International Women’s Day – Be Bold for Change

March 8th is International Women’s Day. The theme this year is “Be Bold for Change,” encouraging substantial action to help create a more gender inclusive world. This is also the first week of Women’s History Month, and there are many events on campus to related to its themes. Today, March 8th, there is an event to commemorate International Women’s Day at 4:30 p.m. in the Smith Reading Room in Olin Library. It will feature Lois Brown, Madalena Henning, Laura Patey and Krishna Winston, and is organized by Womxn at Wesleyan, and co-sponsored by OEI/Academic Affairs/Student Affairs.

On Thursday, March 9th,  Ansley T. Erickson, a historian who focuses on educational inequality in U.S. and African American history, will be lecturing on “Making the Unequal Metropolis” at 4:15 p.m. in PAC 001 – the Hansel Lecture Hall.

Also on March 9th, Creative Campus Fellow in Music and dynamic composer/performer Pamela Z will be presenting a sonic and visual experience, “Correspondence,” at the Ring Family Performing Arts Hall at 8 p.m.

If you get to New York, don’t miss frequent Wesleyan Visiting Artist Eiko’s ongoing performance and installation at St. John the Divine Church. Eiko has been working with historian/photographer William Johnston for years, and their current project on Fukishima is breathtaking. You can read more about it here.

After Spring Break there are more Women’s History Month related events on campus. Let me just mention a few. On Thursday, March 30th Michelle Murphy will share her feminist techno-studies scholarship at 7 p.m. in PAC 001. Her Diane Weiss ’80 Memorial lecture is titled “Chemical Exposures and Decolonial Futures.”

On Friday, March 31 at 2 pm.. in Memorial Chapel, Reina Gossett, Donna Murch and Nikhil Pal Singh will join in a conversation titled “Race, Class and Gender After the Elections: Old Conflicts, New Hegemonies.”

There are many more events on campus, and practices by Wesleyans, that boldly aim for a more gender inclusive world. That’s work for the entire year.

Wes Athletic Powerhouse!

Yesterday I received word that the men’s basketball team will be competing this weekend in the NCAA Div 3 basketball tournament. Congratulations to Coach Joe Reilly and all the guys on putting together the strong season that led to this invitation to participate in the national tournament. This is the second time in the last three years. The hoopsters play Union today (Friday, March 3) at 5:30 pm.

On Saturday, the men’s hockey team is moving on to the semi-finals of the NESCAC Championship, having gained a great upset victory over Colby College last weekend. Coach Chris Potter and his band of high flying skaters, who already have won the Little Three crown, are off to Hamilton, NY for the next NESCAC round, and we wish them all the best.

Speaking of all the best, dual-sport athlete and Middletown native, Devon Carrillo ’17, has been named Connecticut’s 2017 Male Athlete of the Year, as voted on by the Connecticut Sports Writers’ Alliance (CSWA). Carrillo is the first Wesleyan athlete to receive the prestigious award, which began in 1973. “This is a tremendous honor for Devon, Wesleyan and the city of Middletown,” said Wesleyan Director of Athletics Mike Whalen ’83. “He is an amazing athlete both on the football field and on the mat. After not wrestling for three years, Devon is now competing at a national level. This is truly a remarkable accomplishment!”

Excellence is something we see in many competitive arenas in athletics these days. Laila Samy ’18, a standout on the women’s squash team, was recently named the 2017 NESCAC Player of the Year! Her athleticism and determination are amazing to behold! In 2016 she was named an All-American, and she continues to compete in the national tournament this month. She is joined at the national championships by seniors Chris Hart and David Sneed.

Speaking of athleticism and championships, our frosh swimmer Caroline Murphy has had a truly amazing year. Caroline became the first-ever member of the women’s swim team to win a NESCAC Championship (50-yard backstroke).  She, along with Hannah O’Halloran (another frosh and another backstroker), will be competing in the NCAA’s this weekend.

Spring sports are getting started, but let’s take a moment to cheer our Cardinal athletes for their fall and winter successes!

We See You. We Stand With You.

This morning the newspapers carried yet another ominous headline: the Trump administration has rescinded protections for transgender students. I am not the right person to weigh in on the legal issues here, and in any case there are plenty of thoughtful people doing so already. I do want to say that as president of a residential university, withdrawing protections from people who are vulnerable to discrimination and abuse is a failure of moral obligation, and of imagination. It is shameful and hurtful.

