Wrestling Wesleyans

As spring was getting underway, some Wesleyan students were gearing up for the toughest work they’d face all year. Graduate student Devon Carrillo  ’17, Dominic Pirraglia ’18  and Isaiah Bellamy ’18 were off to wrestling’s national tournament in Cleveland to represent Wesleyan. They had all had stellar seasons under the guidance of coach extraordinaire Drew Black.

Dominic had a fine senior season for the Cardinals, and he wrestled hard against nationally ranked opponents. Devon and Isaiah were also matched up against the nation’s best, and they earned All-American status in their sport. This is an extraordinary achievement, and Isaiah went on to capture third place in the country in his weight class (285). Isaiah was awarded the NCAA prize for “Most Falls,” leading the country with 24 totals pins. Devon finished third in falls with 22. The dynamic duo led the country in pins for the majority of the season. You can read more about them here.

Join me in congratulating these fine student-athletes!

Isaiah Bellamy ’18

Spring Break with Snow

As students and faculty were preparing for spring break (staff at Wesleyan mostly work straight through), the New England winter reminded us all that the season wasn’t quite done blanketing our campus. It’s beautiful, but it’s slippery. It’s fun to slide down Foss Hill, but it’s cold and wet. Spring will arrive…meanwhile midterms, papers, theses and snow.


The break is upon us, and spring will eventually arrive. Meanwhile, stay safe and recharge for the second half of the semester!


International Women’s Day

Today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day. Around the world, there are a number of events planned to showcase the achievements of women as well as the ways in which women continue to be plagued by oppression, marginalization, harassment and violence. International Women’s Day is a call for action to fight against these abuses.

At the Usdan University Center today, the Women’s of Color House and Women @ Wesleyan are sponsoring a photo shoot at noon and an open mic event later in the afternoon. Here is the information:



It’s a great time to press for progress.

Hayden White (1928-2018)

This morning I learned that the great theorist of history, Hayden White, had passed away overnight. At Wesleyan in the 1970s, Hayden was a stirring, provocative, and welcoming teacher. His presence at the Center for the Humanities was inspirational, and I was fortunate to have studied with him there. Although he left Wesleyan soon after, he remained an important figure for our journal History and Theory, and he returned to campus often. In 2014, he came back to receive an honorary doctorate. Recently, Prof. Ethan Kleinberg conducted a series of interviews with Hayden.

Throughout his long career, Hayden’s work was animated by an emancipatory impulse. He wanted to liberate people from the burdens of history. Here’s what he wrote in the 1960s:

The burden of the historian in our time is to reestablish the dignity of historical studies on a basis that will make them consonant with the aims and purposes of the intellectual community at large, that is, we must transform historical studies in such a way as to allow the historian to participate positively in the liberation of the present from the burden of history.

When he made brief remarks to the Class of 2014 at Commencement, he didn’t tell them to go discover their pasts, to go find out who they really were and then express that. No, Hayden told us all that we weren’t rooted in some authentic past and that we could make out of ourselves something new, something not beholden to someone else’s idea of who we really were and where we had really come from. We could remake the meanings of our pasts, paradoxically, by seizing opportunities to create our futures.

Hayden was a generous interlocutor for those interested in maintaining a commitment to keeping open the question of how we make sense of the past (or choose not to). He was alive to the constraints under which meaning was created, but he was also a champion of finding ways to think otherwise. I remember, as an undergraduate in his seminars, feeling acutely this tension between constraint and creativity. On the one hand, his formalist approach to the great literary and historical texts of the nineteenth century emphasized the tropes that determined a writer’s discourse. On the other hand, he showed time and time again the ways that these same writers defied the structures by which they had seemed bound. He invited his students and his readers to find ways both to recognize the situation that claimed to define them and to defy its boundaries. As a teacher, he showed no interest in training us to be accepted into a profession, and he offered every encouragement to extend the borders of our imaginations. He himself took an ironic stance in the classroom, which enabled his students to recognize that his was merely a stance they could choose or reject, “according to their own moral and aesthetic aspirations.”

