Midnight in America: Renewing the Pantheon

Last week I posted the following on the Huffington Post College site. I’ve been thinking about the limits of critical thinking for many years now (in the title essay of The Ironist’s Cage and recently in “Beyond Critical Thinking“); and the course I starting teaching last fall (The Modern and the Postmodern) could be described, I suppose, as an effort to “renew the Pantheon.” That is, I want to give students the opportunity to discover in strong books from the last two hundred years ideas that can make a difference in their lives today. Many professors at Wesleyan offer students the opportunity to ignite or re-ignite their relation to diverse cultural forms. That’s one of the ways students learn to discover opportunities, by finding achievements in other (sometimes surprising) times and places.

Reading David Denby’s New Yorker review of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, I was struck by the phrase he uses to describe the director: “The ultimate fan of great musicians and writers, the culture-mad student forever renewing the pantheon.”

What does it mean to renew the pantheon? In the case of Midnight in Paris it means envisioning a city and conjuring up artists who spent time there in the finest fantasy versions of themselves. Owen Wilson plays a writer who is looking for renewal, for creative inspiration that will change his life and work. When he hears the clock strike midnight, he travels back in time to the Paris of the 1920s, the city of his dreams, where he runs into Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Dali. This is often played for laughs, as when Hemingway speaks with the predictable clipped phrases and frequent references to fighting and courage. Paris likewise is presented as a series of visual clichés, but the shots are filled with so much affection that they exude more charisma than familiarity.

What does it mean to renew the pantheon? I’ve been thinking about the resistance of some of my own students to this renewal — a resistance accrued over years of being encouraged in school to become better “critical thinkers.” It is, alas, so much easier to find reasons to turn oneself off to a work of art (music, literature, film) than to discover how to open oneself up to it. And you often look smarter when you criticize something than you would if you embraced something. Condemnation seems to elevate the critic (especially when the critic is ironic), and so it’s often safer than finding what the powerful core of a work might be.

Like all my faculty colleagues, I want my students to develop their capacities for analysis, critique, evaluation and discernment. And like many, I want them to deepen their receptivity and expand their ability to take pleasure in a wide range of cultural expressions. I want them to experience wonder in the face of elegant experimental design, intricate musical or sculptural patterning, insightful literary or philosophical expression. Often the efforts to teach critical evaluation and expansive receptivity are in tension with one another.

When do “culture-mad students” more generally display the urge to renew the pantheon rather than to deconstruct it? Better yet, when can that deconstruction be a form of renewal? It happens when students are able “turn themselves” in such a way as to grasp what a work (or its author, if you prefer) is trying to achieve. Depending on what area the work is in, this takes empathy, language or math skills, and the informed imagination that comes from contextual thinking (as in history and anthropology). Turning oneself toward greater receptivity takes work, but the rewards are powerful — sometimes even transformative.

Increasing students’ ability to feel wonder in the face of important cultural achievements has been one of the great goals of a liberal education. Expanding our notions of what counts as cultural achievement is part of the educational process. You don’t always have to settle for the fast food culture that surrounds us, although sometimes one can find achievements there, too.

I can already hear the complaints that this view is elitist and impractical. On the contrary, what I am describing can be democratic and pragmatic (though I admit that it doesn’t have to be either). Finding beauty or thoughtfulness in surprising places can expand one’s appreciation for the possibilities of greatness, of lasting accomplishments. No genre of person or activity is excluded in advance, and this basic openness is intensely democratic. Why is this expansion of cultural horizons pragmatic? The process of discovering power in poems or pictures you at first didn’t understand, or in lines of inquiry that had seemed pointless, can strengthen capacities to discover opportunities generally. And just as we recognize that problem-solving is practical, we must acknowledge that discovering opportunity is pragmatic. Indeed, it is vital to our ability to shape the future.

I am hopeful that those who will shape the future will also have cultivated the ability to renew the pantheon of great work from the past. The pantheon will change over time as what we need from the past and recognize in it change. But unless we want to be stuck with the status quo, we must strive to hear our clocks strike midnight — to travel through different times and places to renew the possibilities for alternative futures.

