From Clubbiness to Cosmopolitanism

I was talking to someone recently about one of my favorites subjects: the future of the residential liberal arts college. In an age where online communication is increasingly the norm, an age in which face-to-face contact is seen as inefficient or “uncomfortable,” why should families make the great investment of spending four years in an artificially controlled community aimed at regular, intense personal interaction? Decades ago students who went to liberal arts colleges were likely to find people much like themselves. The schools drew on a fairly homogeneous population, and the relationships one developed while a student were supposed to enhance the family networks and local connections one brought to undergraduate life. The liberal arts education was broadening (at least in terms of an introduction to the cultures of Europe and North America), and the social environment provided the “finish.”

All of this began to change in the wake of World War II, and conditions were dramatically altered when schools made fair access a priority. The combination of proactive outreach to under-represented groups and the expansion of curricula far beyond the high culture of the West changed the demographics and the content of liberal education. Wesleyan was a leader in this regard, aggressively looking for talented students from groups previously discriminated against, and creating classes that went far beyond the traditional offerings.

Let’s take the Music Department at Wesleyan as an example. At many schools the Music Department would have been the most tied to European high culture, and the least likely to stray too far from the traditional canon. Wesleyan had long been a very musical campus – even known as the “Singing College of New England” because of its talented a cappella groups and championship Glee Club. A few music professors went to President Butterfield in the 1960s to get support for advanced work in ethnomusicology, a field almost unknown at our peer institutions. Soon, musicians from across Asia and then Africa would find students and audiences at Wesleyan. Professor Mark Slobin, whose interests range from his fieldwork in Afghanistan to Klezmer to movie music, continues to exemplify this voracious appetite for cultural diversity at the highest level of skill and performance. So does Su Zheng, now Chair of the department, a scholar of traditional Chinese and Japanese music as well as contemporary music of the Asian Diaspora.

Around the same time as Wesleyan students were learning Gamelan and African Drumming, Wes was also drinking deeply at the well of experimental music and jazz. John Cage’s time in residence here had a profound impact on teachers and students, and the tradition of experimentation continues with current faculty such as Anthony Braxton, Alvin Lucier and Ron Kuivila.  This doesn’t mean we’ve ignored the European tradition, though. Professor Jane Alden’s work on medieval singing traditions, and Neely Bruce’s on more contemporary ones, have had an important impact on the field as they inspire our current students.

The cosmopolitanism of the music department is in tune with the wonderful musical diversity of student life. From Eastern European song, to ska, from “surrealist pop” to the mighty Pep Band, our students make music with passion and joy. This kind of musical culture, in and outside the classroom, has evolved in our residential liberal arts context —indeed, it depends on that context. The thirst for experimentation, the ability to cross disciplinary or cultural borders, the scale of our residential life, all of these factors are as key to music at Wesleyan as they are to our curriculum more generally. In Religious Studies or in English, in History or in Government, the course offerings have moved beyond the comfortably familiar to open cosmopolitan networks of learning. Programs such as American Studies and East Asian Studies have gone beyond the national paradigms of education to reframe problems and explore possibilities.

The great advantage of our cosmopolitan liberal arts education is that it allows students to explore international, virtual networks of knowledge while learning the virtues (the pleasures and productivity) of face-to-face conversation, participation and cooperation. Whether learning music or biophysics, consistent personal contact with teachers and fellow-students deepens the education. The university must continue to be proactive about finding students from diverse backgrounds because this enhances everyone’s education in a residential community. And we must continue to enrich our curriculum by developing classes that sometimes go beyond traditional canons because by doing so we open up new possibilities for learning and life. Today’s Wesleyan students do plug into expansive virtual networks, of course, but they do so without sacrificing campus interactions that give these networks additional intensity and relevance.

There are serious challenges to our residential liberal art school model. But I take heart from the example of music, which shows how we might meet them by becoming ever more open to the wider world while valuing the vitality of our campus community.