At Wesleyan, we will continue to ensure that our transgender students receive all the protections necessary to secure their equal participation in the life of the university.

Last summer, I sat next to transgender activist, writer and alumna Jennifer Boylan ’80 at a talk by then Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Ms. Lynch underscored the importance of the civil rights issues at stake in regard to the federal government’s work with transgender Americans. Addressing the transgender community directly, she emphasized “we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.”

It just so happens that Ms. Boylan and Alexander Chee ‘89 will be speaking at Wesleyan next week. On Friday, March 3 at the Smith Reading Room at Olin Library, they will be reading from their recent work and discussing queer politics on campus and beyond.

Let’s make the same commitment to any vulnerable members of our community that Attorney General Lynch made to transgender people: We see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.

Queer Past Queer Future poster DRAFT

Pankaj Mishra’s “Age Of Anger”

Pankaj Mishra’s new book, Age of Anger: A History of the Presentwill be the subject of his Jacob Julien Lecture at Wesleyan on Wednesday, March 1 at 8 p.m. at the Russell House. A frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and the Guardian, Mishra is an award winning fiction writer, intellectual historian and political commentator. I reviewed his latest book recently in the San Francisco Chronicle


Anger is the order of the day. Around the globe — from the cold-blooded killers of the Islamic State to Polish patriots fearful of cultural contamination, from Hindu chauvinists in India to immigrant bashers in America — resentment is boiling over into rage. Populist passions naturally target scapegoats that are local, so the variety is staggering; but behind the specificities of bigotry, Pankaj Mishra sees a general phenomenon. The story of progress guiding modernity assumed that the march forward was universal. When people feel themselves left behind, when they see that progress exists but not for them, they get very, very angry.

Mishra’s new book, “Age of Anger,” is a history of the present, a diagnosis that traces the violence of today to patterns set down in 18th century France and then repeated around the world as peoples deal with modernization and the loss of tradition. The outlines of this diagnosis were sketched by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the decades just before the French Revolution. While cosmopolitan intellectuals like Voltaire were expressing faith in the inevitability of positive change, Rousseau saw a society that was fostering accelerated inequality — a society that was manufacturing vanity and resentment but no moral basis on which to build solidarity or community. Rousseau realized early on that the rich would use the power of the state to increase their own privileges, and he wrote on behalf of those who would be victimized by the new elites. “In the movement from victimhood to moral supremacy,” Mishra writes, “Rousseau enacted the dialectic of ressentiment that has become commonplace in our time.”

As modernization became a globalized phenomenon, resistance to it took the form of cultural nationalism. This began with the resistance of German-speaking Europe to Napoleon’s export of civilization at the point of a bayonet. It continued with resistance to attempts to “open markets” or to “liberate the potential” of a region that had yet to participate in the modern dispensation of inquiry, trade and communication. Those who found the pursuit of wealth empty of personal or social meaning (and those who were just not very good at the game of accumulation) often turned to their local traditions as a bulwark against modern modes of rationality. Nationalism was born from a feeling of being disrespected or simply left behind. In countries whose elites thought they had to “catch up” with the vanguard of economic or cultural change, there was often a counter-movement of people who felt they had to return to national roots in order to fend off change they found threatening.

Mishra, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in London, tells the reader that he began this book after Hindu nationalists came to power in India and finished it just after the election of Donald Trump. He chillingly describes how Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin justified his crime by appealing to militant Hindu traditions betrayed by the apostle of nonviolence. Today, those traditions — embraced by the current Indian government – are leading once more to violence and scapegoating. Mishra sees the pattern occurring again and again: in late 19th century Russia, in early 20th century Italy, in late 20th century Islamic countries and in contemporary America. Large groups of people reject modernity and look backward to a time when their land was supposedly pure, when their people were supposedly great. “Nationalism,” Mishra writes, “has again become a seductive but treacherous antidote to an experience of disorder and meaninglessness.”

Modernizing societies have no antidote to this void of meaning, Mishra thinks, because they don’t have the resources to generate sentiments of solidarity for their citizens. The pursuit of democracy and equality fails to satisfy because the dynamic of historical change always produces new hierarchies and resentments. There has been no shortage of thinkers who have talked about this — from Nietzsche to Dostoevsky, from European fascists to democrats who wanted to decolonize the minds of those once dominated by the West. Mishra cites a myriad of such authors, and although the breadth of his reading is impressive, his argument is chronologically scattershot and thematically repetitive.

