being comfortable doing so. Looking back on William Cronon’s essay, I believe that he has a few valid points in his definition of a liberally educated individual. However, being liberally educated, or a leader, should mean that you are able to be fluid among the standards others implement on you. As Stacey Abrams stated, you cannot be afraid to fail, and sticking to a list that a liberally educated white man has created is maintaining a comfort zone where you cannot fail. Through our readings of various women leaders in history and being obligated to learn how to productively work in groups, Leadership 101 has taught me that leadership is not focused solely on one person. Leadership cannot be established without considering the individuals who surround you and depend on your input. One cannot be a leader if they are not self-aware and willing to learn from others, but most importantly, a leader cannot be afraid of the possibility of failure.