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Yesterday I spoke about liberal education with NPR’s Eric Westervelt on All Things Considered. Here are a few excerpts:

On the long debate over liberal arts education in America

This tension between the useful and the wide-ranging, that tension goes all the way back to the founding of this country — because even though Jefferson and Emerson, let’s say, were very much in favor of a wide-ranging and broad education, they also thought the proof was in the pudding. You had to be able to do something with it, and Jefferson talked about the useful arts. He thought you’re going to be less useful or less pragmatic if you narrowed yourself too early.

On whether higher education is necessary for success

There are people who just think, “Some of us just don’t need a lot of education. Most people need something more specialized because the economy has shifted.” … Throughout American history people have said, “Yes, it’s because the economy has shifted.” They said that in 1918, they said that in 1948, and now they’re saying it again.

Today the shifts in the economy mean technological change will only produce accelerated pace of innovation, of changing relations to audiences. A broad, wide-ranging education is the best way to be able to shape that change rather than just be victimized by it.

You can listen to the full interview here.

Wesleyan recently created a new graduate program to help develop the field for curators of performance. Here’s what the website says, in part, about the program:

Contemporary performance is at a distinct crossroads. The co-existence and cross-pollination of idea- and technique-based performance practice has created a dynamic dialog over the past several decades. The Internet and other new technologies have created a vast social fabric of interconnectivity and information. Walls between disciplines are increasingly porous, and interdisciplinary performance practice is informed by a wide range of cultural, aesthetic, and historical landscapes.

The ICPP program is firmly rooted in Wesleyan University’s commitment to the liberal arts and embodied learning practices. Through a low-residency model, the ICPP asks its students to not only engage with ideas but also to simultaneously put those ideas into practice in their professional lives, developing responsive curatorial practices that address the inter-disciplinary nature of performance work today.


This Friday, July 25th, ICPP and Danspace Project will present a livestreamed panel and talk on performing arts curation.

ICPP has invited performing arts curators and leading field professionals to the Wesleyan University campus on Friday, July 25 and Saturday, July 26, 2014, with support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The convening attendees, facilitated by ICPP Program Director Samuel A. Miller, will discuss topics including creating an artist-centered curatorial practice, and the curator’s role in activating the public imagination around live performance.

As part of the convening, Danspace Project and ICPP will co-present two events to be livestreamed from Beckham Hall on Friday, July 25, 2014:

11am – 12:45pm (EST)
Curating as a verb: What is artist-centered curatorial practice?
Panel discussion with ICPP faculty Philip Bither, Curator of Performing Arts, Walker Art Center; Thomas Lax, Associate Curator, Department of Media & Performance Art, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA); and Judy Hussie-Taylor, Executive Director, Danspace Project; moderated by Pamela Tatge, Director, Center for the Arts, Wesleyan University.

3:30pm – 4:15pm (EST)
Keynote Address
by ICPP faculty Kristy Edmunds (Director, Center for the Art of Performance, UCLA)

Visit http://www.wesleyan.edu/wescast
to view a free, live broadcast of these events. You can also follow these ICPP events on Twitter and Instagram at “wesicpp.”

This week we sadly remember the three-month anniversary of the kidnapping of the schoolgirls from Chibok. The world’s attention for these victims of brutal terrorists has underscored that the battle for equality in the developing world is inseparable from the battle for access to education for girls and women. Unfortunately, no hashtag campaign, no matter how popular, will liberate the girls from an army so convinced of its religious superiority that it rapes, tortures and murders with impunity. An international military effort is needed to defeat Boko Haram — otherwise a protracted civil war in Nigeria will further immiserate the poor in the entire region. Only when these terrorists are defeated will the people of the region have a chance to to share in the benefits that education brings.

Providing a safe place for girls and women to pursue their education is the best vehicle we know for combating poverty, disease and economic injustice. The demand that girls and women have a right to a full and equal education is not a parochial Western value — it is a fundamental human right. It is worth fighting for the ability of girls and women to have a safe, equitable and inclusive education wherever that right is compromised by the dogmatic assertion of male privilege.

