Volleyball Off to the NCAA Tournament!

The Wesleyan Volleyball team won its first ever NESCAC tournament last week, knocking off top-seeded Tufts.

I met the vans when the teams reached campus Sunday night, and there were lots of happy faces (and one hurt knee!).

Winning the conference championship earned the Cardinals a trip to the national tournament, and at the end of this week, they will face Wellesley College. Whoever wins gets to rename the other school!

Go Wes!!

Nothing Inevitable about Latest Tragedy

Last night the country was again shocked to learn of yet another mass killing. Even churches provide no sanctuary against people filled with hate who have access to deadly force. While the pace of American mass murder has increased, the political energy to do something about gun safety is harder to detect than ever. At Wesleyan within recent weeks, we heard from a variety of scholars about the history of guns in America, and we learned that a large majority of our fellow citizens favor regulations to promote gun safety. There is nothing, nothing inevitable about our rash of killing. Again, I quote from a statement from Connecticut’s Senator Chris Murphy:

“The paralysis you feel right now — the impotent helplessness that washes over you as news of another mass slaughter scrolls across the television screen — isn’t real. It’s a fiction created and methodically cultivated by the gun lobby, designed to assure that no laws are passed to make America safer, because those laws would cut into their profits. My heart sunk to the pit of my stomach, once again, when I heard of today’s shooting in Texas. My heart dropped further when I thought about the growing macabre club of families in Las Vegas and Orlando and Charleston and Newtown, who have to relive their own day of horror every time another mass killing occurs.

“None of this is inevitable. I know this because no other country endures this pace of mass carnage like America. It is uniquely and tragically American. As long as our nation chooses to flood the county with dangerous weapons and consciously let those weapons fall into the hands of dangerous people, these killings will not abate.

“As my colleagues go to sleep tonight, they need to think about whether the political support of the gun industry is worth the blood that flows endlessly onto the floors of American churches, elementary schools, movie theaters, and city streets. Ask yourself — how can you claim that you respect human life while choosing fealty to weapons-makers over support for measures favored by the vast majority of your constituents.

“My heart breaks for Sutherland Springs. Just like it still does for Las Vegas. And Orlando. And Charleston. And Aurora. And Blacksburg. And Newtown. Just like it does every night for Chicago. And New Orleans. And Baltimore. And Bridgeport. The terrifying fact is that no one is safe so long as Congress chooses to do absolutely nothing in the face of this epidemic. The time is now for Congress to shed its cowardly cover and do something.”


It’s Time to Come Home to Wesleyan!

This weekend is Homecoming/Family Weekend, and we are expecting a great turnout from the Wes family. The activities get underway on Friday, November 3 with a fascinating array of WesSeminars throughout the day. These culminate in the evening at Wesleyan’s RJ Julia Bookstore on Main Street at 7 p.m. when Beverly Daniel Tatum ’75, P ’04, Hon. ’15, will be discussing the revised 20th anniversary edition of her landmark study,  WHY ARE ALL THE BLACK KIDS SITTING TOGETHER IN THE CAFETERIA? And Other Conversations About Race.

There are lots of events on Saturday as well, with topics ranging from the environment to journalism, from photography to immigration. The Dwight Greene lecture features Judge Denise Jefferson Casper ’90 in Memorial Chapel at 4 p.m. Wesleyan alumni created the feature film Patti Cake$, which screens at C-Film at 8 p.m.

We are hoping for  a record-breaking athletic/science event on Foss Hill from 10 am–noon:

The Wesleyan Mathematics and Science Scholars (WesMaSS) Program plans to break the Guinness world record for the largest number of people rolling down a hill within an hour.

Come join the fun and raise Cardinal spirit by having students, staff and the Middletown community work together to break a world record and get into the Guinness Book!

There’s also what promises to be a hotly contested football game against Williams at 1 p.m. GO WES!!

Welcoming Students from University of Puerto Rico

Before my trip to China and Korea, I asked Provost Joyce Jacobsen to work with colleagues on a plan to offer help to students enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico who can not continue their studies because of the devastation caused by the recent hurricane. I am happy to report that Wesleyan is offering a free semester of study in the spring of 2018 to some students currently enrolled in the University of Puerto Rico. Students will be expected to pay tuition at their home institution, and Wesleyan will offer free housing and meals as needed.

Students enrolled at other institutions in Puerto Rico may be eligible as well, and should contact Wesleyan at gueststudent@wesleyan.edu for more information.

In addition, responding to a request for faculty across the United States who could teach online in Spanish for students at the University of Puerto Rico, James Lipton, professor of computer science at Wesleyan, will be teaching a course in programming in Spanish through videoconferencing software that will be supported by the Center for Pedagogical Innovation.

These are meaningful ways to provide assistance that will make a real difference in student lives. Details are available here, including information regarding how to apply.

Talking about Liberal Education in China and Korea

I write this post from Seoul, South Korea, where in a little while I’ll meet with a group of alumni, parents and prospective students. For the past few days I’ve been in China, giving lectures on liberal education and meeting with Wesleyan folks in Shanghai and Beijing. I try to visit with the Wes community in China on a regular basis, and this year I’m able to spend some time with our friends in Korea.

