Why Liberal Education Matters — A Lecture in Beijing

This is cross-posted from Inside Higher Education.

Just before the semester began I traveled to Beijing to deliver a lecture entitled “Why Liberal Education Matters” at the Institute for Humanistic Studies at Peking University.

With my host, Prof. Tu Weiming

With my host, Prof. Tu Weiming

I didn’t quite know what to expect. It was intersession there, and I was told that there might be a dozen faculty and graduate students in attendance. Imagine my surprise when I entered a packed lecture hall. There were more than 200 faculty members and students present, despite the vacation.

In China there is increasing interest in liberal education, while here in the United States there is plenty of pressure on liberal learning from people who want our education system to have a more direct connection to the workplace. They seem to think that an education for “the whole person” is just too soft in this hypercompetitive technology-driven age. These folks want a more routinized, efficient and specialized education to train students for jobs. Yesterday’s jobs, I tend to think.

In the States, I spend a fair amount of time trying to show that this call for more efficient, specialized education is a self-defeating path to conformity and inflexibility – just the kinds of traits that will doom one to irrelevance in the contemporary culture and society. How would this message resonate in China, which has had an educational system that is even more test-driven and hyperspecialized? I decided to take a historical approach, showing how our modern notions of liberal learning emerge from currents of thought from Thomas Jefferson to Richard Rorty. Perhaps in the discussions after the talk I would learn about whether there were elements from Chinese traditions that would resonate with our history, and that would have lessons for our contemporary situation.

My translator, the excellent Liu Boyun was ready to leap in every few sentences, a daunting prospect given that I didn’t have a text to read but was going to “talk through” some key ideas in American intellectual history. I structured the talk using the concepts: Liberate, Animate, Cooperate, Instigate/Innovate. Of course, they don’t rhyme in Chinese…

With “Liberate,” I talked about Jefferson’s ideas about education that led to the founding the University of Virginia. Jefferson was a man of the Enlightenment, and he thought that education would liberate us from what Kant had called “self-imposed immaturity.” He was determined that students not have to choose their specific course of learning at the very start of their studies. You should discover what you are going to do through education – not sign up to be trained in a vocation before you know who you might be and what you might be able to accomplish. Sure, there would be mistakes, false roads taken. But, Jefferson wrote to Adams, “ours will be the follies of enthusiasm” and not of bigotry.

I pointed out, as you might expect, the enormous inconsistency in Jefferson’s thinking. He was a slaveholder who tied education to liberation. He was a determined racist who wrote of the importance of allowing young people to fail as they found their enthusiasms – obviously, only some people. Having good ideas about education doesn’t make one immune to scandalous hypocrisy.

With “Animate,” I turned to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion that education is setting souls aflame. Emerson saw routinized education as a form of corruption, and he urged his auditors to throw off the shackles of imitation that had become so prominent in colleges and universities. Colleges serve us, he wrote, when they aim not to drill students in rote learning but to help them tap into their creativity so that they can animate their world. I sensed a strong positive response to this from the audience, many of whom want to move away from the regime of test-taking that structures Chinese secondary education (and is increasingly prominent in the United States). But what did they think of another of Emerson’s notions I talked about, that of “aversive thinking,” the kind of thinking that cuts against the grain of authority?

With “Cooperate” I talked about three American thinkers associated with pragmatism: William James, Jane Addams and John Dewey. From James I emphasized the notion that “the whole function of thinking is but one step in the production of habits of action.” Liberal education isn’t about studying things that have no immediate use. It is about creating habits of action that grow out of a spirit of broad inquiry. I also talked about his notion of “overcoming blindness” by trying to put oneself in someone else’s shoes. Seeing the world from someone else’s perspective without leaping to judgment was fundamental for James.

That notion of overcoming blindness toward others was also key for Jane Addams, whose idea of “affectionate interpretation” I stressed under the “Cooperate” rubric. Addams allows us to see how “critical thinking” can be overrated in discussions of liberal education. We need to learn how to find what makes things work well and not just how to point out that they don’t live up to expectations. For Addams, compassion, memory and fidelity are central aspects of how understanding should function within a context of community. These notions clearly resonated with the audience, and a few colleagues pointed out that Addams’s thinking in this regard had strong affinities with aspects of Confucian traditions.

My last thinker within the “Cooperate” rubric was John Dewey, and I cited his notion that philosophy “recovers itself … when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men.” This is what pragmatic liberal education should do, too: take on the great questions of our time with the methods cultivated by rigorous scholarship and inquiry.

For Dewey, no disciplines were intrinsically part of liberal education. The contextual and conceptual dimensions of robust inquiry made a subject (any subject) part of liberal learning. Furthermore, Dewey insisted that humanistic study would only thrive if it remained connected to “the interests and activities of society.” The university should not be a cloister; it should be a laboratory that creates habits of action through inquiry laced with compassion, memory and fidelity.

