Inactive Citizenship

A bench honoring the founding dean of Tisch College calls attention to the value of taking time to reflect

bench outside Lincoln-Filene Hall

Scattered around Tufts’ three campuses are historical and other kinds of markers that often go unnoticed, hidden among the pathways that many of us travel regularly or in the buildings where we study and work. In this occasional series, “Mark the Spot,” Tufts Now explores the stories behind these snippets of university history and lore.

Your brain is in constant motion, even when you’re not. At least that’s what scientists surmise. The default-mode part of the brain consists of those circuits that are busy when your attention is not focused on the outside world. Some call it daydreaming, and argue that bouts of not doing much can be good now and then.

Photo: Kelvin MaPhoto: Kelvin Ma
A bench in front of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service on the Medford/Somerville campus is one place you can indulge your need to veg out. The school is the focal point of what its founding dean, Robert Hollister, describes as Tufts’ DNA—namely a strong tradition of public service and civic engagement. Nevertheless, a plaque honoring Hollister was installed on the bench that reads, “For moments of inactive citizenship.”

Hollister served as dean of Tisch College from 1999 to 2011. He was also dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences from 1996 to 2001 and now is executive director of the Talloires Network, a global coalition of more than 350 universities in 75 countries, and a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning. An active person, he nonetheless appreciates the sentiment on the bench.

He explains its history. Ten years ago, Jonathan Wilson, director of the Center for the Humanities at Tufts, gave the faculty speech at the annual hooding ceremony for students earning doctoral degrees. Wilson, the Fletcher Professor of Rhetoric and Debate, spoke about the virtues of inactive citizenship.

What he meant, Hollister recalls, is that by telling students to do community service, the university is saying it’s a more worthy enterprise than reading poetry or fiction—and that he didn't agree. To Wilson's mind, taking action and taking time to reflect are equally important.

“I loved what he did,” Hollister says. “It was a powerful reminder that what we’re really after at Tufts is to foster in our students the values and skills of being effective citizens. The phrase ‘inactive citizenship’ signals the determination that people be thoughtful, that we embrace the importance of critical reflection and contemplation. That’s part of what it takes to be effectively active.”

Besides, Hollister says, the marker on the bench “is appropriate for a sedentary piece of furniture.”

Marjorie Howard is a senior writer for Tufts Now.

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