Freeman Travels 2010

For the last week I’ve been in Japan and Korea with Graeme Freeman from the Freeman Foundation and Terri Overton from Admissions interviewing students for our Freeman Scholarship program. The program has now been going for 15 years, and it has brought to Wesleyan many exceptionally talented young people from 11 different Asian countries. Year in, year out they arrive on campus with a thirst for learning, faith in a liberal arts education, and an extraordinary capacity for focused, challenging work.

This was my first trip to Tokyo and Seoul, and it also included a number of alumni gatherings. I had the pleasure of meeting Katsuhiko Hiyama ’60 (Kay) who is hoping to come back for his 50th reunion this year. Kay described to me how his Wesleyan education has been a lifelong resource for him as he worked in four different continents, and he also shared with me his love of jazz. I also met some recent alums, including Joyce Haejung Park ‘04, who majored in math and is now working for Chartis in Seoul. Although Sam Paik ‘90 and Professor Jung-Ho Kim ‘85 are frequent visitors to campus, it was great to see them on their home turf. And I met with alumni working in media, finance, education and public service. All described to me how they continue to draw on their Wes education.

Interviewing Freeman finalists is a great cure for cynicism. These high school seniors display a love of learning and a devotion to education that is truly inspiring. Although in many cases they have already registered significant success in school (I’ve never met as many perfect 800 scorers in a short period of time), the dominant theme was the desire to explore new areas of inquiry and to encounter a variety of cultural experiences. They were interested in CSS, COL and the new College of the Environment, in addition to our offerings in music, science, philosophy, and, yes, even East Asian Studies. One young woman was led to her interest in the liberal arts through reading Aristotle on her own; another student was passionate about break dancing and religion. All in all they are an amazing group!

In my first year as President I set a goal of doubling the number of international students at Wesleyan. The financial crisis has slowed this down, but after a trip like this one, I am more convinced than ever that bringing students from outside the United States is a great benefit to them and to the entire Wes community.

Here are a couple of pictures of my recent alumni guides, who also helped out with interviews.

Alumni guides in Tokyo

Kohei Saito ’09 & Toshihiro Osaka ’09

Seoul Alumni Guides

Hyung Jin Choi ’07 & Sunho Hwang ’05

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Supporting Student Research

Faculty have been holding open meetings, organized on a divisional basis – Humanities and the Arts, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences and Mathematics — to discuss the framework for planning, Wesleyan 2020. Over the next month I will blog from time to time on some of the themes that emerge in these conversations. Today it’s support of student research.

In each of the meetings so far, faculty have called for more funding for student research. Wes professors (in all Divisions) feel that an emphasis on independent research projects is one of the important characteristics of the academic experience here, and they want to give ambitious undergraduates the opportunity to bring serious projects to a successful conclusion. Our graduate students receive support while they are here, but they, too, do their best work when given the freedom to focus on their dissertations and journal articles.

I’ve talked with a group of seniors this year about their senior theses, and I look forward to reading them.  Chan-young Yang is writing for CSS on the idea of the end of history; Emily Rasenick is exploring the relation of history and memory in films that deal with WWII for Film Studies and History; and Katie Boyce-Jacino in intellectual history has been investigating a group of theory driven French intellectuals who tried to situate themselves in relation to but outside of Communism. Other students are writing stories, conducting experiments or planning recitals as their capstone experiences. At this time of year students are  feeling both the pressure and the pleasure of pulling together complex, substantial projects.

The faculty have let us know that they would like to see students be able to draw on funds that would support their need for research trips, equipment or collaboration to bring their projects to fruition. In addition to our efforts to raise endowment for financial aid, we will be seeking donors who will make it possible for our students to conduct their scholarly and creative practice at the highest level.

This is one part of the framework for planning on which there is an enthusiastic consensus.

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Wesleyan’s Green Street Art Center Needs Your Help!

Wesleyan’s Green Street Art Center is holding a benefit auction this week. On Thursday night from 6-9 pm you can enjoy good company and great food while supporting the after school programs in art and science at Green Street. That’s right, art and science. This year GSAC has developed a curriculum with some partner institutions that helps young boys and girls to improve their homework skills and find joy in learning. Wes students also discover this joy through our many volunteers. You can still buy a ticket for Thursday night, and funds go to support this work with youngsters that is so importantly educational for our tutors as well.

I was just looking at the auction list for the Green Street Art Center. You can still make bids through 2/15 on everything from tickets to Broadway shows to a dinner that Kari and I will prepare for you at the President’s House on campus. Check out all the items at the special website, and then bid.

Wesleyan’s programs at Green Street are having a powerful impact on the community and offering great learning opportunities to our students. I’m getting to know this not only from our undergraduates, but from my daughter Sophie who volunteers after school each week. I’ll let her close out this message:

sophie green st

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Education: From Condescension to Respect

Today I put this up on the Huffington Post and thought it might also be of interest for readers of this blog:

This week political science professor Gerard Alexander hit a chord (or was it a nerve?) with his Washington Post essay on “why liberals are so condescending.” Despite the recent successes of the Tea Party movement, Scott Brown, and a filibuster-happy Senate, Alexander repeats the old refrain: We conservatives get no respect. Rather than enjoy the intellectual disarray of the Left, Alexander seems to long for recognition from his liberal colleagues: You liberals think you have all the answers, and you never listen to us conservative voices, no matter how much education we have! Although many have recognized that the conservative movement did become “the party of ideas,” Alexander complains, liberals still see the Right as mired in false consciousness, hypocrisy, or both. What’s a faculty member got to do to earn some credibility? Publishing a provocative lecture for the American Enterprise Institute in the Washington Post isn’t a bad start.