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Wes in the Midwest

I write this from the Minneapolis airport, as I prepare to head home to Connecticut after a few days of visits in the Midwest. We had around 60 alumni, parents and a few guidance counselors today at lunch, all gathered to meet one another and to hear about what’s happening at Wes. We originally thought we’d have fewer than 20 for this event, and so it was heartening to see the enthusiasm for Wesleyan and the eagerness to discuss its future. I met teachers and business people, child advocates and city planners; many expressed their own surprise at the size of the Wes network in Minnesota.

We talked about some of the attributes that Wesleyan students continue to share over the generations. At my table was Jim Andrus ’66 whose Uncle John Andrus ’33 recently turned 100! John wasn’t able to make it today, but we spoke on the phone about the vitality of the faculty and curriculum, the economic challenges facing the university, and our beloved Alpha Delta Phi. At our lunch reception I talked about how we must strengthen the distinctive aspects of the Wesleyan curriculum, and there was particular excitement about the College of the Environment soon to get underway. In Minneapolis and Chicago (where I had been the day before) the Wesleyan commitment to serving the public good is very much in evidence. Alumni who have made their careers on a variety of paths in the private sector and others who have been involved in education and the professions so often share a commitment to contributing to the public good. Throughout Chicago and Minneapolis I could see that key cultural organizations benefit from the generosity and hard work of Wesleyan alumni. This civic engagement is not politically partisan. It just serves the public good.

In my talks with alumni I also emphasized the difficulties of working within a sustainable economic model, as well as my confidence that we could do so while maintaining a robust financial aid program. The Wesleyan community knows that our scholarship students add value to everyone’s educational experience. We are proud to admit students because of talent, not because of their ability to pay, and alumni and parent support is crucial to that endeavor.

I’ll be glad to get home. Sophie tells me it snowed in Middletown today — here, too. I know that I’ll be bringing back to campus the warm wishes and loyalty of the extended Wesleyan family.

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Athletics and Education

Coming back to Wesleyan after years in California, one of the most surprising aspects of the campus culture for me has been the wealth of athletic activities available — both formal and informal. Not only is the Freeman Athletic Center the class act of NESCAC, but all over the campus one can find students engaged in sports ranging from ultimate Frisbee to field hockey, from soccer to softball. In addition to the more than 700 varsity athletes, there are countless pick-up games or casual leagues. During the most recent glorious fall weekend, I was struck by the range of playful yet intense activities.

Football, men’s and women’s soccer, and field hockey were all involved in overtime matches on Saturday. We came out on the winning end in field hockey, and tied in men’s soccer, but in some ways the striving and focus the students exhibited were the most notable aspects of the contests. One sees the camaraderie and coordination of the players as they pull together (as I noted in the crew teams I saw at the Head of the Connecticut Regatta), and their shared jubilation or disappointment depending on the result. Whatever the outcome, the team regroups and begins work again, whether they had a big win (like women’s tennis) or a very frustrating loss (like football). The work — the practice and play — continues.

How is all this effort and competition, be it in intramural soccer or varsity cross-country, related to education? Recently I came upon a short piece on “The Active Life” by a beloved Wes faculty member and philosopher, Louis Mink. In a brochure on Liberal Education Louis wrote: “Sports provide the occasion for being intensely active at the height of one’s powers. The feeling of concentrated and coordinated exertion against opposing force is one of the primary ways in which we know what it is like to take charge of our own actions.”  Louis went on to say that “liberal education is education in the mode of action. It is something one does, and learns to do, not something one gets, acquires, possesses, or consumes.” That sounds just right to me: liberal education, in contradistinction to training, has everything to do with learning to take charge of one’s life.

Our students are busy, talented people. Why do they take on more challenges in athletics, or for that matter in their studies, or in the arts? Louis Mink wrote about the “overpowering reward” of feeling one’s own self-directed action having results against real difficulties. We learn about our limits, and about how we sometimes can overcome them when we take on the mental, physical and social challenges of sports. Of course, we also experience the great pleasure of the active life, often in the good company of teammates or campus supporters.