The interest in liberal education in Asia certainly seems to be growing. I was delighted when my Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters was translated into Korean a few years ago, and now it’s appeared in Chinese translation as well. We had a lively “book launch” in Shanghai, and I lectured at Shanghai International Studies University and Peking University. Tomorrow I head home so that I’m ready to be back in the classroom on Wednesday.

Here are some photos from the trip, courtesy of my colleague Frantz Williams ’99. Both of us were supported (led, really) by Andrew Stuerzel ’05.

Wes Family in Shanghai for book launch of Chinese translation of Beyond the University
With students at Shanghai International Studies University
Seminar with United World College Changshu Seniors
Talking with undergrads at PKU
At PKU with Wesleyan folks
Seoul Wesleyan Reception
Seoul Wes Family
Beijing Wes Family
Go Wes!

Hurricane Relief for the U.S. Virgin Islands

I received the following note from a faculty member and wanted to share it:

As many of you know, many Caribbean islands are still recovering from the devastation caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria last month. The United States Virgin Islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John are the childhood homes of Professors Rashida Shaw McMahon and Tiphanie Yanique, and the current homes of their families. These islands were struck twelve days apart by Irma and Maria, both as category 5 hurricanes. The airports and post offices are now open and, with your help, we would like to send small packages of life-sustaining goods to the region.

To this effort, we have assembled a small relief drive that will run from this Wednesday (October 18th) through next week Friday (October 27th). Donations will be collected in bins located in the Downey House lounge (294 High Street) and The Shapiro Writing Center (116 Mount Vernon), from 8a.m. to 6p.m. Please see below for our list of suggested donations.

We thank you in advance for your consideration, as there are many charities and people in need, both nationally and globally.

Nonperishable candy
Nonperishable snacks
Peanut Butter (small jar)

Coloring books
Paperback books
Playing cards
Miniature board games

Baby wipes
Flushable wipes (i.e. Cottonelle)
Hand sanitizer

Batteries (all sizes)
Bug repellent for skin
Bug spray
Flashlights (small)
Ziploc bags (gallon size)
Ziploc bags (“Big Bags” size for storage)

Intellectual Diversity and Liberal Education

Late in the summer the Hechinger Report asked me to write an opinion piece on the importance of “intellectual diversity.” I cross-post that essay here.

Faculty and administrators know that, in principle, if you are never asked to examine, let alone defend, your beliefs, your education will be deficient.

That’s one of the key reasons we educators value diversity, including intellectual diversity: people with different points of view make you think about what you believe.

When there is a strong ideological bias among faculty and students — which there is at many schools (particularly selective ones in the Northeast) — and when as a result beliefs go unexamined, people will learn less.

I myself share the leftist leanings of the university world, and until a few years ago I supposed them to be just rational dimensions of scholarship or benign assumptions about social justice, fairness and equality.

As I talked about these issues with people outside the academy, however, I had to confront the fact that I was taking for granted many ideas or values that needed discussion and argument.

People who didn’t agree with me about the content of what I called social justice were not actually in favor of injustice. When I turned to my colleagues in the academy, many seemed uninterested in (or even incapable of) discriminating between their own political views and the issues with which they were concerned in their professional work.

One may never be asked to legitimate one’s assumptions (and thus understand them more profoundly) if all participants in the conversation share those same assumptions. That’s why diversity is an educational issue and not just a question of political fairness.

The cultivated parochialism of American college campuses should not be surprising. After all, across America, groups are enclosing themselves in bubbles that protect them from competing points of view, even from disturbing information. This has always happened to some extent; it’s easier to be with people who share your views.

Today, however, we are able to curate the information we receive so that we are validated more than we are informed. As George Packer recently noted, “we live in a time of total vindication, when complication and concession are considered weaknesses, and counter examples are proof of false consciousness.” Academia suffers from some of these same tendencies.

Academia may be vulnerable to protests from the right about hypocritical intellectual intolerance (“left-wing tyranny”), but this is surely a case of “protesting too much.” Intellectual narrow-mindedness is hardly limited to the left. Harvard’s Kennedy School, for example, just rescinded an invitation to Chelsea Manning, who went to jail for disclosing classified information that exposed murderous government misconduct. Harvard disinvited her because of complaints from current and former CIA officials who themselves condone the use of torture. When left wing professors, like Princeton’s Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, give speeches critical of the current regime, they don’t just get criticized; they receive death threats. Conservatives have gotten a lot of mileage out of complaining about so-called campus totalitarians, but intolerance is, in turns out, a widely shared value.

Demonizing people because they have ideas different from your own has always been a temptation, and in recent years it has become a national contagion. College campuses are not at all immune from it, but this malady is fatal for liberal education. Many people are so accustomed to curated information ― be it from social media feeds or just from one’s choice of cable news ― that they have lost the ability to respond thoughtfully to points of view different from their own. Instead of seeing disagreement as an occasion for learning, many today have become so unaccustomed to robust exchanges of ideas that they feel threatened when confronted with information and arguments with which they may disagree or with which they are simply unfamiliar.

