Liberal Education: Now More than Ever

The following is reposted from the Washington Post.

I recently participated in a celebration of the 15th anniversary of the opening of Peking University’s branch campus in the young, dynamic city of Shenzhen. PKU is a venerable institution considered to be at the pinnacle of higher learning in China, and in recent years it has been making great efforts to be recognized as one of the top research universities in the world. I was invited to speak because PKU-Shenzhen has decided to start an undergraduate liberal arts college and I’ve been making the case over the last several years for a pragmatic liberal education. In the conclusion to my 2014 book “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters,” I expressed my excitement at China’s new interest in liberal learning, and the experience I just had in Shenzhen leads me to think that this interest is surging.

This is a fragile time for liberal education, making commitment to it all the more urgent. American universities are facing enormous pressures to demonstrate the cash value of their “product,” while at the same time the recreational side of college life is attracting more attention than ever – from football games to Greek life, from fancy dorms and fancier gyms to student celebrations that range from the Dionysian to the politically correct. To meet enrollment goals or to climb in the rankings many colleges offer the full spa experience, while being sure to trumpet the values of what young people learn while not in the classroom. But these efforts at brand promotion only make the educational mission of universities more fragile. “Campus follies” have become a staple of critiques of higher education’s elitism and entitlement.

To be sure, college culture has been mocked throughout American history, but today collegiate life inspires either a toxic mixture of anger and resentment or just baffled misunderstanding. Given the coverage of campus life, it’s understandable that the American public seems to have forgotten how important our universities have been as engines of economic and cultural innovation, of social mobility.

As I was preparing my remarks, I turned to the writings of John Dewey, the great pragmatist philosopher. Dewey went to China in 1919 to talk about education, also a time of change. The May 4th movement was creating a dynamic of protest against the excessive weight of tradition in favor of a notion of Enlightenment and modernization that would work within a changing Chinese context. It was a propitious moment for Dewey to advocate for a broad, liberal education to prepare the Chinese to be informed, productive members of society. He initially planned to give several lectures in China but wound up staying two years. Known as Du Wei – Dewey the Great (as John Pomfret recently noted), his influence there was powerful. Mao himself transcribed Dewey’s  lectures in Changsha, though Communists would later become intensely critical of the gradualism embedded in the Dewey’s legacy.

In Shenzhen, with Dewey in mind, I focused on two dangers and two possibilities.


Danger of Narrowing Specialization

Academics don’t get stuck in silos by accident; seeking professional status, they are incentivized to burrow deep. They become so accustomed to their own subdisciplinary netherworlds that they have trouble in anyone else’s atmosphere. Department members often see no reason to interact with colleagues from other fields, and so undergraduates have almost no hope of getting guidance about their education as a whole. Despite the commonplace rhetoric of interdisciplinarity, academics seem all too content creating languages and cultures that are insular. We have gotten really good at education as a form of narrowing, while what we really need is to provide students with intellectual cross-training, and for that we need faculty who can communicate across a variety of fields.

Liberal education should enhance abilities to translate across ideas and assumptions, but instead the public is treated to the spectacle of pointy-headed specialists great at one thing but not to be trusted beyond their small subfield. Of course, advanced work in any area requires rigorous work and real technical competence. But we must not confuse being a competent technician with being a scientist who can make discoveries or a teacher who can inspire students by translating complex technical issues into terms clearly relevant to pressing human concerns.

In Shenzhen I urged colleagues not to replicate the two cultures division that infects many American campuses. We need more academics who can facilitate conversations between the sciences and the humanistic disciplines.  The sciences, social sciences and humanities are all focused on research, and sustained artistic practice depends on a commitment to inquiry. It is especially important for undergraduate education to foster exchange among researchers, be they in medicine, philosophy, design, literature or economics.


Danger of Populist Parochialism 

Just as on campuses we have gotten all-too-good at isolation through specialization, in the public sphere we know how to stimulate parochialism. New provincialisms and nationalisms, are gaining force around the world thanks to fear-based politics; but orchestrated parochialism is antithetical to liberal learning.  A liberal education includes deepening one’s ability to learn from people with whom one doesn’t agree, but the politics of resentment sweeping across many countries substitutes demonization for curiosity. Writing people off with whom one disagrees will always be easier than listening carefully to their arguments. Without tolerance and open-mindedness, inquiry is just a path to self-congratulation at best, violent scapegoating at worst.