I often talk about the exuberance of our Wesleyan community, and how much I value the affection and achievement that it creates. Athletics are a big part of that, and that’s why I am so happy to cheer on the Red and Black!

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Center for the Humanities at 50

Tonight I am reading over my lecture for tomorrow’s conference at the Center for Humanities to celebrate its 50th anniversary. This is especially exciting for me because as a student more than 30 years ago the Center was my intellectual home. I had made up my own major, and so I didn’t have one department that was my base. But every Monday night I went to the Center to listen to Wesleyan faculty and distinguished visitors explain their research as they benefited from an atmosphere of intense, interdisciplinary activity. It was heady stuff for me, even if I understood little. When I was a senior I joined the Junior Fellow ranks at the Center, and the faculty really did treat us as colleagues. I got a taste of academic research, and I was hooked.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about the evolution of CHUM a bit, and then about some major changes in the humanities over the last few decades. Nancy Armstrong, a distinguished critic from Duke, will be one of my respondents, as will my teacher Victor Gourevitch. I hope my paper meets his expectations! We start at 9:00 am.

The real fun for me starts at 10:30, when English professor Sean McCann will give a talk on liberal humanism. Historian Demetrius Eudell will talk about a humanism “made to the measure of the world” at 1:10 pm, and philosopher Lori Gruen will discuss Humanities’ Others at 2:50 pm. Respondents are former directors of the Center and current Wesleyan faculty. At 4:15 keynote Cary Nelson will discuss some of the political and economic pressures on the humanities. It should be an exciting day of vigorous intellectual stimulation.

The Center for the Humanities was one of Victor Butterfield’s great innovations, and now there are more than 150 such places all around the country. Wesleyan was a leader in bringing together teachers, scholars and students to examine problems from a multiplicity of perspectives, and the fact that so many others have followed our lead has much to do with why I refer to our school as “progressive.” We move ahead and others follow.

Join us at Russell House tomorrow anytime after 9 am to help celebrate The Center for the Humanities!

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Discovering Strategy

This past weekend the Board of Trustees, including its faculty, student and staff representatives, spent hours discussing some of the key themes that will form the strategy for Wesleyan going forward. We discussed together elements of our core purpose, and some of the crucial values that have guided the institution for years. Many of the key words will be familiar to Wesleyan folks: transformative liberal arts experience, service, creative and critical thinking, inspired teaching. We quickly developed a consensus around the central elements of our core purpose.

We then settled on four main elements of strategy: Energizing Wesleyan’s Distinctive Educational Experience; Achieving Recognition as an Extraordinary Institution; Delivering Excellent Stakeholder Experiences (for students, alumni, faculty, and staff); Working Within a Sustainable Economic Model. Within each of these areas we developed some key aspects on which we will be working over the next few months to focus our use of intellectual energy and financial resources.

The work we did this past weekend helps refine the framework for planning that I’ve distributed as Wesleyan 2020. On Sunday night I met with the Wesleyan Student Assembly to discuss the retreat and any concerns students might have. As usual, there were great questions concerning the curriculum, budget and other campus issues. I always learn a lot from meeting with the student leadership.

We are refining our ideas for the future and working together to coordinate all our efforts to help Wesleyan live up to its potential. This afternoon I met with the faculty ad hoc committee to discuss more short term budget priority issues. There was much common ground, but still some difficult choices ahead. With our shared sense of purpose, I am confident that we will be successful in steering our school through these uncertain economic times.

Over the weekend we took a break to dedicate the new Sukkah designed by Prof. Elijah Huge and his students in an architecture studio class. It was a joyous occasion, and the sight of the beautiful temporary bamboo structure on Foss Hill makes me smile each time I see it. You can wander into the Sukkah to study, or to play music, or just to lie on the grass to see the light shine through the bamboo. It’s a shelter and an inspiration. In this way, it reminds me of Wesleyan.

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