Digital Media Alumni Shaping the Future

Last night I attended a terrific event in New York City with a large group of alumni working in the digital media sphere. We gathered at ZelnickMedia, and Strauss Zelnick ’79, Jim Friedlich ’79 and Andrew Vogel ’95 were great hosts to the more than 100 entrepreneurs. John Borthwick ’87 and Andy Weissman ’88 from Betaworks were helping with the hosting duties, and I learned about their entrepreneur-in-residence program. Now that’s something we could use at Wes! Imagine how many good ideas are bubbling up on campus, and how an enterprise builder might tease them out into some sustainable forms…

It was terrific to feel the energy of this crowd of inventive, ambitious alumni. I ran into my old friend Jane Polin ’80 and met Julie Burstein’80, whose recent book, Spark: How Creativity Works, is getting a lot of attention. There were folks from the venture capital field, like Stuart Ellman ’88, and Brad Burnham ’77, who were pretty much surrounded by eager alums with new ideas. Another giant in that field, Fred Wilson P’13, wrote his blog this morning about the confluence of science and art, and I can’t help but think he was inspired by some of the people he saw at the Wes reception. Recent grads (like Dina Kaplan ’93) were there as well as current student interns (like Benjamin Resnick ’13) and some senior media people, too, like Bill Blakemore ’65. Jake Levine ’08, as the lead volunteer heading the Wesleyan Digital Media effort, helped bring this all together.

I spoke briefly about the ways in which Wesleyan has been a pioneer in liberal education for more than 50 years. While other schools are playing defense or fighting over preserving turf boundaries, Wesleyan remains dedicated to expanding the boundaries of liberal learning. We believe that the liberal arts are INCREASINGLY relevant in an age of rapid technological transformation. We embrace the challenges of creating new networks of learning and positive social change. It was clear to me again last night in New York that our alumni are building on their Wesleyan education to shape the culture and economy of the future.

Go Wes!

Photos courtesy of Jake Levine ’08

Celebrating Wesleyan Music

At the end of last week I was in New York City with a great group of Wesleyan alumni to celebrate the long tradition of musical innovation at Wesleyan. We gathered at the Thalia Café to salute Mark Slobin, whose book, Music at Wesleyan: From Glee Club to Gamelan was published last year by Wesleyan University Press.


The evening was great fun, and it followed the trajectory of the book. A subset of the Cardinal Sinners were up first. This women’s a cappella group started us off with the beautiful alma mater, and their set also included a Bob Dylan tune. As a long-time Dylan diehard, I was just delighted. The singers were followed by a great experimental trio of bassoon, saxophone and percussion. The group started from an Anthony Braxton composition, and took off.


The Gamelan closed the evening with beautiful sounds both serene and uplifting. Alumni joined newly named University Professor Sumarsam in an all-star group of devoted players.

Thanks to Mark Slobin and all who attended. I almost forgot, you can get a copy of Music at Wesleyan (it makes a great gift!) here.

Defending the Liberal Arts, Envisioning Education

Recently I participated in two interesting public discussions about the value of a liberal arts education in America today. The first came through an invitation from CNN to talk about the importance of science education in the context of a broadly based college experience. CNN was responding to increasing concern about “America’s math and science lag,” and my essay tried to make the case for science as a crucial part of a robust liberal arts education. The urge to take a shortcut to technological proficiency is short-sighted as public policy, I argued, because that sort of science education isn’t as rich, and also because we need a citizenry capable of understanding this sector in context. My CNN opinion piece can be found here.

At the end of last week a producer from PBS called to ask if I’d go on the News Hour to speak to why a college education is still worth the investment. This was prompted, in part, by a Peter Thiel’s recent awarding of grants of 100k to young inventors who would prefer to pursue their ideas outside school. Of course, Mr. Thiel is right to point out that some people can thrive outside a university environment, though he himself graduated with a philosophy degree from Stanford. I’m guessing it was at Stanford that he developed his deep admiration for René Girard, a philosopher/literary critic who also made a strong impression on me when he visited Wesleyan’s Center for the Humanities in the 1970s.

We in higher education need to be clearer about what we think students are learning during their four years in college. American higher education at its best provides multiple access points for different kinds of students who become more literate, more capable of acting as citizens, and more able to work with others while thinking for themselves. Universities must encourage free inquiry and cultivate the kind of risk-taking, work ethic and planning that are crucial to entrepreneurship (and scholarship, and civic engagement). The issues facing families looking at higher education are daunting. Alas, our PBS interview seemed to be over just as it was getting started. You can find a clip of the broadcast here.

At Wesleyan we are always on the lookout for the best ways to fulfill the promise of higher education. Our scholar-teachers, in dialogue with students and staff, continually strive to improve a learning experience that becomes a lifelong resource. We’ll be reporting on some new ideas in this regard in the fall.