It is especially urgent to advocate effectively for a broadly based pragmatic liberal education when confronted by ignorant authoritarians who reject inquiry in favor of fear mongering and prejudice. A broad education with a sense of history and cultural possibilities arms citizens against manipulation and allows them to see beyond allegiance to their own.

Undergraduate education – be it in China or the United States – should promote intellectual diversity in such ways that students are inspired to grapple with ideas that they never would have considered on their own. At Wesleyan University, creating more access for low-income students and military veterans has been an important part of this process.  Groups like these have been historically under-represented on our campus, but just having diverse groups is not enough. We must also devise programs to make these groups more likely to engage with one another, bursting protective bubbles of ideas that lead some campus radicals and free speech absolutists to have in common mostly a commitment to smug self-righteousness.


Possibilities of Open and Reliable Communication

There can be no research progress without the effective sharing of information. In astrophysics and genomic science today, scientists depend on data sets that can be shared. Likewise, humanists depend on reliable, publicly available documents and critical editions. Unlike commercial enterprises that quickly make discoveries proprietary, academic research at its best depends on sharing methods and results. And significant research progress is made when scholars discover evidence and points of view that challenge their own assumptions.

As I admired the PKU Shenzhen campus, I remembered that search engines (like Google) and news sources (like the New York Times) are unavailable there because of government censorship. Still, the scholars I met on campus seemed to have little trouble gaining access to a variety of points of view. Under a regime that officially restricts information, they work hard at expanding the inputs they receive. In the West, we are fortunate to have at our fingertips a dizzying array of information and points of view. But in recent years Americans have increasingly tended to block out views they don’t want to hear. Curating our information inputs, we choose our choir and know what kind of preaching we are going to hear. Algorithms that filter information to each user are not the same as censorship, but they, too, are anathema to inquiry.

Almost a century ago, Dewey reminded his Chinese audiences: “Where material things are concerned, the more people who share them, the less each will have, but the opposite is true of knowledge. The store of knowledge is increased by the number of people who come to share in it. Knowledge can be shared and increased at the same time— in fact, it is increased by being shared.” A university today must be a vehicle for sharing knowledge – and its leaders must advocate for consistently communicating the values of learning, including from surprising sources.


Possibilities of cosmopolitanism and community

While lecturing in China, Dewey wrote of the power of education to “cultivate individuality in such ways as will enhance the individual’s social sympathy.” It’s a two-way street. If we are to prepare the soil for the more effective cultivation of pragmatic liberal education, we will need the nutrients of creative individuality, cosmopolitanism and community. Empowering individuals to take productive risks and encouraging them to develop what Dewey called “practical idealism” has long been the hallmark of pragmatic liberal learning. Cosmopolitanism helps us grow a culture of openness and curiosity, recognizing that people are, in Anthony Appiah’s words, “entitled to the options they need to shape their lives in partnership with others.”

Developing a campus community means seeding relations of trust that encourage experimentation and intellectual risk taking. At healthy universities, professors and staff learn to care for the welfare of their students, and students learn to look out for one another. In dynamic educational environments, people are more willing to venture beyond their comfort zones because they have background assumptions of trust. And as they become more adept at intellectual and cultural translation, they deepen this trust while making these zones more porous.

Although there are commendable aspects of the current American focus on skill acquisition in higher education, we must avoid confusing the accumulation of competence badges with what in China is still called “the education of the whole person.” We need an undergraduate education that is human centered – setting a framework for inquiry and exchange that will be a resource for graduates for the rest of their lives.

Almost one hundred years ago Dewey spoke about the dual tasks of the university: to preserve culture and to stimulate inquiry for the sake of social progress. In China, scholars are daring to imagine this progress, despite political tendencies that foster nationalist insularity and limit access to people and information.

Such progress is becoming harder to imagine in America given a looming administration bent on ignoring facts and a leader quick to dismiss inquiries that don’t feed his apparently bottomless need for self-aggrandizement. This is the context in which we must find, as Dewey wrote, “faith in the power of intelligence to imagine a future which is the projection of the desirable in the present, and to invent the instrumentalities of it realization.”  These remain the tasks of thinking, inquiry and communication.

Now, at this fragile time and on both sides of the Pacific, pragmatic liberal education matters more than ever.