Near the very end of his 1973 masterwork, Metahistory, Hayden evokes “the aged Kant,” who thought “we are free to conceive ‘history’ as we please, just as we are free to make of it what we will.” Recently, he returned to Kant and the French existentialists to acknowledge that we come to history not for scientific truth but for aesthetic and ethical guidance. One can turn to history to constrain or to nourish one’s imagination—”history can be a resource and not only a burden,” he emphasized. Indeed, it is imagination that makes history available to us, enabling us to construct what he called a “practical past.”

Hayden White taught that the imagination could push back against academic disciplines, cultural orthodoxies and political ideologies. May his memory as teacher, theorist, writer and friend inspire us to get out from under the burdens of history and make the present and future our own. 


Liberal Education and Conformity

Last week, Inside Higher Education published a short essay I’d written on liberal education, conformity, and my interactions with students in China. I’ve been thinking about conformity, inquiry, free speech and intellectual diversity a lot lately. Last week, I had a very interesting conversation with scores of students (and some faculty and staff) about issues on campus for people of faith or religious practice. Many told me they felt marginalized by what they saw as the the political hegemony of the “progressive” consensus. This consensus allows some to think they speak for “the community” as a whole.  I found this interesting and challenging…certainly part of an ongoing conversation about resisting conformity and cultivating different forms of diversity.  


The question took me by surprise. I had just finished lecturing to about 75 undergraduates at Peking University on the virtues of American-style pragmatic liberal education. My book Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters had recently been translated into Chinese, and I was on a speaking tour trying to persuade students and their families that in a society changing so rapidly it made the most sense to pursue a broad education in which you would learn how to take multiple perspectives on shifting, complex problems and opportunities — to learn how to learn. I argued that from Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson to Jane Addams and W. E. B. Du Bois, American thinkers had developed ideas about pragmatic liberal learning that are powerfully relevant today.

The question, from a young man who had been furiously taking notes throughout my talk, was whether a liberal education really made students think for themselves — as I had argued — or whether it just turned students into liberals. Encouraged by my visible interest and surprise, he asked more pointedly if liberal learning didn’t contribute to the divisiveness that was currently afflicting American society by reinforcing a sense, for some people, of superiority and, for others, that elites with fancy diplomas were looking down on them.

These issues were not unfamiliar to me, but I hadn’t expected an undergraduate in China to raise them. The idea that college campuses have become places of political indoctrination is hotly debated in the United States, but I was surprised to find concern about indoctrination expressed in China, where the state overtly strives for a serious level of ideological conformity.

The young man’s question about political conformity led to an interesting discussion about the general tendency of students to conform to the values of their educational system. My audience at PKU was filled with students who had excelled at the national exam and gained entrance to this, the most prestigious university in the country. These were insightful young men and women who knew how to read their teachers so as to provide them with the responses they’d like best. They knew how to succeed on exams, and they knew how to succeed at pleasing even those professors who said they wanted critically thinking contrarians. In this, they weren’t that different from the bright students I encounter at colleges and universities in America.

Do professors in the United States, in fact, expect ideological or intellectual conformity even when they call for critical thinking? That is a perennial problem for anyone who believes that education should liberate one from dependence on someone else’s thinking– that learning should foster open-ended inquiry and self-reliance. And I had to confess to the student in Beijing that we may indeed have a bias in the American academy that makes intellectual diversity less likely, as teachers equate thoughtful responses with responses that support their own worldviews. Finding ways to challenge those views, encouraging heterodoxy, is the mandate of an educational philosophy, such as pragmatic liberal education, that values the instigation of new modes of inquiry and of creativity. Discussion of implicit bias on American college campuses — be the focus on identity or ideology — is a positive sign that higher education is acknowledging and wrestling with this problem.

The young man’s second question was equally challenging. Was a liberal education a pathway to elitism, cementing economic inequality and enabling a fortunate few to assume an attitude of haughty privilege? That is certainly possible, I admitted. One of the reasons many families want to send their children to top-ranked colleges is that they are highly selective — they reject lots of people, the thinking goes, so they must be good! More than that, the student was asking whether those who enroll in such institutions contribute, unwittingly or not, to a national climate of hostile divisiveness. Throughout American history, writers have argued that while education was essential for a healthy democracy, it could also lead to the corruption of pretentious elites condescending to their fellow citizens (if they recognized them at all).