Many in the United States have been focused recently on the ways our own culture denies girls and women equal educational opportunities. And the issue isn’t only one of gender. Gay, lesbian and trans students are often vulnerable to attacks — from the subtle to the most extreme. Violence against women, especially sexual assault, has rightly become a major issue for educators who want their campuses to be safe places at which all students can experience the freedom of a transformative education. Sexual assaults are dramatically underreported across the country in general and on college campuses in particular. This will only change when survivors know they will be treated with respect and care, and when the process for pursuing their claims is fair and timely. Schools have a responsibility to work with judicial authorities, but they also have a duty to ensure the safety of their students beyond what police departments and the criminal justice system can do. On my own campus, we know that any assault is deeply painful for the survivor and a serious blow to the community’s ongoing mission to create a challenging but safe environment for learning.

Violence of any kind has no place on campuses, and sexual violence is particularly pernicious in that it can have long-lasting traumatic after-effects and insofar as it plays on stereotypes and traditions of exclusion. When women, or any group, are made to feel more vulnerable, they are less able to receive the full benefits of learning. Activists across the country should be supported in their efforts to empower students to stand up for their right to study in environments free from discrimination, harassment and violence. This work is perfectly in accord with the mission to promote fair and equal access to education.

The free inquiry at the core of a genuine education often leads to challenges to traditional hierarchies. Genuine education challenges privilege and can empower people to change their lives. That’s why the girls in Chibok went to school, and that’s why American students demand access to educational opportunity without the menace of violence. Yes, Chibok is a long way from my university, Wesleyan, and the lives of women in the two places are so very different in many respects, but when we remember our commitment “to bring our girls home,” we remember too our commitment to fight everywhere for the rights of girls and women to claim an education free from the threat of violence.

Just tell me one thing. Will my daughter have a job and not be moving back home after she graduates from your university?

That’s what a dad asked me at a Wesleyan University information session caught on film for the recent higher-education documentary Ivory Tower. Traditionally, a college degree has been a marker of independence as graduates embrace the opportunity to stand upon their own two feet, but today those receiving degrees are often riddled with debt and with doubt. When these graduates wind up back in their parents’ basements, when they feel clueless about how to enter a challenging job market, when they have no idea how to convert their classroom experience into action in the world, they exemplify the failure of the American promise that education makes you free and self-reliant. We in higher education must renew that promise by demonstrating how pragmatic liberal education provides students with greater independence and capacity for productive work well beyond graduation day.

As I show in Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, this promise has been part of our history since the earliest days of the republic. It would be hard to find an American figure more devoted to a broad, liberal education than the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. He argued that the health of a republic depends on the education of its citizens because only an educated citizenry can push back against the tyranny of the powerful. His “frenemy” John Adams maintained that citizens of all walks of life deserve to learn the principles of freedom:

“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people, and must be willing to bear the expenses of it.”

Although our nation’s commitment to education runs deep, we’ve also long been suspicious about what those kids were really learning. Ben Franklin was pretty sure that some of the guys up at Harvard were largely being schooled in cultivated condescension, and populist criticism of higher ed today rightly condemns the amenities arm race through which supposedly rigorous schools pander to the worst instincts for luxury, partying and callousness. Colleges may be selling the full spa experience to wanna-be investment bankers, but families are often borrowing heavily only to discover that the college diploma is no sure ticket to economic self-sufficiency.

Another of America’s great prophets of independence is Ralph Waldo Emerson, who gave his celebrated lectures “The American Scholar” and “Self-Reliance” in the mid-1800s. Emerson saw education as a process through which one learned to absorb more of the world while also acquiring abilities to respond productively to it. Higher education should ignite students’ spirit and intelligence: Colleges only serve us well, he wrote:

“When they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame.”