Winter Wesleyan

The break between semesters starts to seem long for many students around this time — and also for their families. Others find they are digesting grades and comments from the fall semester while preparing for the term to come. I know many professors who are busy trying to make progress on research projects while also getting their courses ready for the start of classes. I’ve taught “Philosophy and the Movies” for many years, but I’m hitting the stacks in Olin Library this week to check out some new scholarship on the films I teach in relation to history, memory and how to make sense of the past.

Of course, lots of Wesleyan folks have been here on campus the whole time. Some are international students who have decided that a journey home is just too far (and expensive), others are seniors working on theses right through the break. There are a significant number of students taking Winter Session classes starting tomorrow in everything from computer science to government, from applied data analysis to classics. Meanwhile, others are deepening their understanding of how to connect college to what comes next at the Gordon Career Center. Athletes have been working (and competing) pretty much straight through the break, and we see them trudging through the snow to practice or to a match.

Snow? Yes there is now plenty on the campus, and the sledders were out on Foss Hill yesterday. Here are some pics.

Who is walking whom?
Who is walking whom?


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Mathilde enjoying winter break
Mathilde (and Kari) enjoying winter break


Liberal Education in China

This week I made a quick trip to Hong Kong and Shenzhen to meet with Wesleyan folks and to give a lecture on liberal education in these challenging times. Peking University was celebrating its 15th anniversary of operating a graduate campus in Shenzhen, a young, innovative city just a couple of hours drive north of Hong Kong. As a way of marking this occasion, PKU officials are developing a liberal arts undergraduate program, and they asked me to talk about Wesleyan and pragmatic liberal education today. I met with a few dozen Wes folks first in Hong Kong, with lots of help from Carmen Cheung ’05.

In Shenzhen I met many researchers and university officials from campuses around the world, but the great thrill was meeting Xinyue, who was just accepted in ED to join the class 0f 2021. She even had Wesleyan gear! I also had the chance to meet the parents of Milia Chen ’20 (and her guidance counselor). That was also a lovely surprise.

Once I get past the jet lag, I’ll write up the Pragmatic Liberal Education in an Age of Populist Parochialism. The title gives some idea of the themes….

Hong Kong Wesleyan Reception
Hong Kong Wesleyan Reception


The Maks P'20
The Maks P’20


Hong Kong Harbor
Hong Kong Harbor


Xinyue '21
Xinyue ’21


Chen Parents ('20) and Guidance Counselor
Chen Parents (’20) and Guidance Counselor


Looking Forward, Looking Back

Near the end of the fall semester, I’ve usually presented a fairly brief update on what we’ve done over the last year with respect to our framework for planning, Wesleyan 2020This year we are working on an addendum to this framework that will take us out much further than four years from now. We’ve called this Beyond 2020: Strategies for Wesleyan, and over the course of this academic year I am discussing its core ideas with all campus constituencies. In conjunction with this look forward, we have prepared an assessment of our work on the objectives we set out in 2010. There’s quite a bit here, and my thanks go to staff around the campus who collected the information. You can find a PDF of this document HERE.

Over the years we’ve accomplished a great deal together, and yet there is still so much more we can do to realize Wesleyan’s full potential. I remain convinced that the overarching goals in Wesleyan 2020 are useful for framing the work we will do together. Together we energize Wesleyan’s distinctive educational experience; together we enhance recognition of Wesleyan as an extraordinary institution; together we work within a sustainable economic model while retaining core values.  

Fall semester is coming to a close, the next approaches, and in the meantime, the holidays. I wish you satisfaction in accomplishment, excitement about the future, and joy in your holiday celebrations. 


Hamilton Prize Committee!

Today we’re announcing an all-star list of Wesleyan alumni to serve as judges for the new Wesleyan University Hamilton Prize for Creativity. Their accomplishments are a testament to Wesleyan’s outsized role as an incubator of some of today’s most boundary-breaking thinkers, artists and writers. I’m so pleased that these extraordinary contributors to our society and culture have generously agreed to volunteer their time to select our first Hamilton Prize recipient, who will be named later in the spring.

The committee’s honorary chairs are Thomas Kail ’99 and Lin-Manuel Miranda ’02, Hon. ’15, and the prize is named in their honor for their now famous achievement in creating the cultural phenomenon Hamilton: An American Musical. The prize will be awarded to an incoming student who has submitted a creative written work judged to best reflect the originality, artistry and dynamism embodied in Hamilton.

