Liberal Education and the “Wisdom” of Sonia Sotomayor

After yesterday’s vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee, it seems certain that Sonia Sotomayor is on her way to a historic appointment as the nation’s first Latina Supreme Court Justice.  We’ve all heard plenty about her recently under the harsh glare of media and political scrutiny.  And we’ve all heard more than we ever could have imagined about that phrase in her speech about “wise Latinas” and their abilities to make good judgments.

Whatever she really meant by that comment, or how it was interpreted, wisdom is certainly something one hopes any Supreme Court justice brings to his or her job.  But how does one attain wisdom?  In announcing her nomination, Obama seemed to stress the wisdom that came from Sotomayor’s personal background and her overcoming of obstacles.  But those of us committed to liberal learning also presume that wisdom can and should come from a liberal education—at least in its “ideal” form. Wisdom, of course, is one of those outcomes of college (or life) that is difficult to measure but, nonetheless, a worthy aspiration for any educator or a student.

In all the coverage of the “wise Latina” quote, you may have missed two useful commentaries that both shed light on Sotmayor’s own educational journey—and the role of her own liberal education in leading her to where she is today.  Walter Kirn notes in his New York Times article, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Aptitude,” Sotomayor’s status as an “affirmative action baby” and compares her experience to his own pursuit of a Princeton degree (though not necessarily the “wisdom” that might come with such a degree).  He notes that, unlike Sotomayor, he came from a traditionally privileged background and excelled at the test-taking regimen.  He notes, however, that when he arrived at Princeton, it became clear to him how little his test-taking acumen really meant to true success at learning.  As he notes, aptitude tests like those at which he excelled and on which Sotomayor admits to not doing very well, don’t “reflect the knowledge in your head, let alone the wisdom in your soul.”  He notes further that his “impressive performance on the SATs…didn’t seem to count for much now that [he] found [himself] having to absorb volumes of information rather than get the right answers on multiple-choice tests.”  He admits that in the face of this realization, he muddled on through using tried and true college student tricks—“verbal bluster, teacher-pleasing good manners and handy study aids.”

Compare this journey with Sotomayor’s educational journey—at least as described by one of her professors, Peter Winn, in his Washington Post article, “The Education of Sonia Sotomayor.”  In this article, he describes how Sotomayor lacked certain skills in her early years at Princeton—especially writing skills.  Instead of trying to muddle on through or reacting to his harsh criticisms with defensiveness, Sotomayor “took [his] comments seriously” and “kept coming back” for more.  He notes that “she even read grammar books during her summer breaks.”  Eventually, she improved her writing skills significantly, wrote an award-winning thesis, and even went on to urge Winn to teach a seminar on the history and politics of Puerto Rico because she “knew I believed that college students should have a role in shaping their education.”

Sotomayor surely acquired wisdom through all her varied experiences.  But it is gratifying to see the role that her liberal education played in helping her graduate from Princeton with honors.  As Winn notes, Princeton played a key role in those experiences on which a wise Latina might draw as she makes good judgments in her work and life after college.  Isn’t that what we all hope a good college education does for students?


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