Still, even if the book could have been streamlined, the theme bears repeating: Our current situation is recapitulating some of the most violent and dangerous episodes in modern history. Cultural nationalism at those moments was expressed as violent anarchism of the dispossessed, something we’ve seen in our own time in the terrorism of Timothy McVeigh, al Qaeda and the Islamic State. In “Age of Anger,” we see how easily frustration can spawn religions whose only core tenet is destruction.

“Nationalism,” Mishra writes, “is, more than ever before, a mystification, if not a dangerous fraud with its promise of making a country ‘great again’ and its demonization of the ‘other.’” Noting that we need a deeper understanding of our own complicity in suffering as well as a “transformative way of thinking,” he leaves readers with a dire diagnosis — not a recommended treatment. With powerful and worrisome insights into history, Pankaj Mishra has clarified our present. The future is up to us.

Age of Anger

A History of the Present

By Pankaj Mishra

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 406 pages; $27)

Thinking About Movies in Black History Month

Wesleyan students, staff and faculty have been mounting a series of interesting events and discussions to mark Black History Month. This week the College of Film and the Moving Image continues its film series Awareness 17 with a showing of 13th, a documentary by Ava DuVernay on the intertwining of race and mass incarceration. I first heard about the film from Jelani Cobb, who visited Wesleyan not long ago to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement, freedom of speech and campus politics. Michelle Alexander’s work has an important role in the movie — the Wes class of 2020 read her The New Jim Crow before coming to campus this year. The film is being shown Tuesday, February 21st at 8:00 pm in the Powell Family Cinema. Prof. Charles Barber will lead a talk back after the screening.

I am traveling and will be meeting with many members of our Los Angeles alumni film community early in the coming week. Unfortunately, that means I will miss the campus screening of 13th. Kari and I did manage to see another powerful documentary on race, politics and social justice recently. I Am Not Your Negro is a searing film that is inspired by the life and work of James Baldwin. Wesleyan faculty member and New York Times chief film critic A.O. Scott had this to say about it: “Whatever you think about the past and future of what used to be called “race relations” — white supremacy and the resistance to it, in plainer English — this movie will make you think again, and may even change your mind.”

At Wesleyan, we have much rethinking to do about race —  about white supremacy and the resistance to it. Doing so will help us take concrete steps to make our campus community a more equitable and inclusive place. This would be the best outcome of Black History Month.


Congratulations Krishna Winston!

Prof. Krishna Winston

Krishna Winston, Wesleyan’s Marcus L. Taft Professor of German and Literature, received the order of merit today from Germany’s Consul General, Prof. Dr. Ralf Horlemann. Krishna has taught at Wesleyan for decades, and at the ceremony I sat next to one of my classmates at Wesleyan, Dr. Wolfgang Natter, who studied with her back in the 1970s. The Bundesverdienstkreuz is the “highest tribute the Federal Republic of Germany pays to individuals for services to the nation or contributions to enhancing Germany’s standing abroad and its relations with other countries. The Order of Merit is awarded…for achievements in the political, economic, social, or intellectual spheres and for outstanding service to the nation in the field of social, charitable, or philanthropic work.”

In his laudatio, the Consul General emphasized Prof. Winston’s many contributions as a translator—noting especially her work with the texts of Günter Grass. We also heard about her many contributions to the Wesleyan community, from her thoughtful mentoring of students from across the curriculum to her advocacy for policies that enhance the educational mission of the university in all walks of campus life.

Congratulations, Professor Doktor Krishna Winston!!



Rejecting Bigotry is Core to Our Mission

This morning I published this essay at Inside Higher Education


I was horrified reading the latest diktat on immigration from an administration blown into power by the winds of intolerance and resentment. President Trump’s executive order barring immigrants and nonimmigrant visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States is an exercise in cynical obfuscation, bigotry and hard-heartedness.

The obfuscation begins early on with the linking of this crackdown to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 when, as has been pointed out by many commentators, those responsible for those attacks had no connections to the countries targeted by this order. The bigotry of the decree closing our borders to refugees from these seven countries is most evident in the exception it makes for religious minorities in predominantly Muslim countries.