Hamilton Prize Committee

I look forward with great enthusiasm to finding out which incoming Wesleyan student will be chosen by the committee to receive this exceptional honor, which includes a four-year full-tuition scholarship.

The deadline for submissions for the Hamilton Prize and to apply to Wesleyan is January 1, 2017. You can read more about the Hamilton Prize and the committee here.

Quiara Hudes: “Let Us Nourish Each Other”

hudes_quiara_alegriaShapiro Distinguished Professor of Writing and Theater Quiara Alegria Hudes was recently asked by American Theater for some brief post-election reflections on “what theater can do.” She kindly gave me permission to share her brief essay here as a guest blog.


Panoramic time

My grandmother’s was a food=love home. The meals were modest, sometimes limited in quantity if the grocery budget was tight, but even the way Abuela placed the tin plate on the table revealed a practiced and virtuosic love. Hers was a humility bursting with enterprise: in times of scarcity there ought always be small bowl of food offer to a neighbor.

The danger of food=love came when the meals went beyond nourishment to something more voracious—consumption for consumption’s sake. Abuela left her farm in Puerto Rico in the 50s, trading a familiar agrarian poverty for an unkind Philadelphia poverty. What a wager she took coming here, what a bold move it was.

By the time of my adolescence, her risky bet started to show returns. While some of her progeny remained mired in poverty, my mom bought a new red Volvo with leather seats. We drove to the local sushi restaurant and ordered sashimi a la carte. By my twenties, friends were charging foie-stuffed kobe burgers to corporate law accounts. Abundance had tipped into vampirism.

Reflecting on this election cycle, I wonder if information=truth is the internet-age version of food=love. It is imperative, of course, that we search for, scrutinize, articulate, and share what information we can gather—it is democratic.

But in the months leading up to November 8, my information=truth gauge got off-kilter. I became a sucker for every bit of click-bait, eschewing information for binge-consumed spin. If there were articles engaging substantively with each candidate’s platform, I didn’t find my way to them. Instead I consumed (miserably, growing more sick with each click) mud-slinging op-eds, grotesque tweets, debate spectacles.

The morning after, I felt disgusted, like an addict who looks in the mirror after the binge. I was the fool complicit in my own duping—I had gone right along with the scam. The scam goes something like this: the more lavish the plate of food, the better the meal. The more media consumed per hour, the vaster one’s knowledge.

On November 9, I turned off the news. Even trusted sites, like the New York Times, had to go dark—because it wasn’t just “fake news” that had duped me, it was “real news,” too. I returned to my dog-eared James Baldwin, flashlight in hand, as the kids slept. I underlined new passages, wrote fresh margin notes atop fading ones. My mind made space for a thing called quiet. My habits returned to what Danielle Allen calls “slow reading.”

Fellow artists, let’s reject the rhetoric and infrastructure of “consumer content.” Let’s renounce the toxic suck of the five-minute news cycle. Ours must be a practice of panoramic time. For, we are a past we did not choose but inherited, and we architect the future with each new page we write.

Let us nourish each other.


Thank You for Giving!

Giving Tuesday was a great success here at Wesleyan with over 3,674 gifts received. This triggered the generous $300,000 donation to financial aid from the Frank-Kim family, and all the gifts will go to supporting programs of interest to students across the University.

It was a big day for philanthropy around the world, and I am so grateful that the Wesleyan family responded with such verve and munificence (can’t you tell I’m teaching a class on virtue)!

Giving Tuesday Almost Here! Remember WESU FM!!

After the Black Friday and Cyber Monday advertisements have inundated us with calls to shop, shop, shop, let’s preserve some room in our heads to heed the plea of #GivingTuesday: give, give, give. Wesleyan is again participating in this global philanthropic movement, with the encouragement of  a matching gift from the Frank-Kim Family. When 3,000 members of our Cardinal community give to Wesleyan for any purpose on or before Giving Tuesday, November 29, 2016, the Frank-Kim family will donate $300,000 for financial aidYou can find out how to make your gift here.

And while we’re in a generous mood, let’s remember our wonderful community radio station: WESU FM. I just received a request for donations from the current vice president of WESU, Ben Goldberg:

Thanks to everyone who has responded to our calls to action–we’ve made quite some progress with our current fall pledge drive. We have less than $7k to go, and we need your support to push us through to the end of this campaign. We can’t keep the station running without you, so know that your donation really does make a difference.