I brought my talk to a close under the rubric, “Instigate/Innovate.” I referred to my teacher Richard Rorty’s remarks on how liberal education at the university level should incite doubt and challenge the prevailing consensus. Rorty played the major role in recent decades in bringing American pragmatism back to the foreground of intellectual life, and he spoke of how higher education helped students practice an aversive thinking that challenged the status quo. That is key, I stressed, to the power of liberal education today: instigating doubt that will in turn spur innovation. We need not just new apps to play with, but new strategies for dealing with fundamental economic, ecological and social problems. Only by creatively challenging the prevailing consensus do we have a chance of addressing these threats to our future.

I was surprised by the enthusiasm with which these remarks were greeted. I’d imagined, so wrongly, that talk about challenging the prevailing consensus would have met with a chilly reception at Peking University. On the contrary, the professors and students in the audience were looking to their own traditions and to those of the West for modes of aversive thinking that would empower them to meet the massive challenges facing their society. In the conversations after the talk, they spoke of an evolving education system that would be less concerned with plugging people into existing niches, and more concerned with teaching the “whole person” in ways that would liberate students’ capacities for finding their own way while making a positive difference in the world. Free speech and free inquiry will be crucial for that evolution.

The ongoing conversations following my lecture at Peking University inspire me to think that thoughtful inquiry might enable us to overcome more of our blindness to one another and to the problems we share. Will pragmatic liberal education instigate skillful and compassionate strategies – here and abroad – for addressing our most pressing challenges? My brief visit to Beijing gave me confidence that it is more than just a “folly of enthusiasm” to think that it will.

Wesleyan Taking Over Hollywood (THIS IS WHY)

I’m writing this from Los Angeles, where last night we gathered with more than 200 Wesleyans to celebrate film studies. Each year Rick Nicita67 hosts this great party on President’s Day at the spectacular offices of the Creative Artists Agency. We had much to celebrate this year. I announced that Wesleyan was creating the College of Film and the Moving Image. The college integrates the Film Studies Department, the Cinema Archives, the Center for Film Studies, and the Wesleyan Film Series in ways that will allow Wesleyan to accelerate the success of an already dynamic, high-impact program.

Mike Fries ’85 was at the event to announce his gift to the endowment to honor his father, television producer Chuck Fries. These funds (with help from the National Endowment for the Humanities) have allowed us to hire Andrea McCarty for a new curatorial position at the Cinema Archives. Chuck and his wife Ava joined Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies, founder and curator of the Wesleyan Cinema Archives, Jeanine Basinger, Rick, Mike and me in marking this occasion.

Rick Nicita, Prez Roth, Jeanine Basinger, Ava Fries, Chuck Fries, Mike Fries

Jeanine arrived at the events after a hard day of book signing.  Her I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies is selling like hotcakes and receiving rave reviews. We met up with Joss Whedon, the 2013 commencement speaker, to take a THIS IS WHY photo.

This is Why: Joss and Jeanine


This year is particularly exciting for the Wes Film Empire, with Beasts of the Southern Wild nominated for the Best Picture Oscar (among others). At the reception I met up with some of the producers of the film, and we had a vigorous conversation about recent changes to our financial aid programs. (I also dropped to my knees to pay homage to their extraordinary movie.)

This is Why: Beasts of Southern Wild Producers

Hey, it’s Wesleyan. We aren’t supposed to agree on everything. But we did agree that raising more money for financial aid should be an institutional priority, and that’s what the fundraising campaign is all about.

Financial Aid Now More than Ever. THIS IS WHY.

Hoopsters Head to NESCAC Tournament, Hockey at Home, Theater in Your Head

The men’s and women’s basketball teams head north this weekend for the first rounds of the NESCAC tournaments. The women will play a tough Williams squad on Saturday after finishing the regular season with back-to-back wins over Bowdoin and Colby. Captain and senior Kendra Harris leads the young team that has plenty of momentum. Speaking of momentum, the men’s squad enters the tournament after a big win over Colby. All-time Wesleyan leading scorer Shasha Brown ’13 was named Player of the Week as the season wound down, and seniors (and career 1k scorers) Derick Beresford and Mike Callaghan are pumped up as they head for a showdown at Middlebury College. In their earlier meeting this season, the Cardinals lost a tense overtime game in Vermont. Go Wes!

Men’s ice hockey finishes its season with home and away games against Trinity College. The guys take the ice tonight (Friday) in Middletown at 7:00 pm. The team has had many standout performances (check out frosh goalie Nolan Daley!), and Keith Buehler ’14 was named a semifinalist for the Concannon Award, “given to the top American-born Division II/III Player in New England.”