My response focused on Jane Addams, one of the important pragmatist thinkers and activists I’d written about in Beyond the University. Addams saw that sophisticated modes of education often stifled the ability to see things from another’s point of view. She recognized that strong thinking often became self-protective and detached from the concerns of others. Her contribution to liberal education was to insist on the development of empathy and the sympathetic imagination; she underscored participation in civic life as a vehicle for liberal learning. Emphasis upon humane responsiveness and social engagement were key to ensuring that the forms of inquiry that are part and parcel of a liberal education didn’t become parochial and elitist.

No sooner had I finished my appeal to Addams but a young woman sitting up front asked if I wasn’t really just echoing a campus cultural bubble when I spoke of liberal learning in such idealistic ways. Ah, so talk of the bubble has made its way to China, I thought. Sure, I admitted to the brave undergraduate who had so directly challenged the foreign speaker, it may well be efforts to nurture free inquiry have led to somewhat protective bubbles. But the American tradition of liberal education that I was talking about held that real inquiry had to be tested beyond the university, that real learning had to be relevant beyond the classroom and the borders of the campus. If what I had described sounded idealistic at times, that might, in part, be because I am a university president with a tendency for cheerleading. But, I explained, it might also be because this American educational tradition took a bet on what pragmatist philosopher John Dewey called “practical idealism,” a bet on the value of situating learning in relation to society and the aim of contributing to its well-being.

The discussion in Beijing led me to reflect that teachers and students in China, like those in the United States, are thinking hard about how to avoid conformity and indoctrination without just retreating to a campus bubble that has no relevance to the nonacademic world. In America, we often read about social justice warriors refusing to listen to points of view from outside the campus mainstream, but we should pay more attention to those engaged students who are creating opportunities in education, health care and access to technology for citizens beyond the university’s walls. Rather than focusing on why kids today don’t have the same fundamentalist commitment to the free market approach to speech as boomers claim to have always had, we should recognize how our campuses abound with productive nonconformists, practical idealists starting up companies and purpose-driven organizations. In China, more than half a million students each year study abroad, and scores of thousands are majoring in foreign languages and culture. Notwithstanding the central government’s frightening efforts to enforce narrow forms of political and vocational training, exposure to other societies will enrich the country by disrupting increasingly bureaucratized homogeneity.

I left the lecture hall heartened that students in Beijing, like many across the United States, hope that higher education will be pragmatic without being conformist, and that the college years will inspire them to think for themselves in ways that will be significant to others. A pragmatic liberal education promises to engage with issues that students will surely have to deal with beyond their university years, while refusing to just be a training program that will, in the short run, slide them into the existing slots offered by the status quo. It has often fulfilled this promise in the past, and it is strong enough today to welcome and weather tough questions — from the United States or from China — about its future.

Spring Sports are Here..Winter’s Still Playing

Many of the winter sports are winding down, although men’s basketball and hockey have tournament games to play and there are many individual races still to be run (or to be swum). The women’s hockey team put up a great fight at the NESCAC tournament, and the men’s team continues this weekend against Colby College. The women’s basketball team finished a strong season by making it to the NESCAC semifinals, while the men’s squad lost a tough game to Williams in the finals. The men continue their season in the NCAA tournament AT HOME this weekend.

Our wrestlers have had a tremendous season, with graduate student  Devon Carrillo and senior Isaiah Bellamy winning their regional tournaments, and senior Dominic Pirraglia also qualifying to go on to the national NCAA tournament in Cleveland. We have swimmers going on to compete in the national tournament, with our 400 meter freestyle relay team (senior Zoe Kerrich, and sophomores Caroline MurphyHannah O’Halloran and Grace Middleton) setting a school record!

One early morning last week I ran into a couple of softball players getting ready for an indoor scrimmage, and so one can feel spring on the horizon! The men’s and women’s lacrosse teams take their respective fields on Sat., March 3 at 1 p.m. to take on rival Williams College.

Spring is almost here. Good luck to our student-athletes finishing up the winter!

Students Making a Difference for Gun Safety

Across the country, young people are demanding that the government do more to establish gun safety. We are not safe in a land where people not old enough to buy a beer can buy an assault rifle, and where basic background checks are undermined by a crazy quilt of loopholes. We are not safe in a land where the government’s response to violence is to call for more people to be armed.