The hard-heartedness of the executive order is unmistakable. Desperate families who have been thoroughly vetted for months have had their dreams of a safe haven in America shattered. Students, scientists, artists and businesspeople who have played by the immigration rules to ensure that they have secure passage to and from the United States now find themselves in limbo. Colleges and universities that attract and depend on international talent will be weakened. So much for the so-called respect for law of an administration that has made a point of promising to crack down on undocumented children brought over the Mexican border by their parents.

Eighteen months ago I solicited ideas from Wesleyan alumni, faculty members, students and staff members as to what a small liberal arts institution like ours could do in the face of the momentous human tragedy unfolding around the world. We discussed the many ideas we received on our campus and with leaders of other institutions. The steps we took were small ones, appropriate to the scale of our institution. Working with the Scholars at Risk program, we welcomed a refugee scholar from Syria to participate in one of our interdisciplinary centers. We created internships for students who wanted to work at refugee sites in the Middle East or assist local effort at resettlement. We began working with the Institute of International Education to bring a Syrian student to Wesleyan. And, perhaps most important, we redoubled our efforts to educate the campus about the genesis and development of the crisis.

In the last few months, I have traveled to China and India to talk about the benefits of pragmatic liberal education, and in both countries I saw extraordinary enthusiasm for coming to America to pursue a broad, contextual education that will develop the student’s capacity to learn from diverse sets of sources. Since returning, I’ve already received questions from anxious international students and their parents about whether we will continue to welcome people from abroad who seek a first-rate education. Students outside the United States are often fleeing educational systems with constraints on inquiry and communication; they are rejecting censorship and premature specialization, and they are looking to us. Will they continue to do so?

Here at home we must resist orchestrated parochialism of all kinds. A liberal education includes deepening one’s ability to learn from people with whom one doesn’t agree, but the politics of resentment sweeping across our country is substituting demonization for curiosity. Without tolerance and open-mindedness, inquiry is just a path to self-congratulation at best, violent scapegoating at worst.

With this latest executive order, the White House has provided colleges and universities the occasion to teach our students more thoroughly about the vagaries of refugee aid from wealthy, developed countries that are themselves in political turmoil. The new administration has also unwittingly provided lessons in the tactics of scapegoating and distraction traditionally used by strongmen eager to cement their own power. There are plenty of historical examples of how in times of crisis leaders make sweeping edicts without regard to human rights or even their own legal traditions.

Our current security crisis has been manufactured by a leadership team eager to increase a state of fear and discrimination in order to bolster its own legitimacy. The fantasy of the need for “extreme vetting” is a noxious mystification created by a weak administration seeking to distract citizens from attending to important economic, political and social issues. Such issues require close examination with a patient independence of mind and a respect for inquiry that demands rejection of falsification and obfuscation.

As the press is attacked with increasing vehemence for confronting the administration with facts, universities have a vital role to play in helping students understand the importance of actual knowledge about the world — including the operations of politics. To play that role well, universities must be open to concerns and points of view from across the ideological spectrum — not just from those who share conventional professorial political perspectives. At Wesleyan, we have raised funds to bring more conservative faculty to campus so that our students benefit from a greater diversity of perspectives on matters such as international relations, economic development, the public sphere and personal freedom. Refusing bigotry should be the opposite of creating a bubble of ideological homogeneity.

As I write this op-ed, demonstrators across the country are standing up for the rights of immigrants and refugees. They recognize that being horrified is not enough, and they are standing up for the rule of law and for traditions of decency and hospitality that can be perfectly compatible with national security.

America’s new administration is clearly eager to set a new direction. As teachers and students, we must reject intimidation and cynicism and learn from these early proclamations and the frightening direction in which they point. Let us take what we learn and use it to resist becoming another historical example of a republic undermined by the corrosive forces of obfuscation, bigotry and hard-heartedness.

We Are All Immigrants!

In the face of administrative orders from the White House that deny entry to the United States to citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries, we feel it is important to reaffirm Wesleyan University’s commitment to its students, faculty and staff, regardless of their country of origin or their religious beliefs.

Wesleyan has welcomed and will continue to welcome students to apply for admission and, if accepted, to enroll regardless of their immigration status. Despite threatening language from the White House, we will continue to treat undocumented students, with or without Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), who apply to Wesleyan identically to any other U.S. citizen or permanent resident in their high school. We are appalled by the religious test that is included in this new immigration order, and we reaffirm that there will be no discrimination on the basis of religion on our campus.