Setting hearts aflame for Emerson didn’t just mean creating a sense of inner transformation – he was committed to the idea that a liberal education made you more effective beyond the university. Becoming more effective in the work you have chosen was at the core of what he called self-reliance. The opposite of self-reliance for Emerson was conformity, a pervasive force in his time as it is in ours.

Hoping to capitalize on the anxieties of parents and students, many today are calling for a more vocational style of learning. Unfortunately, demands for a more efficient, practical college education are likely to lead to the opposite: men and women who are trained for yesterday’s problems and yesterday’s jobs, men and women who have not reflected on their own lives in ways that allow them to tap into their capacities for innovation and for making meaning out of their experience. Under the guise of “practicality” we are really hearing calls for conformity, calls for conventional thinking that will impoverish our economic, cultural and personal lives.

Some claim that in today’s economy we should track students earlier into specific fields for which they seem to have aptitude. This runs counter to the American tradition of liberal education. From the Revolutionary War through current debates about the worth of college, American thinkers have emphasized the ways that broad, pragmatic learning addresses the whole person, allowing individuals greater freedom and an expanded range of choices. Liberal education in this tradition means developing independence of mind and habits of critical and creative thinking that last a lifetime.

On this July 4 we should dedicate ourselves to recovering the American promise that education should increase our independence. Since the founding of this country, education has been closely tied to self-reliance, to declaring one’s independence through one’s ability to think for oneself and creatively contribute to society. In a quickly shifting economic landscape, it is understandable that some parents and pundits are calling for streamlined learning to train people quickly. But gearing education only to meeting current economic conditions is a ticket to conformity — and also to economic and cultural mediocrity. We need intellectual cross training of the whole person — not nano-degrees in commercial codes and tactics (no matter how digital) sure soon to become obsolete.

The ability to shape change and seek opportunity has never been more valuable than it is today. If we want to push back against inequality and enhance the vitality of our culture and economy, if we truly want to declare our independence, we need to support greater access to pragmatic liberal education.


cross-posted with HuffingtonPost

My review of Adam Phillips’ excellent new biography of Sigmund Freud, Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst, was published in the Washington Post today. I’ve been writing about Freud ever since my frosh classes at Wesleyan, and every so often I still return to psychoanalysis. In reading Phillips’ account of Freud’s early years, I was reminded of Hayden White’s remarks at this year’s Commencement.

You can change your personal past. You do not have to continue to live with the past provided to you by all of the agencies and institutions claiming authority to decide who and what you are and what you must try to be in your future. You can change your past and thereby give your future a direction quite different from what has been marked out for you by others.” — Hayden White

White told our graduating class that “the future you deserve depends on the past you make for yourself.” Not bad advice…and very much related to the view of the self and of history that Freud developed in his early years

The Making of a Psychoanalyst

By Adam Phillips

The introduction to Adam Phillips’s new book is titled “Freud’s Impossible Life,” and the author makes clear more than once his view that the biographer’s task is an unmanageable one. Freud himself didn’t make things easy, destroying a lot of evidence of his early years so as to lead (as he said) his future biographers astray. And he did this long before he had anything like the kind of résumé that would have interested biographers.

As Phillips notes, Freud had a strong distrust of the biographer’s task, although he himself wrote speculative biographical studies. “Biographical truth is not to be had,” Freud wrote, “and if it were to be had we could not use it.” So much of a person’s life is underground, unconscious, and how we reconstruct it may reveal more about ourselves than about our subject. Phillips draws on two big Freud biographies (by Ernest Jones and Peter Gay), fully aware of their limitations.

In writing about Freud’s first 50 years, the author (who is also a practicing psychoanalyst) doesn’t have much evidence to go on. “Nothing, it is worth repeating, is properly known about Freud’s mother,” Phillips emphasizes, and he is also reduced to general speculations (or silence) about his father, wife, siblings and children.

