Liberal Education and Conformity

Last week, Inside Higher Education published a short essay I’d written on liberal education, conformity, and my interactions with students in China. I’ve been thinking about conformity, inquiry, free speech and intellectual diversity a lot lately. Last week, I had a very interesting conversation with scores of students (and some faculty and staff) about issues on campus for people of faith or religious practice. Many told me they felt marginalized by what they saw as the the political hegemony of the “progressive” consensus. This consensus allows some to think they speak for “the community” as a whole.  I found this interesting and challenging…certainly part of an ongoing conversation about resisting conformity and cultivating different forms of diversity.  


The question took me by surprise. I had just finished lecturing to about 75 undergraduates at Peking University on the virtues of American-style pragmatic liberal education. My book Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters had recently been translated into Chinese, and I was on a speaking tour trying to persuade students and their families that in a society changing so rapidly it made the most sense to pursue a broad education in which you would learn how to take multiple perspectives on shifting, complex problems and opportunities — to learn how to learn. I argued that from Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson to Jane Addams and W. E. B. Du Bois, American thinkers had developed ideas about pragmatic liberal learning that are powerfully relevant today.

The question, from a young man who had been furiously taking notes throughout my talk, was whether a liberal education really made students think for themselves — as I had argued — or whether it just turned students into liberals. Encouraged by my visible interest and surprise, he asked more pointedly if liberal learning didn’t contribute to the divisiveness that was currently afflicting American society by reinforcing a sense, for some people, of superiority and, for others, that elites with fancy diplomas were looking down on them.

These issues were not unfamiliar to me, but I hadn’t expected an undergraduate in China to raise them. The idea that college campuses have become places of political indoctrination is hotly debated in the United States, but I was surprised to find concern about indoctrination expressed in China, where the state overtly strives for a serious level of ideological conformity.

The young man’s question about political conformity led to an interesting discussion about the general tendency of students to conform to the values of their educational system. My audience at PKU was filled with students who had excelled at the national exam and gained entrance to this, the most prestigious university in the country. These were insightful young men and women who knew how to read their teachers so as to provide them with the responses they’d like best. They knew how to succeed on exams, and they knew how to succeed at pleasing even those professors who said they wanted critically thinking contrarians. In this, they weren’t that different from the bright students I encounter at colleges and universities in America.

Do professors in the United States, in fact, expect ideological or intellectual conformity even when they call for critical thinking? That is a perennial problem for anyone who believes that education should liberate one from dependence on someone else’s thinking– that learning should foster open-ended inquiry and self-reliance. And I had to confess to the student in Beijing that we may indeed have a bias in the American academy that makes intellectual diversity less likely, as teachers equate thoughtful responses with responses that support their own worldviews. Finding ways to challenge those views, encouraging heterodoxy, is the mandate of an educational philosophy, such as pragmatic liberal education, that values the instigation of new modes of inquiry and of creativity. Discussion of implicit bias on American college campuses — be the focus on identity or ideology — is a positive sign that higher education is acknowledging and wrestling with this problem.

The young man’s second question was equally challenging. Was a liberal education a pathway to elitism, cementing economic inequality and enabling a fortunate few to assume an attitude of haughty privilege? That is certainly possible, I admitted. One of the reasons many families want to send their children to top-ranked colleges is that they are highly selective — they reject lots of people, the thinking goes, so they must be good! More than that, the student was asking whether those who enroll in such institutions contribute, unwittingly or not, to a national climate of hostile divisiveness. Throughout American history, writers have argued that while education was essential for a healthy democracy, it could also lead to the corruption of pretentious elites condescending to their fellow citizens (if they recognized them at all).

My response focused on Jane Addams, one of the important pragmatist thinkers and activists I’d written about in Beyond the University. Addams saw that sophisticated modes of education often stifled the ability to see things from another’s point of view. She recognized that strong thinking often became self-protective and detached from the concerns of others. Her contribution to liberal education was to insist on the development of empathy and the sympathetic imagination; she underscored participation in civic life as a vehicle for liberal learning. Emphasis upon humane responsiveness and social engagement were key to ensuring that the forms of inquiry that are part and parcel of a liberal education didn’t become parochial and elitist.

No sooner had I finished my appeal to Addams but a young woman sitting up front asked if I wasn’t really just echoing a campus cultural bubble when I spoke of liberal learning in such idealistic ways. Ah, so talk of the bubble has made its way to China, I thought. Sure, I admitted to the brave undergraduate who had so directly challenged the foreign speaker, it may well be efforts to nurture free inquiry have led to somewhat protective bubbles. But the American tradition of liberal education that I was talking about held that real inquiry had to be tested beyond the university, that real learning had to be relevant beyond the classroom and the borders of the campus. If what I had described sounded idealistic at times, that might, in part, be because I am a university president with a tendency for cheerleading. But, I explained, it might also be because this American educational tradition took a bet on what pragmatist philosopher John Dewey called “practical idealism,” a bet on the value of situating learning in relation to society and the aim of contributing to its well-being.

The discussion in Beijing led me to reflect that teachers and students in China, like those in the United States, are thinking hard about how to avoid conformity and indoctrination without just retreating to a campus bubble that has no relevance to the nonacademic world. In America, we often read about social justice warriors refusing to listen to points of view from outside the campus mainstream, but we should pay more attention to those engaged students who are creating opportunities in education, health care and access to technology for citizens beyond the university’s walls. Rather than focusing on why kids today don’t have the same fundamentalist commitment to the free market approach to speech as boomers claim to have always had, we should recognize how our campuses abound with productive nonconformists, practical idealists starting up companies and purpose-driven organizations. In China, more than half a million students each year study abroad, and scores of thousands are majoring in foreign languages and culture. Notwithstanding the central government’s frightening efforts to enforce narrow forms of political and vocational training, exposure to other societies will enrich the country by disrupting increasingly bureaucratized homogeneity.