This is anathema to pragmatic liberal education, a broad, contextual form of learning that has been the hallmark of American higher education at its best.

We can change this unhappy trajectory. Instead of training our students to call out as morally inferior people with whom they have intellectual differences, we must cultivate curiosity and openness. We must highlight and enhance the consideration of alternative perspectives on culture and society; we must promote vigorous debate that doesn’t degenerate into personal attack. This kind of consideration and debate is increasingly rare in the public sphere, and that’s why it is more important than ever to cultivate the terrain for it on our campuses.

By this I don’t mean inviting provocative entertainers to campus so as to get free speech points at the cost of providing a platform for idiocy and abuse. I mean enhancing conditions for the serious study of alternative visions of justice, freedom, individual rights and communal responsibilities. I mean not just sharing biases with students in acts of solidarity, but testing one’s biases by engaging with ideas that also challenge the campus consensus.

In the late 1960s, many schools steered away from enforced homogeneity and toward creating a campus community in which people could learn from their differences while forming new modes of commonality. This had nothing to do with what has come to be called political correctness or even identity politics. It had to do with preparing students to become lifelong learners who navigate in and contribute to a heterogeneous world after graduation. Today we must ensure that intellectual diversity is part of this mix.

A “dynamic community” is one in which members have to navigate difference — including intellectual and political difference. Their interests, modes of learning, and perspectives on the world should be sufficiently different from one another so as to promote active learning in and outside the classroom.

We want our students to be stimulated by intellectual, aesthetic and political differences; we want them to treat those differences as assets for learning.

The alternative is to shield oneself from difference, to protect one’s prejudices by interacting only with others who share them. A liberal education should enable graduates to see differences among people not as threats but as tools for solving problems and seeking opportunities. We expect graduates to embrace diversity as a source of lifelong learning, personal fulfillment, and creative possibility. Universities want to shape a student body that maximizes each undergraduate’s ability to go beyond his or her comfort zone to draw on resources from the most familiar and the most unexpected places.

Academic departments should be willing to discomfort themselves similarly in hiring new professors. Search committees should see political, cultural and intellectual differences as resources for a more powerful education just as admissions officers do. Intentionally cultivating such diversity in the student body and on the faculty is key to fulfilling the promise of pragmatic liberal education.

Tyshawn Sorey, MacArthur Fellow

His music is challenging and beautiful, makes you want to move, makes you think, makes you feel while you move and think. Tyshawn Sorey is both an alumnus and a new faculty member — and now he is a winner of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship!

Tyshawn Sorey, 2017 MacArthur Fellow, Wesleyan University, Mittletown, CT. on Sept. 21, 2017.

We salute Professor Sorey and look forward to musical adventures over many years to come.


Podcast on Intellectual Diversity and Free Speech

Yesterday I was very pleased to hear the pointed, smart questions posed to lecturer Mark Bauerlein, who was meant to be making arguments about non-conformity and political correctness. Students pointed out that his so-called non-conformity or anti-political correctness has also been a cover for mobs energized by misogyny, racist hatred and resentment. Others emphasized that intellectual diversity shouldn’t only be about adding conservative voices to the campus mix, it should also be about adding perspectives outside of the technocratic, liberal mainstream (and this student didn’t mean more Trump supporters). Wesleyan students and faculty certainly were able to listen and respond to the speaker with critical perspectives from which everyone learned, myself included.

A few weeks ago I was interviewed at Wesleyan about related issues. Here is our conversation about free speech and intellectual diversity, this time in podcast form.

“Where the hell did he get automatic weapons?”

That was the question asked by the brother of Stephen Paddock, the latest American mass murderer whose access to weapons turned whatever madness he had inside into an immense public menace. Of course, our hearts go out to the many, many victims of the carnage, but our thoughts and energies have to turn to prevention. We must implement common sense gun control. I can do no better than to quote Connecticut’s Senator Chris Murphy:

It must be said that nowhere else but in America do these horrific, large-scale mass shootings happen with this degree of regularity. Tragically, this epidemic is uniquely American.

This madness has to stop. And the collective silence from Congress in the face of these mass shootings is complicity — it sends a quiet message that as a legislative body, these murders are something that we are willing to accept.

It’s time for us to stop pretending that there aren’t public policy responses to this epidemic.

There are. And the thoughts and prayers of politicians are cruelly hollow if they are paired with continued legislative indifference. It’s time for Congress to get off its ass and do something.

I am not ashamed to admit that no legislation will suddenly stamp out every act of mass violence in this country. But the excuse that legislative action is not a guarantee that we will prevent future tragedies is just a mask for cowardice, or cold-hearted political calculation.

Should we pass comprehensive background checks? Should we take weapons off the streets that are designed solely to kill lots of people with speed and efficiency? Should we do more to ensure records are getting into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System? Should we act to make sure it’s easier to get mental health care than it is to buy a gun in this country?

Yes. Yes. Yes. To every one of those questions, yes.

At Wesleyan, we can inform ourselves about the role of guns in our history this semester at the Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns. Here’s the schedule.

Human concerns — that’s what will lead us to mourn the victims of this massacre and what must inspire us pass common sense gun control.