Our international programs, our financial aid policies and employment programs comply with all applicable Federal and State laws. However, we will object to and oppose administrative dictates that violate the law and the Constitution and, if necessary, we will work with others to do so in court.

Our Public Safety Officers do not inquire about the immigration status of the members of the Wesleyan community, and they will not do so in the future. Except where we are required to do so by law, we intend to protect our ability to refuse to partner or assist ICE or law enforcement on questions concerning purely immigration status matters. In particular, we are committed to the privacy of all student information, including immigration status.

Since our very beginnings, our country has been immeasurably strengthened by immigrants. Turning our backs on those in need today is worse than heartless. Since the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, discrimination on the basis of national origin has been illegal. The idea of a religious test for immigrants from some parts of the world is reprehensible, and we believe it to be unconstitutional. These are matters that will be resolved in the courts. Meanwhile, Wesleyan University will remain steadfast in our commitment to treat immigrants and refugees with the dignity and respect they deserve. This is what we mean when we say we are a Sanctuary Campus.

Wesleyan is an institution of open-minded inquiry and education, and as such we refuse bigotry and demagoguery. As I’ve written before, “being horrified is not enough.” We must take our revulsion against the politics of fear and scapegoating, and turn it into efforts to create inclusive communities that celebrate diversity while building compassionate solidarity.

Talking Liberal Education in India

Last week I visited India to talk about liberal education and talk with Wesleyan folks. We’ve seen a sharp increase in applications from India, and it was exciting to talk with high school guidance counselors from several international schools in Mumbai as well as to a group of high school students. One was especially excited to meet the president of the school that graduated the creators of Hamilton! We had over 40 people at a reception in Mumbai, a city I was visiting for the first time.



Wesleyan Reception
Wesleyan Reception

After a couple of days in Mumbai I was off to the literary festival in Jaipur. This is known as the “Woodstock of Books”—a free festival that attracts hundreds of thousands to hear authors, filmmakers and musicians talk about poetry, fiction, and all manner of non-fiction work. My panel was discussing (you guessed it) liberal education, this time in the context of STEM and nation building in the global south. A few thousand people crowded under a beautiful tent to hear us discuss how a broad, contextual education can benefit all students.

Jaipur audience for Liberal Education Panel
Jaipur Festival
Jaipur Festival
Hamilton Slide on Right (not my presentation!)

While I was in India, the Times of India talked to me about American higher education. Given it was Inauguration week, they framed this in more political terms. Here’s the article 

MUMBAI: The morning after the world woke up to Donald Trump‘s shock win, student protests and an open denial of 45th President-elect of the United States, the first thing that Michael S Roth, president of the Wesleyan University in Connecticut, did was send out a public message to his students and colleagues. “This election has heightened feelings of alienation and vulnerability. The pain of targeted groups is real, and we must acknowledge it and work to mitigate its effects. But we will be alright because we will continue to strive to build the inclusive community that rejects white supremacy, bigotry and fear…” he wrote.

Roth is not afraid to speak his mind, even as the countdown to the presidential inauguration ticks. What worries him instead is the impending politics of exclusivity that might prove “antithetical to education”, he said on his recent visit to Mumbai. “Over these years, I have seen Presidents from different parties but never spoken out publicly. What Trump was saying on his campaign trail was horrendous—scapegoating Muslims, denigrating scientists, rejecting fact-based inquiry—as educators we have to stand up for the values of inclusion, equity, free speech and the right to do research of a certain kind that may challenge assumptions of people in power,” stressed Roth.

A Princeton scholar who has authored six books, Roth was the second in his family to attend college. “My father was a coat-maker and my mother, a singer. They’d be quite puzzled seeing me study all the time!” An advocate for liberal arts education that combines humanities and basic sciences, Roth emphasized why “pragmatic” liberal education that allows a multiplicity of perspectives matters now more than ever. But in India where specialized education still remains the focus, Roth sees the British system weigh heavy and belie its history of holistic education propagated by the Tagore school. “It’s important to recognize that jobs today need one to think outside their narrow areas. My friends in Stanford, Google and Ideo tell me that they’re looking for more engineers with liberal arts education to find innovative solutions to old problems,” he said, busting the popular “left brain versus right brain” myth.

While liberal arts is yet to be mainstreamed in India, there is a surge in interest among Indians pursuing studies in the US. “In the last two years, Wesleyan has received double the number of applications from India, running into a few hundreds.”