 If you haven’t donated yet, now is the time. Community radio and alternative organizing are crucial right now, as they have always been. WESU is a truly special place, providing a platform for marginalized voices to be heard across the world. It is a place for hope, resistance, and change.

Through our incredible host of public affairs programs and music shows, WESU empowers people of color, indigenous populations, women, and queer folks to spread their own stories and messages that are often ignored in the mainstream media. Homegrown shows like Your English is Good as well our Italian programs serve communities that still use English as a second language. Syndicated programming like Pacifica’s Rising Up with Sonali and Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman have been providing powerful coverage on Standing Rock, The Climate Action Summit, police shootings and activism around the world. These are just a few examples of the important work WESU does to serve so many different communities.

 Radio can be an incredibly powerful tool for both DJs and listeners alike, as I’m hoping you all have had the opportunity to experience. If you haven’t yet felt the power of community radio, keep listening–you’ll find it. Community radio matters. Independent media matters. WESU matters. Donate today!

We have much to be thankful for at Wesleyan, and many ways to contribute to organizations we care about. Let’s show that support between now at Tuesday, November 29th!

Wesleyan University a Sanctuary Campus

Across the country, many are calling for their universities to become sanctuary campuses. The model is the “sanctuary city,” like Austin, New York City, Chicago and dozens of other municipalities, which have declared their intention not to cooperate with federal officials seeking to deport residents simply because they lack appropriate immigration documentation.

Having spoken with students, faculty and staff over the last week, and having conferred with the Board of Trustees, I think it very important to declare that Wesleyan University is a sanctuary campus. For us, this means the following:

  • Wesleyan will remain committed to the principles of non-discrimination, including equal protection under the law, regardless of national origin or citizenship.
  • Wesleyan will not voluntarily assist in any efforts by the federal government to deport our students, faculty or staff solely because of their citizenship status.

As we say in our webpages, we will continue to “welcome all undergraduate applicants regardless of citizenship status.  Undocumented students, with or without Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), who apply to Wesleyan will continue to be treated identically to any other U.S. citizen or permanent resident in their high school.”

Through our alumni networks, we are also putting together legal resources for members of the Wesleyan community with questions concerning their immigration status. We will facilitate connections to these resources and other support services, as we work with appropriate offices and constituency groups on campus.

These are small steps, to be sure, in the face of a very frightening wave of threats to roll back the civil rights gains made in recent decades. But we will stand up and take these steps; we will do our best to protect our community, and we will gather resources to enable all its members, regardless of citizenship status, to continue to have opportunities to thrive here.

Working with the Incarcerated

For several years now, Wesleyan students, faculty and staff have been working with incarcerated people in Connecticut state prisons. With all the post-election tumult, it is important to remember that there has been an emerging consensus from various parts of the political spectrum to end mass incarceration. Now there is political work to be done to ensure that “law and order” rhetoric not evolve into policies that continue to decimate communities of color while benefiting private prison companies. And there is educational work to be done. Wesleyan’s Center for Prison Education is bringing resources to incarcerated men and women who learn together with their teachers and mentors.

Recently the Ford Foundation awarded Wesleyan’s Center for Prison Education a $300,000 grant to continue its important work. The people at Ford recognized the dedication of the students who founded the program, along with the talents and energy of the teachers and supporting staff who bring a first-rate liberal education to men and women behind bars. This grant will allow us to continue to offer classes, and, in cooperation with Middlesex Community College, offer an Associate’s Degree.

Earlier this semester, I attended part of the Shasha Seminar, which this year was focused on problems of mass incarceration. I heard very moving accounts of working to get prisoners released and of the problems that folks face after they thought they were leaving a life behind bars. I talked with Wesleyan alumni who have been doing this important work for many years, and who now see possibilities for real change. But the most powerful talks I heard were from people who had committed serious crimes and then, through education, turned their lives around. Education, they explained, saved their lives, and now they felt a duty to help others who were struggling.

Isn’t this one of the great effects of liberal education? Experiencing the awakening of one’s own potential through learning, one wants to participate in the education of others. It’s a form of liberation, a way out of the mindset of incarceration.

I am grateful to the Ford Foundation for supporting our work at the Center for Prison Education. The dedication of the folks doing this work is especially admirable in these tumultuous times.