Against Cynicism in Higher Education

I published this  op-ed in the Washington Post this morning, which followed a book review I wrote for their Sunday edition.


Across the political spectrum, too many Americans have lost faith in college education. Liberals and conservatives have few talking points in common, but they have come to agree on this: Campuses have replaced teaching and learning with indoctrination and political posturing.

That should trouble us all. If U.S. higher education comes to be seen first and foremost as a political endeavor, the country as a whole will suffer.

When education is framed as necessarily partisan, only cynicism triumphs. And cynicism is what we see growing on the left and the right in the United States. In recent years, higher education has become a punching bag for “knowing cynics” — conservative and progressive — who seem to discount the very possibility of rigorous inquiry that proceeds without certainty of how things might come out.

Some on the left are confident they have discovered that education was always political and that the promise of social mobility has long been an illusion foisted on the poor to keep them in line. Some on the right are sure they have discovered that education is just a device to indoctrinate the young into the ways of radicalism popular among otherwise unproductive professors.

In both cases, however, these “discoveries” are at heart little more than the adoption of an attitude of cynicism — the price of admission to a desired group. Cynicism is a pose one takes on to win friends while giving up on influencing people. Cynics think they know enough to know that they have nothing more to learn; they purchase an air of sophistication by condescending to people still trying to broaden their thinking and sharpen their skills.

The cynical pose toward education isn’t based on facts. There is no evidence that recent graduates of colleges and universities are far more radical than those who preceded them, or that they have been indoctrinated into the political beliefs of their professors in significant numbers. The most popular majors at American universities — including computer science, business and communications — show no evidence of such indoctrination. Nor is there evidence that U.S. colleges are mostly turning out selfish, would-be masters of the universe whose creed is greed. On the contrary, volunteerism is robust on college campuses, as is participation in forms of engagement that build a healthier civil society.

When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, my parents, who didn’t attend college themselves, little understood what happened at institutions of higher education. But they nonetheless sacrificed a great deal so my brother and I could continue our educations after high school. They had faith that doing so would give us better chances in life. Have we reached an inflection point in this faith — a point at which higher education is no longer seen by most as a source of problem solving and opportunity creation, a vehicle for social mobility and a resource for personal thriving?

That possibility is nothing to be cynical about. The alternative to learning, to experimenting with other points of view and new domains of inquiry, is parochialism, what philosopher Richard Rorty labeled “self-protective knowingness about the present.” We already see this in very public refusals to listen to people with views different from one’s own, in the rejection of basic science, and in the petty nastiness that comes from the resentment that other people are learning something you don’t know.

Our colleges and universities thrive when they cultivate inquiry on the basis of a variety of points of view. Their combination of research and teaching still provides the most fertile soil for creating opportunities and solving urgent problems — from medicine and technology to public policy and the arts. This doesn’t mean higher ed is immune from critique; on the contrary, calls for expanded access for low-income families, greater intellectual diversity and enhanced freedom of expression are having positive effects. More of this is needed. We learn to improve through attentive criticism, not the cynical embrace of tribal partisanship.

The American pragmatists taught that the mission of philosophy was to help people construct a sense of who they are, what matters to them and what they hope to make of their lives. That’s also a central part of the mission of higher education. Yes, the process of questioning oneself and the world can be disturbing — whether one is on the left or the right. But this mission, whatever forms it takes, is ultimately not about constructing a partisan position; it’s about developing self-awareness, subtlety of thought and openness to the possibility of learning from others.

The cynical dismissal of that mission, from liberals and conservatives alike, is dangerous at a time when we need adventurous, rigorous inquiry more than ever.

Greeting the New Year at Wesleyan

After picking up our daughter Sophie from her study abroad semester, we hunkered down in the cold but beautiful Berkshires. As 2017 came to an end, we made a visit to MASS MoCA, and were treated to the incredible installation by Liz Glynn there. The artist had take-away posters there, and this seemed like a good, end-of-year message. Many Wesleyans (especially my students, I hope!) will recognize the quotation:

At Liz Glynn’s installation at MASS MoCA

Kari and I were back in Middletown for the new year, and the first morning of 2018 was just lovely.

We are waiting for what may be a good snow storm this week, but meanwhile the campus is a little frozen, but very beautiful. Here’s the moon over Wesleyan this morning (Wed, 1/3).










It’s a little too quiet, though, and we look forward to welcoming students back soon. Winter session starts next week! Happy New Year!