I will never forget when Wesleyan student Johanna Justin-Jinich was murdered by a man plagued by deep mental illness who had access to a deadly weapon. Our grief, terror and horror during those days ten years ago made an indelible mark on me and so many of us connected to this campus.

We will never forget, but can we actually turn our memories of gun violence into political engagement to promote robust gun safety? The students from Parkland, the families of the children killed at Sandy Hook, and so many others around the country show us that we can: we can mobilize our political energies to demand sensible gun safety laws. This starts by ensuring that we reject the reciprocal concealed carry permit legislation that has been making its way through Congress (with legislative tracks greased by NRA funds), and it must continue in developing common sense safety regulations on firearms. Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy is a strong advocate on these issues.

University Chaplain Tracy Mehr-Muska has let me know that there is a march in Hartford on March 24 for which we could organize transportation.  Here’s some info about it. CT Against Gun Violence is an organization that can provide more information on the issues. Tracy tells me it is often organizing groups to go to Hartford for various legislative initiatives.

How will we respond to the latest outbreak of gun violence? Students across the country are showing the way.

Update from University Admissions:

Wesleyan students have a proud tradition of civic engagement, and the university supports students’ rights to peaceful protest. The admission committee reviews the details of any suspension reported by an applicant, and a suspension for peaceful protest on issues of public concern would not impact an admission decision in any way.

24 Cheers for Laila Samy!

Senior Laila Samy was named the 2018 Betty Richey Award winner yesterday. This is the most prestigious annual honor bestowed by the College Squash Association (CSA). With another win yesterday morning, Samy concluded her dual-match season with a perfect 24-0 record.

 The award is given to the women’s college squash player who best exemplifies the ideals of squash in her love and devotion to the game, her strong sense of fairness, and her excellence of play and leadership. The winner is determined by a vote of both coaches and players—each varsity team casts one coach and one team vote.

Congratulations to Laila, to Coach Shona Kerr, and to the entire Wesleyan University squash family. You do us all proud!


No words? Two Words: Gun Safety

I wish I had the right words at my disposal to convey my horror, sadness and outrage in the wake of the latest massacre at an American school. We know it’s the 18th school shooting since just the beginning of this year; we know that the deeply disturbed shooter had access to an arsenal of deadly weapons; we know that our elected officials will wring their hands, often saying that they wish there was something they could do while offering thoughts and prayers.

Thoughts and prayers. Yes, these words seem to lose their power when repeated too often after episodes of extreme violence. But reaching out to express condolences and care is not meaningless, even if it is not enough. When we lose the capacity for sympathy after events like this, we lose something essential about our humanity.

Many people have been repeating “there are no words,” to describe how lost they feel after something this traumatic. But here are two words I learned to use this fall at Wesleyan’s Shasha Seminar on Human Concerns: gun safety. Surely, those we have elected to office can find ways to write laws to ensure that firearms circulate more safely. Basic safety rules won’t solve all the issues, but when they have been enacted, gun violence declines.

We need words. We need sympathy. We need time to mourn. And we need legislation that will keep us safer from mass violence.


Black History Month — Agency and Freedom

We are well into February, and students, faculty and staff have already been participating in a variety of interesting programs to commemorate Black History Month. This week, to honor the legacy of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., the Resource Center and other groups are sponsoring a program led by Joi Lewis, who founded and leads her own consulting firm dealing with issues of diversity, justice and healing. Dr. Lewis explores the idea of “healing justice to invite, inspire, explore and unpack the practice of radical self-care,” and she “illuminates how individuals and institutions transform and move towards true liberation, even against the backdrop of racism and oppression-induced toxic stress and trauma.” Her talk will take place at 12:15 on Thursday, February 15 in the Crowell Concert Hall.

This year many of the programs at Wesleyan for Black History Month are concerned with agency and freedom. Here’s a partial listing:

There are other events going on, such as an exhibition of prints from Wesleyan’s collection by African American artists. Reclaiming the Gaze presents a dynamic survey of African American prints and photographs from the 1930s to the present, such as this one by Robert Pruitt (b. 1975).