I left the lecture hall heartened that students in Beijing, like many across the United States, hope that higher education will be pragmatic without being conformist, and that the college years will inspire them to think for themselves in ways that will be significant to others. A pragmatic liberal education promises to engage with issues that students will surely have to deal with beyond their university years, while refusing to just be a training program that will, in the short run, slide them into the existing slots offered by the status quo. It has often fulfilled this promise in the past, and it is strong enough today to welcome and weather tough questions — from the United States or from China — about its future.

A World Without Liberal Education?

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.

Liberal Education and Thinking for Oneself

I published the following op-ed piece in Inside Higher Education this morning. I’ve drawn on my new book,  Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, which will be published by Yale University Press in the spring.


Over the last year there has been a steady stream of articles about the “crisis in the humanities,” fostering a sense that students are stampeding from liberal education toward more vocationally oriented studies. In fact, the decline in humanities enrollments, as some have pointed out, is wildly overstated, and much of that decline occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. Still, the press is filled with tales about parents riding herd on their offspring lest they be attracted to literature or history rather than to courses that teach them to develop new apps for the next, smarter phone.

America has long been ambivalent about learning for its own sake, at times investing heavily in free inquiry and lifelong learning, and at other times worrying that we need more specialized training to be economically competitive. A century ago these worries were intense, and then, as now, pundits talked about a flight from the humanities toward the hard sciences.

Liberal education was a core American value in the first half of the 20th century, but a value under enormous pressure from demographic expansion and the development of more consistent public schooling. The increase in the population considering postsecondary education was dramatic. In 1910 only 9 percent of students received a high school diploma; by 1940 it was 50 percent. For the great majority of those who went on to college, that education would be primarily vocational, whether in agriculture, business, or the mechanical arts. But even vocationally oriented programs usually included a liberal curriculum — a curriculum that would provide an educational base on which one could continue to learn — rather than just skills for the next job. Still, there were some then (as now) who worried that the lower classes were getting “too much education.”

Within the academy, between the World Wars, the sciences assumed greater and greater importance. Discoveries in physics, chemistry, and biology did not seem to depend on the moral, political, or cultural education of the researchers – specialization seemed to trump broad humanistic learning. These discoveries had a powerful impact on industry, the military, and health care; they created jobs! Specialized scientific research at universities produced tangible results, and its methodologies – especially rigorous experimentation – could be exported to transform private industry and the public sphere. Science was seen to be racing into the future, and some questioned whether the traditional ideas of liberal learning were merely archaic vestiges of a mode of education that should be left behind.

In reaction to this ascendancy of the sciences, many literature departments reimagined themselves as realms of value and heightened subjectivity, as opposed to so-called value-free, objective work. These “new humanists” of the 1920s portrayed the study of literature as an antidote to the spiritual vacuum left by hyperspecialization. They saw the study of literature as leading to a greater appreciation of cultural significance and a personal search for meaning, and these notions quickly spilled over into other areas of humanistic study. Historians and philosophers emphasized the synthetic dimensions of their endeavors, pointing out how they were able to bring ideas and facts together to help students create meaning. And arts instruction was reimagined as part of the development of a student’s ability to explore great works that expressed the highest values of a civilization. Artists were brought to campuses to inspire students rather than to teach them the nuances of their craft. During this interwar period a liberal education surely included the sciences, but many educators insisted that it not be reduced to them. The critical development of values and meaning was a core function of education.

Thus, despite the pressures of social change and of the compelling results of specialized scientific research, there remained strong support for the notion that liberal education and learning for its own sake were essential for an educated citizenry. And rather than restrict a nonvocational education to established elites, many saw this broad teaching as a vehicle for ensuring commonality in a country of immigrants. Free inquiry would model basic democratic values, and young people would be socialized to American civil society by learning to think for themselves.

By the 1930s, an era in which ideological indoctrination and fanaticism were recognized as antithetical to American civil society, liberal education was acclaimed as key to the development of free citizens. Totalitarian regimes embraced technological development, but they could not tolerate the free discussion that led to a critical appraisal of civic values. Here is the president of Harvard, James Bryant Conant, speaking to undergraduates just two years after Hitler had come to power in Germany:

To my mind, one of the most important aspects of a college education is that it provides a vigorous stimulus to independent thinking…. The desire to know more about the different sides of a question, a craving to understand something of the opinions of other peoples and other times mark the educated man. Education should not put the mind in a straitjacket of conventional formulas but should provide it with the nourishment on which it may unceasingly expand and grow. Think for yourselves! Absorb knowledge wherever possible and listen to the opinions of those more experienced than yourself, but don’t let any one do your thinking for you.

This was the 1930s version of liberal learning, and in it you can hear echoes of Thomas Jefferson’s idea of autonomy and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s thoughts on self-reliance.

In the interwar period the emphasis on science did not, in fact, lead to a rejection of broad humanistic education. Science was a facet of this education. Today, we must not let our embrace of STEM fields undermine our well-founded faith in the capacity of the humanities to help us resist “the straitjackets of conventional formulas.” Our independence, our freedom, has depended on not letting anyone else do our thinking for us. And that has demanded learning for its own sake; it has demanded a liberal education. It still does.


Why Liberal Education Matters — A Lecture in Beijing

This is cross-posted from Inside Higher Education.

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

With my host, Prof. Tu Weiming
With my host, Prof. Tu Weiming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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