What College is For

Last week the Washington Post published an op-ed I wrote about the three things everyone should learn in college. These will be familiar to many in the Wesleyan family, and it they may be useful for those stressing out over their admission application essays as deadlines approach. 

The holiday season for many is an anxious time, but for high school seniors facing application deadlines there is an extra level of worry. Although as youngsters many in this generation were routinely praised for almost everything they did or tried to do, suddenly as junior year rolls around, the messages change.

Some are told that college is not for them and that they should do their best to get some short-term training for immediate job prospects. Others are encouraged to head off to a university or community college but discouraged from setting their sights too high. And some talented high school students vying for spots at selective institutions are advised to polish up their résumés with activities that admissions officers will find most exciting. Some are coached not to make any mistakes that might blemish their records; a fortunate few have tutors paid overtime to provide every advantage on what are fictitiously labeled “standardized” tests.

In the process, all too many receive a sorry message, indeed: “The goal of high school is to get into the college that rejects the most people; the goal of college is to gain access to employers or graduate programs that turn away the greatest number of qualified candidates; the goal of life is to have more of the stuff that other people are unable to acquire.” No one puts it quite this way, but that’s what our young people are hearing. It is a message that kills the soul: Value things only to the extent that other people are deprived of them.

Whatever school they attend, college students should get three things from their time as undergraduates. The first is the opportunity to discover what they love to do. Many smart high school students arrive at college thinking that they will continue to pursue those subjects in which they already performed well. It seems to make sense – “I got A’s in history, or in English, so I should continue taking classes in that area.”

Wrong. College is a time to experiment with new fields of knowledge and new methodologies of discovery. Whether it’s the science lover experimenting with music or the would-be economics major trying out classes in literature, the undergraduate years offer the possibility of finding out what one really finds fulfilling. It’s not just about the reward of good grades or a hefty paycheck. It’s about thriving – and especially about thriving through work.

Don’t be fooled by the grade inflation rampant at the fancier (read: most selective) institutions. Find professors who will be candid about how far you need still to go before the work is ready for prime time. This is as true in physics as it is in poetry. Students might discover that they love a field; professors can make them see how much better they’ll have to become in order to really participate in that field at a level that counts. You don’t go to school to be told how smart you are; you go to find out how much more you have to learn.

Students, regardless of which college they attend, will build resources for lifelong learning if they discover what they love to do and get better at it. But there’s one more thing. They should learn how to share what they’ve gotten better at with others. This means developing the skills to show other people that the work one finds rewarding also has value for them. Students who get the most out of college have enhanced their abilities to translate what they’ve learned on campus so that people beyond its borders understand how they can add value to an organization, a team or a company.

Wesleyan, Actually

Whenever I get gloomy about the state of the world, I think about the beginning of the next semester and the pure uncomplicated love felt as Wesleyans return to campus and find one another in the Science Library, at Olin, at the CFA or on Foss Hill. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that Wes-love actually is all around.

So with hope and agenda, I hope to see you on Foss Hill. And if you can’t get to Middletown anytime soon, there are plenty of other ways to keep in touch with alma mater. – Connect | Volunteer | Give .   If you are in a giving mood these days, your generosity will be amplified. Now through December 31st, our Board of Trustees (who feel the Wes-love more than most) will match every gift dollar for dollar. Please give back to support students and faculty at Wesleyan today:

With hope and agenda,  Wesleyan, Actually.

Stop the Deportation of Francisco Acosta!

Francisco Acosta has made many friend in his years working as a custodian on the Wesleyan campus. He is now facing the struggle of a lifetime, as the federal government has denied his appeals for political asylum and is trying to deport him to Colombia. Francisco left that country during a surge of violence there in 2001, and much of his family has lived in the United States for years. ICE has demanded that Francisco leave the country, and he is appealing this order.

You can read more about Francisco’s case here, and you can sign a petition expressing support for him here.

Wesleyan has tried to be helpful to Francisco, and we will continue to reach out to his union and attorney to see how we can be most useful. I am contacting key congressional members to enlist their support, and we will do our best to reverse what seems to be an unjust, mean-spirited effort to deport a valued member of our community.

A STARR in Physics

Earlier this semester Francis Starr was elected as a Fellow of the American Physical Society. This is a distinct honor — only about one half of one percent of American physicists are elected to the society on the basis of  “exceptional contributions to the physics enterprise including outstanding physics research, important applications of physics, leadership in or service to physics, or significant contributions to physics education.” Prof. Starr’s research group focuses on soft matter physics and biophysics, combining computational and theoretical methods in their exploration of lipid membranes, glass formation, DNA nanotechnology, polymers and supercooled water.