Liberal Education: Now More than Ever

The following is reposted from the Washington Post.

I recently participated in a celebration of the 15th anniversary of the opening of Peking University’s branch campus in the young, dynamic city of Shenzhen. PKU is a venerable institution considered to be at the pinnacle of higher learning in China, and in recent years it has been making great efforts to be recognized as one of the top research universities in the world. I was invited to speak because PKU-Shenzhen has decided to start an undergraduate liberal arts college and I’ve been making the case over the last several years for a pragmatic liberal education. In the conclusion to my 2014 book “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters,” I expressed my excitement at China’s new interest in liberal learning, and the experience I just had in Shenzhen leads me to think that this interest is surging.

This is a fragile time for liberal education, making commitment to it all the more urgent. American universities are facing enormous pressures to demonstrate the cash value of their “product,” while at the same time the recreational side of college life is attracting more attention than ever – from football games to Greek life, from fancy dorms and fancier gyms to student celebrations that range from the Dionysian to the politically correct. To meet enrollment goals or to climb in the rankings many colleges offer the full spa experience, while being sure to trumpet the values of what young people learn while not in the classroom. But these efforts at brand promotion only make the educational mission of universities more fragile. “Campus follies” have become a staple of critiques of higher education’s elitism and entitlement.

To be sure, college culture has been mocked throughout American history, but today collegiate life inspires either a toxic mixture of anger and resentment or just baffled misunderstanding. Given the coverage of campus life, it’s understandable that the American public seems to have forgotten how important our universities have been as engines of economic and cultural innovation, of social mobility.

As I was preparing my remarks, I turned to the writings of John Dewey, the great pragmatist philosopher. Dewey went to China in 1919 to talk about education, also a time of change. The May 4th movement was creating a dynamic of protest against the excessive weight of tradition in favor of a notion of Enlightenment and modernization that would work within a changing Chinese context. It was a propitious moment for Dewey to advocate for a broad, liberal education to prepare the Chinese to be informed, productive members of society. He initially planned to give several lectures in China but wound up staying two years. Known as Du Wei – Dewey the Great (as John Pomfret recently noted), his influence there was powerful. Mao himself transcribed Dewey’s  lectures in Changsha, though Communists would later become intensely critical of the gradualism embedded in the Dewey’s legacy.

In Shenzhen, with Dewey in mind, I focused on two dangers and two possibilities.


Danger of Narrowing Specialization

Academics don’t get stuck in silos by accident; seeking professional status, they are incentivized to burrow deep. They become so accustomed to their own subdisciplinary netherworlds that they have trouble in anyone else’s atmosphere. Department members often see no reason to interact with colleagues from other fields, and so undergraduates have almost no hope of getting guidance about their education as a whole. Despite the commonplace rhetoric of interdisciplinarity, academics seem all too content creating languages and cultures that are insular. We have gotten really good at education as a form of narrowing, while what we really need is to provide students with intellectual cross-training, and for that we need faculty who can communicate across a variety of fields.

Liberal education should enhance abilities to translate across ideas and assumptions, but instead the public is treated to the spectacle of pointy-headed specialists great at one thing but not to be trusted beyond their small subfield. Of course, advanced work in any area requires rigorous work and real technical competence. But we must not confuse being a competent technician with being a scientist who can make discoveries or a teacher who can inspire students by translating complex technical issues into terms clearly relevant to pressing human concerns.

In Shenzhen I urged colleagues not to replicate the two cultures division that infects many American campuses. We need more academics who can facilitate conversations between the sciences and the humanistic disciplines.  The sciences, social sciences and humanities are all focused on research, and sustained artistic practice depends on a commitment to inquiry. It is especially important for undergraduate education to foster exchange among researchers, be they in medicine, philosophy, design, literature or economics.


Danger of Populist Parochialism 

Just as on campuses we have gotten all-too-good at isolation through specialization, in the public sphere we know how to stimulate parochialism. New provincialisms and nationalisms, are gaining force around the world thanks to fear-based politics; but orchestrated parochialism is antithetical to liberal learning.  A liberal education includes deepening one’s ability to learn from people with whom one doesn’t agree, but the politics of resentment sweeping across many countries substitutes demonization for curiosity. Writing people off with whom one disagrees will always be easier than listening carefully to their arguments. Without tolerance and open-mindedness, inquiry is just a path to self-congratulation at best, violent scapegoating at worst.

