Innovation: Economy, Theater, Education

At a breakfast meeting of the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce on Friday, I was invited to talk with approximately 500 guests about Wesleyan’s role in our region, and about the relevance of a liberal arts education today. It was interesting in the context of that meeting to underscore our university’s place in the economy of the region. Not only are we emphasizing (and buying) local food for our dining facilities, but we also hire local artisans, contractors and construction firms for the greatest percentage our facilities projects. Moreover, our graduates have founded cultural enterprises, businesses, and public service organizations that continue to improve the lives of people in our region.

But Wesleyan’s contribution goes far beyond the money we spend and the organizations we support. Our model of liberal arts education emphasizes freedom and experimentation as tools for students to discover what they love to do, and then to get a little better at it. We believe that when students are passionately engaged with their education, that they will be better able to develop meaningful ways of working after graduation. Wesleyan students, as I have been emphasizing since I returned to campus, become innovators and productive risk takers, and I do think this is exactly the right time for our alumni to have a role in shaping our economy and culture. Wesleyan students, long known for our idealism, are also figuring out how to translate ideals into effective, productive work in the world.

After I got down from the soapbox, Kari and I went to see Big Love — a production of Charles L. Mee’s play by the Wesleyan theater department. It was directed by Visiting Professor David Jaffe, with a theater collective (called “the Company”) made up of very talented actors, musicians and other theater artists. The play was performed in the round, with the ancient themes of battles between the sexes brought very much into a contemporary idiom. The acting was superb, and we were so impressed with the ways in which music and physicality were integrated with the powerful plot themes concerning freedom, sexual attraction, violence and control.

Big Love reminded me that Wesleyan’s grand tradition of theatrical excellence remains strong. The student-run Patricelli ’92 Theater (there I was able to catch this weekend only a part of the very funny My Kingdom for a Whore), as well as the academic department and a variety of informal groups, bring challenging theater experiences into a liberal arts context.

Last night I learned that one of our seniors, Max Rose, is a finalist in an essay contest sponsored by The Nation. Reflecting on the legacy of FDR’s New Deal, Max calls for a new social contract, at the center of which should be education. He stresses the importance of innovation in education and recognizes that, “The most potent resource of the 21st century is a nation’s intellectual capital.” I’d like to think that Wesleyan has a role to play in the development of that resource, and in enhancing access to it through a robust scholarship program. You can read his essay at: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20080414/rosen
Congratulations, Max!

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2 thoughts on “Innovation: Economy, Theater, Education

  1. President Roth,

    In the spirit of Wesleyan’s grand tradition of theatrical excellence, this “jelly donut eating Irish Catholic student athlete (basketball)” has a sidelight as the acting president of a decade old 501 (c) 3 group – Shaking the Tree (shakingthetree.org) – which uses theater to dramatize issues of governance and philanthropy (i.e wealth with responsibility) amongst individuals/families of means. I guess it is true that you can’t get out of Middletown without picking up a little thespianism along the way!

  2. It’s unfortunate that Wesleyan University should show its political partisanship so blatantly by inviting one of the candidates vying to become the Democratic nominee to speak at the university’s commencement. It seems so contrary to the principle of objectivity that is the basis for academic scholarship in other universities.

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