But there is also freedom in the lack of evidence; one of the reasons Freud was so interested in the ancient world, Phillips tells us, was the paucity of verifiable facts. According to psychoanalysis, “only the censored past can be lived with,” and we “make histories so as not to perish of the truth.” For Phillips, psychoanalysis is part of the history of storytelling, and “a biography, like a symptom, fixes a person in a story about themselves.” What kind of story, then, does Phillips have to tell about Freud and about psychoanalysis?

His story about the life and the work is ultimately more invested in the latter. Young Freud, a secular Jew, tries to assimilate into Viennese society while also theorizing that we humans have desires that can never be assimilated with our public, social roles. He is attracted to mentors who introduce him to painstaking scientific research (Ernst Brücke), to charismatic investigations into the irrational (Jean-Martin Charcot), to clinical work that reduces hysterical misery to common unhappiness (Josef Breuer) and finally to unstable speculation on the secrets of human nature (Wilhelm Fliess). “In this formative period of his life,” Phillips writes, “Freud moves from wondering who to believe in, to wondering about the origins and the function of the individual’s predisposition to believe.”

As a young doctor in training at Vienna’s General Hospital, Freud asked his fiancee to embroider two maxims to hang in his lodgings: “Work without reasoning” and “When in doubt abstain.” This is so telling for Phillips because work and abstinence would eventually be at the center of psychoanalysis — both paradoxically reframed as dimensions of our circuitous pursuits of pleasure. The Freudian question par excellence: “What are you getting out of your abstinence?”

Phillips does tell us that, as a young child in the 1860s, Sigmund regularly found himself displaced by the birth of new siblings — six in seven years. As newlyweds in the 1880s, Freud and his wife practically repeated this history, welcoming new children — six in eight years. Surrounded by all these little ones, the young father spent more and more time trying to understand their demands on the world around them — how they communicated those demands and how adults responded.

One of the most important ways we deal with the demands we make and those made on us is to try to forget them. Unmet demands — unrequited desires — can hurt, and so in order to get back to work (and love), we may push them away. Frustration and the repression of frustration became central to Freud’s thinking in the 1890s, when he was in his late 30s and his 40s. At first he tried to understand the phenomena of pleasure, frustration and forgetting at the neurological level. Then he started paying attention to how we express in disguised form the complications of our appetites — in symptoms, in slips of the tongue, in jokes and especially in dreams: the beginning of psychoanalysis.

Now Sigmund could become a Freudian — an interpreter who showed how our actions and words indirectly express conflicts of desire. The conflicts among our desires never disappeared; they become the fuel of our histories. Making sense of these conflicts, understanding our desires, he thought, gives us an opportunity to make our histories our own.

Freud came to this realization, indeed, came to psychoanalysis, when he acknowledged that “our (shared) biological fate was always being culturally fashioned through redescription and recollection.” Our fate, then, resulted from how we remembered and retold our histories, and psychoanalysis became a vehicle for telling those histories in ways that acknowledged our conflicting desires. Psychoanalysis wasn’t a methodology to discover one’s true history; it was a collaboration that allowed one to refashion a past with which one could live.

In prose that often crackles with insights, Phillips refashions the heroic period in Freud’s life, when he believed “that making things conscious extended the individual’s realm of choice; where there was compulsion there might be decision, or newfound forms of freedom.” At the turn of the century, before there were many followers and before there was an organization to control, “Freud emerges as a visionary pragmatist.”

This visionary pragmatist understood that we could construct meaning and direction from our memories in order to suffer less and live more fully in the present. Phillips tells a story of how Freud came to that realization, making psychoanalysis as he made his life his own.


Last week, I was in New York to receive the Benjamin E. Mays award from the A Better Chance Foundation for our work at increasing diversity in higher education. While in the city, I  took the opportunity to evangelize for liberal education in conjunction with “Beyond the University.” I very much enjoyed my conversation with Leonard Lopate at WNYC, and I also wrote a piece that first appeared on The Daily Beast and is now on the Huffington Post.  

It is crucial to support efforts to reduce student indebtedness and increase access to higher education. However, we should beware of those who want to turn this moment of educational reform into a program of vocationalism and tracking as a substitute for liberal education.