It is especially urgent to advocate effectively for a broadly based pragmatic liberal education when confronted by ignorant authoritarians who reject inquiry in favor of fear mongering and prejudice. A broad education with a sense of history and cultural possibilities arms citizens against manipulation and allows them to see beyond allegiance to their own.

Undergraduate education – be it in China or the United States – should promote intellectual diversity in such ways that students are inspired to grapple with ideas that they never would have considered on their own. At Wesleyan University, creating more access for low-income students and military veterans has been an important part of this process.  Groups like these have been historically under-represented on our campus, but just having diverse groups is not enough. We must also devise programs to make these groups more likely to engage with one another, bursting protective bubbles of ideas that lead some campus radicals and free speech absolutists to have in common mostly a commitment to smug self-righteousness.


Possibilities of Open and Reliable Communication

There can be no research progress without the effective sharing of information. In astrophysics and genomic science today, scientists depend on data sets that can be shared. Likewise, humanists depend on reliable, publicly available documents and critical editions. Unlike commercial enterprises that quickly make discoveries proprietary, academic research at its best depends on sharing methods and results. And significant research progress is made when scholars discover evidence and points of view that challenge their own assumptions.

As I admired the PKU Shenzhen campus, I remembered that search engines (like Google) and news sources (like the New York Times) are unavailable there because of government censorship. Still, the scholars I met on campus seemed to have little trouble gaining access to a variety of points of view. Under a regime that officially restricts information, they work hard at expanding the inputs they receive. In the West, we are fortunate to have at our fingertips a dizzying array of information and points of view. But in recent years Americans have increasingly tended to block out views they don’t want to hear. Curating our information inputs, we choose our choir and know what kind of preaching we are going to hear. Algorithms that filter information to each user are not the same as censorship, but they, too, are anathema to inquiry.

Almost a century ago, Dewey reminded his Chinese audiences: “Where material things are concerned, the more people who share them, the less each will have, but the opposite is true of knowledge. The store of knowledge is increased by the number of people who come to share in it. Knowledge can be shared and increased at the same time— in fact, it is increased by being shared.” A university today must be a vehicle for sharing knowledge – and its leaders must advocate for consistently communicating the values of learning, including from surprising sources.


Possibilities of cosmopolitanism and community

While lecturing in China, Dewey wrote of the power of education to “cultivate individuality in such ways as will enhance the individual’s social sympathy.” It’s a two-way street. If we are to prepare the soil for the more effective cultivation of pragmatic liberal education, we will need the nutrients of creative individuality, cosmopolitanism and community. Empowering individuals to take productive risks and encouraging them to develop what Dewey called “practical idealism” has long been the hallmark of pragmatic liberal learning. Cosmopolitanism helps us grow a culture of openness and curiosity, recognizing that people are, in Anthony Appiah’s words, “entitled to the options they need to shape their lives in partnership with others.”

Developing a campus community means seeding relations of trust that encourage experimentation and intellectual risk taking. At healthy universities, professors and staff learn to care for the welfare of their students, and students learn to look out for one another. In dynamic educational environments, people are more willing to venture beyond their comfort zones because they have background assumptions of trust. And as they become more adept at intellectual and cultural translation, they deepen this trust while making these zones more porous.

Although there are commendable aspects of the current American focus on skill acquisition in higher education, we must avoid confusing the accumulation of competence badges with what in China is still called “the education of the whole person.” We need an undergraduate education that is human centered – setting a framework for inquiry and exchange that will be a resource for graduates for the rest of their lives.

Almost one hundred years ago Dewey spoke about the dual tasks of the university: to preserve culture and to stimulate inquiry for the sake of social progress. In China, scholars are daring to imagine this progress, despite political tendencies that foster nationalist insularity and limit access to people and information.

Such progress is becoming harder to imagine in America given a looming administration bent on ignoring facts and a leader quick to dismiss inquiries that don’t feed his apparently bottomless need for self-aggrandizement. This is the context in which we must find, as Dewey wrote, “faith in the power of intelligence to imagine a future which is the projection of the desirable in the present, and to invent the instrumentalities of it realization.”  These remain the tasks of thinking, inquiry and communication.

Now, at this fragile time and on both sides of the Pacific, pragmatic liberal education matters more than ever.