But is the Left really more condescending than the Right? When Sarah Palin mocks Obama’s supporters with “How’s that hope, change thing working out for yaw?” is that not a form of condescension? Palin’s populist condescension toward those who don’t live in “the real America” pales before the patrician variety famously mastered by William F. Buckley. Woe to the liberals who carelessly strayed into his firing line. Two examples can stand for dozens of great zingers: “I won’t insult your intelligence by suggesting that you really believe what you just said,” Buckley sneered. “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views,” he observed, “but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.” Alexander cites Paul Krugman as a prime offender of looking down his nose at conservatives, but why is this any different than Chicago-school economist Eugene Fama saying “My attitude is this, if you are getting attacked by Paul Krugman, you must be doing something right”?

No, liberals have no monopoly on condescension or intellectual and social smugness. Mocking people who drive Priuses (it used to be Volvos) is just as common as sneering at people in supersized pickups. But there does seem to be an easy association between elitism and progressivism that conservatives are able to reactivate at the drop of a hat. Why do we jump at the accusation? Is it because condescension is indeed a temptation for a politics that depends so much on education and on faith in the powers of knowledge? Liberals prize education – valuing it as a vehicle toward a more just and hospitable world. Education means enlightenment, which Kant famously defined as “freedom from self-imposed immaturity.” Confidence in the power of education can lead to arrogance because people in the know feel that they ought to be able to fix things. As people pursue education, they often feel that they are leaving false beliefs behind, that they are becoming freer as their illusions and dependence are dissolved. As this happens, many look around and see others who haven’t yet shed their old ways of thinking and are still mired in falsehood or reliance on authority. “I used to think like that, too,” says the advanced student to the frosh, “but now I know better.” This is what Eric Voegeli [it’s actually William, see comments below] was getting at when he wrote last year’s version of the condescension essay, “The Roots of Liberal Condescension,” published in the Claremont Review of Books (and found on the Wall Street Journal online). “Thus, if patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” he wrote,  “snobbery is the last refuge of the liberal-arts major.”

Does education necessarily breed elitism and condescension, and does it necessarily give rise to political liberalism? A little education very well might promote the intellectual arrogance many conservatives see in their caricature of a professor on the Left, but liberal learning is, after all, supposed to make us aware of how little we know. That’s what Socratic insight is all about: we need to learn because we understand so little. Education should lead to intellectual humility as we become more aware of our own ignorance. Conservatives also prize education, after all, but they do so because it should deliver the lesson of intellectual humility. Education should prevent us from thinking we can solve our deepest problems with science, technology or political structures.

There is a parallel here with faith. Some believers, infused with confidence in their own righteousness, display a spiritual arrogance that is offensive to those who don’t share their beliefs. But many people of faith discover a deep humility through their spiritual life — a humility that leads to openness to others rather than a proud sectarianism.

So maybe condescension depends less on questions of ideology, learning and faith than it does on differences in character. Some people just find it easier to sneer at others rather than to try to understand people with different points of view. The satisfactions of condescension are a temptation for people who feel they already know so much, just as the pleasures of elitism are seductive for people who are certain that God is on their side.

It’s always easier to be condescending when you don’t spend time with people who think or live differently than you do. That’s why it’s so important to find possibilities for dialogue that cut across ways of thinking or modes of belief. Political diversity is crucial for universities, for example, because if we live in an echo chamber of the Left, then we will forget how much we can learn from conservative thinkers who have rightly questioned our ability to master public and private life through systems of knowledge or government. Diversity of belief is good for all of us because if we think that we live in a community of the righteous, we might forget our responsibilities to those whose different beliefs and practices give meaning and value to their lives.

As a teacher and president of a university, I remain committed to education as an antidote to elitism rather than as a progressive cultivation of snobbery. As we learn, as we become more aware of our own ignorance, we should also become more open toward others, toward what they have to teach us. Looking down on others is surely a sign of intellectual fear rather than of a willingness to learn. An education in the liberal arts, which can lead to a political position on the Left or the Right, should result not in condescension but in its opposite: respect.

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Our Hearts Go Out

Kari and I were returning from New York Sunday morning when we heard the news of the explosion at the Kleen Energy plant in Middletown. The blast was felt on campus and for miles around. The city contacted Wesleyan’s Community Emergency Response team to help with disaster relief at the explosion site, and I am grateful for the efforts of our staff. Don Albert and Stacy Baldwin helped tow a portable hospital to the site, and Bill Nelligan has, as usual, been indefatigable in lending a hand wherever needed. Cliff Ashton and Ricky Howard have also been providing support for the search and rescue efforts.

Our hearts go out to the victims of yesterday’s explosion and their families.

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