How to Destroy College Education

In America we fight about education. One of the key struggles today is centered on whether we should retool the college years so that we get students to be “job ready” and tracked into some specific task needed in the economy now. This retooled version of instrumentalism is diametrically opposed to our great tradition of liberal education that envisions learning as a vehicle for social mobility and effective citizenship. This tradition stretches back to the foundation of the country. “Wherever a general knowledge and sensibility have prevailed among the people,” John Adams wrote, “arbitrary government and every kind of oppression have lessened and disappeared in proportion.”

But alongside commitment to education, there have always been suspicions about what really went on in colleges. As I show in Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, from Benjamin Franklin to today’s Internet pundits, critics of higher education have attacked its irrelevance and elitism–often calling for more useful, more vocational instruction. Franklin skewered learning that took pride in its freedom from labor (in its uselessness) as just a mask for snobbism–learning “to exit a drawing room properly.” Contemporary commentators question whether young people learn anything useful in their “four year party” that culminates (occasionally) with a diploma. Education, from this perspective, is a luxury bought with a loan.

But in his day Franklin went on to propose a compelling version of a broad education that was useful without being narrowly instrumental. And Thomas Jefferson thought that nurturing a student’s capacity for life-long learning within a university structure was necessary for science and commerce while also being essential for democracy. Neither believed a university should merely train young people for jobs that old folks had already picked out for them–but neither thought that college should be merely academic.

Over the past several years, however, we have seen a new sort of criticism directed at the academy. These critics no longer claim to be in search of “true liberal learning,” but instead call for an education that simply equips people to play an appropriate role in the economy. Economists wanting to limit access to education question whether it’s worth it for mail carriers to have spent time and money learning about the world and themselves when they could have been saving for a house. Sociologists wonder whether increased access to college creates inappropriate expectations for a work force that will not regularly be asked to tap into independent judgment and critical thinking. And then there’s the cost of a liberal education, its so-called disconnect from the real world, its political correctness. Columnists write that we must make it more relevant, while politicians growl about making it more efficient. Through “disruptive innovation,” we are told, educational institutions can be “disintermediated”– like middlemen cut out of a market transaction.

Many today are calling for us to create a much more vocational style of teaching. They claim that in today’s economy we should track students earlier into specific fields for which they seem to have aptitude. This is exactly the opposite of the American tradition of liberal education. From the revolutionary war through contemporary debates about the worth of college, American thinkers have emphasized the ways that broad, pragmatic learning enhances the capacities of the whole person, allowing individuals greater freedom and an expanded range of possible choices. Liberal education in this tradition means learning to learn, creating habits of independent critical and creative thinking that would last a lifetime.

The effort today to limit higher education to only a certain class of students or to constrict the college curriculum to a neat, instrumental itinerary is a critical mistake, one that neglects this deep current of humanistic learning. Under the guise of practicality, this is old-fashioned, elitist condescension combined with a desire to protect the status quo of inequality.

Since the founding of this country, education has been closely tied to individual freedom, and to the ability to think for oneself and to contribute to society by unleashing one’s creative potential. The pace of change has never been faster, and the ability to shape change and seek opportunity has never been more valuable than it is today. If we want to push back against inequality and enhance the vitality of our culture and economy, we need to support greater access to a broad, pragmatic liberal education.


Wesleyan out West

I’m getting ready to return to Wesleyan after a few days in Los Angeles followed by a brief visit to San Francisco. The occasion was the Shasha Seminar on the road, organized by Jeanine Basinger. The topics for the day were Women in Film, TV Writing, and the Business of Film. Each panel was thoughtful, funny and very engaging. We had almost 200 alumni, students and friends at William Morris-Endeavor, and there was plenty of time for making new connections and pursuing good conversation among old friends. Scott Higgins and Steve Collins joined us for the discussions, and I spoke about the Mellon Foundation encouraging us to build an endowment for the College of Film and Moving Image with a $2 million challenge grant. If we raise $4 million, the foundation will make a $2 million contribution to the endowment of the CFMI. It’s a great time to support film at Wesleyan, and many alumni and parents have already made significant donations.