On the other side of campus there are sure to be standout performances as Mabou Mines brings “Glass Guignol: The Brother and Sister Play” to the CFA Theater Saturday night at 8 pm. The play is conceived and adapted by Lee Breuer and Maude Mitchell. Breuer and Mitchell are an amazing team of theatrical innovators; you can read more about them here.


Tuesday Update: Classes Resume and Why Does the World Exist?

Classes Resume this morning (Tuesday) thanks to the extraordinary efforts of our Physical Plant and Stonehedge crews. I am so grateful to all those who kept us safe and well-fed (thanks Bon Appetit!) during the aftermath of Blizzard Nemo. It’s still messy outside, so please be careful.
Several hundred students from the Coursera version of The Modern and the Postmodern have checked out this blog recently.  Welcome!
Recently the Washington Post asked me to review Jim Holt’s “Why Does the World Exist?”  This review is cross-posted with Sunday’s newspaper.
WHY DOES THE WORLD EXIST? An Existential Detective Story. By Jim Holt. Liveright. 309 pp. $27.95

Jim Holt likes to pursue questions — big questions. And he does so with a sincerity and light-heartedness that draw his readers along for the ride. He’s written for the New Yorker on tough subjects such as string theory and infinity, but his last book was on the seemingly more accessible topic of jokes. In “Why Does the World Exist?” — a finalist for this year’s National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction — he takes on one of the biggest questions in conversations with philosophers and scientists: What is the origin of everything?By helping readers understand what some very smart people think an answer to this question might look like, he introduces us to advanced mathematics, theology, physics, ontology and epistemology — just to name some subjects he visits. Holt is usually very good about not losing us along the way, even when the math or the logic gets pretty esoteric.“The transition from Nothing to Something seems mysterious,” he writes, “because you never know what you’re going to get.” That might be true if one were asking as a disinterested party, but Holt is anything but that. The “Something” he has in mind is us — how did we and our world come to be? He wants to know how nothingness, a state in which absolutely no things exist, gave rise to a universe that includes all the things around us. “Conceptually,” he writes, “the question Why does the world exist? rhymes with the question Why do I exist?”There are two major kinds of answers to these twinned questions. The first kind emphasizes the “how” — how a specific cause leads to a particular effect. Why am I here? Because my parents had sex. The second kind of answer moves from cause to meaning. Did my parents want a child? Do I have a purpose in life? What am I doing here? Some of the intellectuals with whom Holt talks sound as though they believe that if they thoroughly answer the “how” version of the question (the one that details causes), they will have answered the “why” version of the question (the one that provides meaning). Or perhaps they think that an airtight explanation of the emergence of causality will make the meaning question irrelevant.There are some philosophers, it should be said, who think Holt is just asking the wrong question. Most interesting is philosopher of science Adolf Grunbaum, who cheerfully tries to show our author that his anxious astonishment with the existence of the universe is misplaced. Unexamined religious longing for mystery and a confused sense that we need to figure out why nothingness does not prevail generate a confused question with no rational response: “Go relax and enjoy yourself! Don’t worry about why there’s a world — it’s an ill-conceived question.” But Holt is only briefly deterred, declaring, “There is nothing I dislike more than premature intellectual closure.”Holt travels in England, France and the United States to talk with some very thoughtful men about some very thorny issues. It’s always thoughtful men. Somehow he didn’t find any women to interview about creation, though at the end of the book he movingly describes his mother’s death. She, a believer, did not think she was passing into nothingness. Respectful, Holt has no closure on this, either.How can the “first cause” not have a cause? How can one talk about anything prior to the Big Bang, if this event created time itself? What is the role of consciousness in the universe, and how is that related to simplicity, goodness, beauty? What if our universe is just one of many, many, universes and big bangs are relatively frequent occurrences? These are the kinds of questions that drive Holt back and forth between mathematics and ethics. String theory “builds matter out of pure geometry,” while “Plato thought that the ethical requirement that a good universe exist was itself enough to createthe universe.”So why is there something rather than nothing? “There isn’t,” replies the brilliant and witty philosopher Robert Nozick. “There’s both.” Physicist Ed Tryon, on the other hand, wondered whether the universe was the product of a “quantum fluctuation,” offering “the modest proposal that our universe is simply one of those things which happen from time to time.”

Periodically our despairing guide describes himself as retreating to a cafe for a strong espresso or, even better, a restaurant where he can treat body and spirit with some good food and wine. Lucky readers may find themselves taking breaks to do the same. But it’s worth getting back in the hunt for answers (or just questions) with Holt.

There are many intellectually stirring moments in the book, and I learned more than I would have thought I could about contemporary controversies in quantum mechanics and cosmology. Holt is an excellent translator of complex ideas and issues. But the highlight of his book is his description of rushing home to help his dog Renzo, who was suffering from advanced cancer. Help in this case meant holding the long-haired dachshund for 10 days, and then stroking him while a vet administered a lethal injection. Holt tells us about a mind game he plays with prime numbers to steady himself “in moments of unbearable emotion.” He used the game at the veterinarian’s office. The next day he called a physicist to talk about why the world exists.