You can read more about the Starr group.

Prof. Starr is the founding director of the College of Integrative Sciences (CIS) as well as a professor of molecular biology and biochemistry. The CIS is dedicated to providing students with translational and interdisciplinary science education through original research. The CIS summer research program hosts around 180 students annually.

Congratulations Prof. Starr!!

Basketball: We have the PLAYERS!

The first half of the season has started off with a blast for both the men’s and women’s basketball teams. This week, players from each squad were chosen as NESCAC Players-Of-The-Week.


Maddie Bledsoe ’18 has had a most impressive start to the season. This past week she led the Cardinals to victory in the Courtyard by Marriott tournament. She averaged a double-double with 14.5 points and 14.0 rebounds in two wins over the University of Maine-Presque Isle (98-22) and Westfield State (88-76). On Friday, she scored 11 points on a perfect 5-of-5 shooting while also pulling in seven rebounds and dishing out four assists in 17 minutes of action. The following day, in the tournament championship game, she recorded career-highs of 18 points and 21 rebounds in the win over a strong Westfield State team. Maddie was 12-of-13 from the charity stripe and also dished out three assists, blocked a shot and recorded a steal. Maddie leads the conference in rebounding and has helped lead the team to its 5-1 record.


Jordan Bonner ’19 has been a scoring machine from the guard position. He has had at least 20 points in two road wins against Emmanuel (88-68) and highly ranked Williams to help keep the perfect season intact as Wesleyan improved to 6-0 on the year. In the win over the Saints, he dropped 21 points on 7-of-10 shooting while grabbing six rebounds, dishing out two assists and recording two steals. He concluded the week with a 22-point, five-rebound performance at Williams in which he scored six points in OT and converted clutch free throws down the stretch to seal the win.

Basketball players have a short break after this week’s games, and then there will be plenty of opportunities to see both teams play in the new year. Congratulations to Maddie and Jordan. Go WES!!

Final Push to the End of the Semester

Although it seems like just a short time ago that I was writing about Arrival Day, we now suddenly find ourselves in the final week of the semester. Students are finishing class projects, professors are writing up exams and grading them, and the staff is working extra hard to support the entire community in this pressure-packed season. The weather is finally giving us signals that the season is indeed changing. No snow yet, but you can feel it won’t be long…

Soon I’ll be hosting the “December Completions” reception for students who are finishing up at Wesleyan mid-year. Some of these are students who took some time off, while others are undergraduates who are finishing a semester early. Each year a few more students are choosing the latter route, many through our three-year option. One can save a substantial amount of money on this program, while still getting the same array of academic offerings available to those who choose the eight-semester path.

There are lots of great events still to come as we get to the end of the semester. I’ll just mention the event at which Amanda Palmer ’98 and Michael Pope, along with the students from ‘The Art of Doing” course, will showcase their work. Amanda will perform on December 9th, and we’ll also get to see a music video students have made this term. You can find out more about the showcase here.

Good luck as the semester draws to a close!


#GivingTuesday: With You, More is Possible

Now that we have expressed thanks, and, in many cases, shopped until we dropped, it’s time again to focus on Giving!  This is Wesleyan’s fourth year participating in #GivingTuesday. Thousands of Wesleyan alumni, parents, students and friends have chosen to make their donations on Giving Tuesday – and together, we have unlocked millions of dollars in matching funds for financial aid.

This year’s challenge – When 3,500 members of the Wesleyan community make gifts by Giving Tuesday, November 28, trustee Marc Casper ’90 will donate $300K to financial aid to support our students.

Giving is easy! Just visit the homepage for #GivingTuesday:

Thanks in advance for making an impact by adding resources to financial aid!


A “Glad Position: Gratitude”

The poet John Berryman’s poem “Minnesota Thanksgiving,” which I heard recited this morning on the radio, contains this happy phrase: “we stand again in debt/and find ourselves in the glad position: Gratitude.”

Gratitude is a glad position, and on Thanksgiving many assume it with a mixture of mirth and reverence. At Wesleyan, I know we have much to be thankful for. Our faculty and staff tap reservoirs of ingenuity to ensure that the education we offer remains vital with the energies of practical idealism. Our alumni are bound together through alma mater to generously support a school that inspires innovative aspirations to bravely face challenges and create opportunities. And our Wesleyan students, they discover their capacities for courage and creativity while exuberantly building a foundation for lifelong learning and friendship.

So much for which to be thankful! It is a glad position. Happy Thanksgiving!