Marc Shmuger ’80, Jan Eliasberg ’74, Brad Fuller ’87, Jane Goldenring ’77, Matthew Greenfield ’90, and Paul Weitz ’88


With me are David Stone ’04, host; Scott Higgins, associate professor of film studies at Wesleyan; Professor Jeanine Basinger; and Steve Collins ’96, assistant professor of film studies at Wesleyan

While on the West Coast I made a quick trip to San Francisco to meet with Wesleyan supporters of financial aid. I am so grateful for their efforts to provide scholarships for Wes students. Before heading to the airport, I spent an hour talking about liberal education at KQED, the Bay Area’s NPR station. On Michael Krasny’s Forum show, we talked about Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters and took questions from callers. A couple of Wes alumni called in, and there was strong support for broad, contextual education. There was also recognition that we must make it more affordable and reduce student indebtedness. You can listen here.

Driving away from campus this week, I was surprised that my car radio was playing “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” With your mercury mouth in the missionary times And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes…. I was brought back to long ago, lots of emotions swirling. I thought, what radio station could possibly be playing a 11 and half minute Bob Dylan song? With your sheet-metal memories of Cannery-Row… I looked down at the radio….88.1 Good old WESU. Should I leave them by your gate Or sad-eyed Lady, should I wait?  The show was Acoustic Blender, and the DJ was playing an extra bonus Dylan birthday set.

WESU has been serving up surprises for 75 years. Whether it’s avant-garde or bluegrass, alternative news or Middletown events, WESU provides a wonderful contribution to cultural life in central Connecticut. And it’s so cool for our student and community DJs and listeners. Here’s what recent president of the station, Mary Barret ’14, has written for the spring fund drive:

We have been celebrating our landmark birthday, on air, since January with our oral history radio show “Welcome Back” as well as “75 Years Of…,” a program highlighting radio content that wouldn’t likely be heard without stations like WESU. And if you haven’t yet read it, check out the Wesleyan magazine Historical Row column, “WESLEYAN’S UNDERGROUND RADIO STATION,” chronicling the earliest days of radio at WESU.  You can a find links to that article and special 75th anniversary programming and events on our website.

Right now we need your support to keep our unique free form music and public affairs programming on the airwaves. This spring’s pledge drive is especially exciting because it is the first of our 75th anniversary year. As such, we are asking you to consider giving us an extra-special birthday present to help raise additional capital funds to install a backup power system and update our studio equipment. If we raise enough funds by the end of 2014, we hope to also be able to kick off a film documentary project about the history of WESU. Many thanks if you have already made your donation!

Your support for WESU will honor a landmark anniversary and legacy of one of the first student owned and operated college radio stations.  You can donate by e-check, debit, or credit card online here.  

Please support WESU. It’s college/community radio with a vital, progressive tradition.


I published this op-ed in Inside Higher Education this morning. I’ve also been talking about liberal education on the NPR here and here.


“What would the United States look like if we really gave up on liberal education and opted only for specialized or vocational schools? Would that really be such a bad thing?”

The interviewer was trying to be provocative, since I’ve just written a book entitled Beyond The University: Why Liberal Education Matters. What exactly would be the problem, he went on, if we suddenly had a job market filled with people who were really good at finance, or engineering, or real estate development?

Apart from being relieved that he hadn’t included expertise in derivatives training in his list of specializations, I did find his thought experiment interesting. Would there be real advantages to getting students to hunker down early into more specific tracks of learning? In that way they would be “job ready” sooner, contributing more quickly to the enterprises of which they are a part, and acquiring financial independence at the same time. Would that really be such a bad thing?