When Holt asks why the world exists, he is also asking whether there is any point to our being here. He is struck by the extraordinary contingency of our lives and of our world, and he seeks to address that contingency with theories about the emergence of time, of causality, of something. But contingency is not erased by causal accounts; it is just described in minute detail. Holt recognizes this when the somethings he cares about disappear. His real concern isn’t creation but extinction — why somethings turn into nothings. He knows the causal explanation, but that is not answering his question. Focusing on causes can be a mind game to help us deal with “moments of unbearable emotion.”

Why do we lose those we love? Why do important parts of our world vanish? These are not questions for a detective story, existential or not. But they are the questions to which, in the end, Holt’s wonderfully ambitious book leads us.

Snow Has Fallen — Monday Update

UPDATE: Monday morning, February 11

Despite the heroic efforts of our Physical Plant and Stonehedge, we have decided to cancel classes for the day. I am hopeful that enough classroom buildings will be fully accessible so that we can get underway tomorrow (Tuesday). We will make another announcement at around 6 pm this evening.  


To the Wesleyan Community:

Wesleyan is closed Monday, and classes will not be held this afternoon. Parking on campus remains limited, and a number of buildings are not yet accessible. Only essential personnel should report to work today. We are hopeful that classes will be held tomorrow, but that depends on how much snow removal gets done today. Our crews are working tirelessly, and we are very grateful for their dedication and good work. We will provide an update this evening around 6 pm.

Heavy equipment is in use, so students should continue to exercise considerable caution outdoors. Call Public Safety for help with storm-related matters, (860) 685-2345. For emergencies, call (860) 685-3333.

Lonely Snowman










Foss Hill, Morning, 2/11/13

Mathilde to the Rescue (from Kari Weil)











We have been meeting to ensure that we are as prepared as possible for the heavy snow expected this evening. As I walked through the dining halls at lunchtime today at Usdan, spirits were high, and many were preparing to head to Foss Hill for some sledding. Winter in New England…

Foss Hill From my Office Window

Foss Hill as seen from my office in South College

More than two feet of snow fell overnight, and it was a quiet, beautiful day when Kari and I got out of the house with Mathilde this morning. The path around Usdan was cleared already, and we talked with a Bon Appetit employee who walked miles (!!) through the snow to come into work. I am so grateful to the folks from Stonehedge Landscaping, Bon Appetit, and from our Public Safety and Physical Plant crews who are working through the storm to keep us safe and fed.

Here’s the path to my office at South College:

Path between 47 Wyllys and Usdan University Center

Path between 47 Wyllys and Usdan University Center

Looking back on College Row from base of Foss Hill











Happy Mathilde enjoying early morning snow

Earning LEED Platinum for 41 Wyllys

One of the significant changes to campus over the last few years was moving the Career Center, the College of Letters and the Art History Department to what had been the old Squash building. This McKim, Mead and White building had been empty for years, and for a while there was talk of using the space for a museum. Instead, we decided to move some crucial academic and career functions there, and under the leadership of John Meerts, Joyce Topshe and Alan Rubacha, we were able to design and build a strong addition to the core of campus. Yesterday I learned that this historic-modern structure earned a rare LEED “platinum” status as an environmentally sound building. So many dedicated people worked on the building that I’m just going to reproduce Alan’s email here:

It  is with ebullient satisfaction that I am confirming that 41 Wyllys Avenue has been awarded the highest possible USGBC LEED rating of Platinum.  Wesleyan’s 41 Wyllys Avenue building is now among the most elite recognized projects in the country.
Please help me recognize my extraordinary team.  Certainly John Meerts must be recognized for leading the entire process and pushing us all to be our best along with our entire building committee.  Newman Architects led by Joe Schiffer, Dave Rodrigues and Jim Elmasry, helped spearhead the entire effort; they combined awesome architecture with sustainability.  Van Zelm, led by Dave Madigan and Bev Cleaveland, provided the electrical, mechanical and lighting systems design to make us as efficient as possible.  FIP Construction, led by Bill Hardy, Dan Burns and Mark Culligan, waded patiently and tirelessly through mountains of paperwork to provide all of the subcontractor management and required supporting documentation.
We really need to recognize Newman’s LEED consultant Michele Helou.  She guided us all through this extraordinary process.  Michele demonstrated not only an incredible knowledge of the LEED process but of construction; and she did this all patiently while we struggled to keep up with her. Marvelous job Michele! I can’t say enough about you.  Michele was supported by an excellent energy modeler, Maria Karpman.
I look forward to having the pleasure of installing our LEED Platinum plaque in this truly incredible building.     — Alan Rubacha

Congratulations to everyone who worked on this great addition to our increasingly sustainable campus!