The debate between those who want students to specialize quickly and those who advocate for a broad, contextual education is as old as America itself. The health of a republic, Thomas Jefferson argued, depends on the education of its citizens. Against those arguing for more technical training, he founded the University of Virginia, emphasizing the freedom that students and faculty would exercise there. Unlike Harvard University and its many imitators, devoted to predetermined itineraries through traditional fields, he said, Virginia would not prescribe a course of study to direct graduates to “the particular vocations to which they are destined.”

At Mr. Jefferson’s university, “every branch of science, useful at this day, may be taught in its highest degree.” But who would determine which pursuits of knowledge would prove useful?

Jefferson, a man of the Enlightenment, had faith that the diverse forms of learning would improve public and private life. Of course, his personal prejudices limited his interest in the improvement of life for so many. However, his conception of “useful knowledge” was capacious and open-ended – and this was reflected in his design for the campus in Charlottesville. He believed that the habits of mind and methods of inquiry characteristic of the modern sciences lent themselves to lifelong learning that would serve one well whether one went on to manage a farm or pursue a professional career. It is here we see the dynamic and open-ended nature of Jefferson’s understanding of educational “usefulness.”

His approach to knowledge and experimentation kept open the possibility that any form of inquiry might prove useful. The sciences and mathematics made up about half of the curriculum at Virginia, but Jefferson was convinced that the broad study of all fields that promoted inquiry, such as history, zoology, anatomy and even ideology would help prepare young minds. The utility was generally not something that could be determined in advance, but would be realized through what individuals made of their learning once outside the confines of the campus. The free inquiry cultivated at the university would help build a citizenry of independent thinkers who took responsibility for their actions in the contexts of their communities and the new Republic.

Jefferson would have well-understood what many business leaders, educators and researchers recognize today: that given the intense interconnection of problems and opportunities in a globalized culture and economy, we require thinkers who are comfortable with ambiguity and can manage complexity. Joshua Boger, founder of Vertex Pharmaceuticals (and chair of the board at Wesleyan University), has pointed out how much creative and constructive work gets done before clarity arrives, and that people who seek clarity too quickly might actually wind up missing a good deal that really matters. Boger preaches a high tolerance for ambiguity because the contemporary world is so messy, so complex.

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, one of the most innovative design firms in the world, has lamented that many designers “are stuck with an approach that seems to be incapable of facing the complexity of the challenges being posed today.” He calls for a flexible framework that leaves behind static blueprint preparation for “open-ended, emergent, evolutionary approaches to the design of complex systems can result in more robust and useful outcomes.” Like many CEOs across the country, Brown recognizes that more robust and useful outcomes will come from learning that is capacious and open-ended — from liberal education.

At the Drucker Forum last year, Helga Nowotny, president of the European Research Council, described what she called the “embarrassment of complexity” – efforts based in data analysis to dissolve ambiguity that lead to more conformity and less creativity.  She called for an ethos among business and government leaders that would instead “be based on the acknowledgement that complexity requires integrative thinking, the ability to see the world, a problem or a challenge from different perspectives.” That’s a call for integrative thinking based in liberal learning.

In America, liberal education has long been animated by the tension between broad, open-ended learning and the desire to be useful in a changing world. Calls for dissolving this tension in favor of narrow utilitarian training would likely produce just the opposite: specialists unprepared for change who will be skilled in areas that may quickly become obsolete.

So, what would America look like if we abandoned this grand tradition of liberal education? Without an education that cultivates an ability to learn from the past while stimulating a resistance to authority, without an education that empowers students for lifelong learning and inquiry, we would become a cultural and economic backwater, competing with various regions for the privilege of operationalizing somebody else’s new ideas. In an effort at manic monetization without critical thinking, we would become adept at producing conformity rather than innovation.

The free inquiry and experimentation of a pragmatic liberal education open to ambiguity and complexity help us to think for ourselves, take responsibility for our beliefs and actions, seize opportunities and solve problems. Liberal education matters far beyond the university because it increases our capacity to shape a complex world.

Fraternal Discussions

Near the end of my first year as Wesleyan’s president, I wrote the following:

Fraternities have historic roots with alumni that are important to maintain, and I believe that the frats (including Eclectic) at Wes can continue to play a very positive role at the university. We will not be adding any new Greek societies because there are now many other ways for students to join together in residentially based groups. Wesleyan’s students have a rich choice of social organizations in which to participate, from the very traditional to the most avant-garde. I’m committed to keeping it that way.

In my April 2014 blog post, “Campus Conversations on Fraternities,” I described how my thinking had changed. Six years of hearing about high-risk drinking at fraternities and dealing with fallout from highly publicized incidents of sexual violence have had an effect.  Of course, the larger world has changed too. Today there’s more emphasis upon Title IX and a much greater awareness of sexual assault. The U.S. Department of Education says that under Title IX, schools must “take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the sexual violence, eliminate the hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, and, as appropriate, remedy its effects.”

Are fraternities at Wesleyan hostile environments? It was striking to everyone here when so many students said yes. The students just conducted a survey on their own which indicated that 47 percent feel less safe in fraternity spaces than in other party spaces; the great majority of those thought that making the fraternities co-educational would be helpful in making those spaces safer. But is that true?

Last week at the Annual Meeting of the Board of Trustees we discussed this issue in executive session. Some found the experiences of peer institutions instructive. Connecticut College and Vassar have no Greek life and Bates has never had it. Amherst, Williams, Bowdoin, Middlebury and Colby all eliminated Greek. Amherst abolished fraternities on campus in 1984 (after a brief failed experiment with co-education) and earlier this month eliminated even unsanctioned Greek life. Williams did it in 1962 and students still sign a pledge not to participate in Greek life. By 2000, the Greek system was officially dismantled at Bowdoin, in part because it was losing high-quality students who didn’t want to go to a school with fraternities. At Colby fraternities and sororities were abolished in 1984 because they were inconsistent with the fundamental values of the community, and in 1992 Middlebury did likewise because it found fraternities to be “antithetical to the mission of the college.”

Swarthmore still has two fraternities, and now a new sorority to provide access to Greek life for women. And then there’s Trinity, still in the anguished throes of dealing with angry alumni and students after it mandated co-education of fraternities, raised GPA requirements for frat membership, and did away with the pledging process. There are some who believe that the most draconian approach, eliminating Greek life entirely, is no more painful.

As you might imagine, many Wesleyans don’t care much about the experience of our peer institutions. Others point out that many fine institutions still have active Greek life, or that Wesleyan shouldn’t imitate any institution. Still others emphasize that the rates of sexual assault at schools that have eliminated fraternities don’t give any indication that those institutions are safer environments. For many, the issue is about equity and inclusion more than about direct correlations with rates of reported sexual assault. How can a co-educational institution approve of having a significant percentage of its social spaces controlled by all-male organizations?

Following our discussions, the trustees have asked me to prepare a plan to address the future of Greek life. Ideally, this would be ready before the school year begins, but certainly no later than the November board meeting. Here are the options before us:

(1) We can require fraternities to become safer places through training and education.

(2) We can eliminate single-sex residential organizations or require co-education (with full membership).

(3) We can eliminate Greek residential life entirely.

(4) We can eliminate all Greek life (on campus or off).

(5) We can dramatically expand Greek life so that there are social spaces controlled by women.

None of these options will eliminate the problems of binge drinking and sexual assault. That’s not the point. Which changes in our residential and co-curricular program will make us a more inclusive, educational and equitable place? For now, our question is simple, but it may not be easy to arrive at a consensus on the answer to it: Will Wesleyan be a stronger university (“dedicated to providing an education in the liberal arts that is characterized by boldness, rigor, and practical idealism”) with or without Greek life?

Many people have written to the president’s office to weigh in on this issue. If you would like to do so over the next month or so, we have set up a special mailbox: comments@wesleyan.edu.

We will report back to the trustees and the Wesleyan community at the end of the summer on our plans concerning co-curricular life at the university in general and residential programs in particular. Stay tuned.

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