Liberal Education: Now More than Ever

The following is reposted from the Washington Post.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Danger of Narrowing Specialization

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

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

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

 

Danger of Populist Parochialism 

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

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

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

 

Possibilities of Open and Reliable Communication

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

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

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

 

Possibilities of cosmopolitanism and community

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

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

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

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

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

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

College Should Prepare You For Life

During Thanksgiving week The New Republic published this short essay of mine on the “education of the whole person.” Since then, the owner of the magazine opted to create a integrated media company rather than a magazine of ideas. This is a sad event for American journalism and for thoughtful discussions in the public sphere, regardless of what one thinks of the specific positions of the magazine. 

 

As the college admissions season moves into high gear, I’ve been talking with many stressed-out young people deciding what kinds of schools they should apply to.  As president of a university dedicated to liberal education, I urge them to consider college not just as a chance to acquire particular expertise but as a remarkable opportunity to explore their individual and social lives in connection to the world in which they will live and work.

Contentious debates over the benefitsor drawbacksof broad, integrative learning, liberal learning, are as old as America itself. Several of the founding fathers saw education as the road to independence and liberty. A broad commitment to inquiry was part of their dedication to freedom. But critics of education also have a long tradition. From Benjamin Franklin in the eighteenth-century to today’s Internet pundits, they have attacked its irrelevance and elitismoften calling for more vocational instruction.

Ben Franklin probably would have had some sympathy for the anti-college message: “You don’t need colleges. Go off and learn stuff on your own. You believe you are an innovator? You can prove it without the sheepskin. You want to start a successful company? You don’t need permission from out-of-touch professors.” From Tom Paine to Steve Jobs, stories of people with the smarts and chutzpah to educate themselves in their own ways have long resonated with Americans.

But Franklin was also dismissive of the arrogant display of parochialism. He would be appalled by the current mania for driving young people into narrower and narrower domains in the name of “day one” job preparedness. He would surely recognize that when industrial and civic leaders call for earlier and earlier specialization, they are putting us on a path that will make Americans even less capable citizens and less able to adjust to changes in the world of work.

Citizens able to see through political or bureaucratic doubletalk are also workers who can defend their rights in the face of the rich and powerful. Education protects against mindless tyranny and haughty privilege. Liberal learning in our tradition isn’t only training; it’s an invitation to think for oneself. For generations of Americans, literate and well-rounded citizens were seen as essential to a healthy republic. Broadly educated citizens aren’t just collections of skillsthey are whole people. For today’s critics, often speaking the lingo of Silicon Valley sophistication, however, a broad, contextual education is merely wastednon-monetizedschooling.

It’s no wonder that in a society characterized by radical income inequality, anxiety about getting that first job will lead many to aim for the immediate needs of the marketplace right now. The high cost of college and the ruinous debt that many take on only add to this anxiety. In this context, some assert that education should simply prepare people to be consumers, or, if they are talented enough, “innovators.” But when the needs of the market change, as they surely will, the folks with that narrow training will be out of luck. Their bosses, those responsible for defining market trends, will be just fine because they were probably never confined to an ultra-specialized way of doing things. Beware of critics of education who cloak their desire to protect privilege (and inequality) in the garb of educational reform.

“If we make money the object of man-training,” W.E.B. Dubois wrote at the beginning of the twentieth-century, “we shall develop money makers but not necessarily men.” He went on to describe how “intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and the relation of men to itthis is the curriculum of that Higher Education which must underlie true life.” A good pragmatist, DuBois knew that through education one developed modes of thinking that turned into patterns of action. As William James taught, the point of learning is not to arrive at truths that somehow match up with reality. The point of learning is to acquire better ways of coping with the world, better ways of acting.

Pragmatic liberal education in America aims to empower students with potent ways of dealing with the issues they will face at work and in life. That’s why it must be broad and contextual, inspiring habits of attention and critique that will be resources for students years after graduation. In order to develop this resource, teachers must address the student as a whole personnot just as a tool kit that can be improved. We do need tools, to be sure, but American college education has long invited students to learn to learn, creating habits of independent critical and creative thinking that last a lifetime.

In the nineteenth century, Emerson urged students to “resist the vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever to barbarism.” He emphasized that a true education would help one find one’s own way by expanding one’s world, not narrowing it: notice everything but imitate nothing, he urged. The goal of this cultivated attentiveness is not to discover some ultimate Truth, but neither is it just to prepare for the worst job one is likely to ever have, one’s first job after graduation.

Instead, the goal of liberal education is, in John Dewey’s words, “to free experience from routine and caprice.” This goal will make one more effective in the world, and it will help one continue to grow as a whole person beyond the university. This project, like learning itself, should never end.

The Case for Liberal Education

This past weekend I published some op-eds and did an interview on liberal education in conjunction with the appearance of my Beyond The University: Why Liberal Education Matters. There’s even a radio spot Wisconsin Public Radio!

The following op-ed is from the Boston Globe‘s Sunday opinion section.

 

‘Is c” — that’s all I have to type before the search engine jumps to “Is college worth it?” I hit return, and there are more articles on this question than even I, a college president, want to read. Pundit after pundit (most of whom have had the benefit of a liberal education) question whether so many Americans should be going to college. Pulling the ladder up after they’ve already made the climb, they can’t seem to see why future students would want the same opportunities that they’ve had.

When I began my freshman year at Wesleyan University more than 35 years ago, there were no search engines, and I had only a vague notion of what a liberal arts education entailed. My father and my grandfather were furriers, and my mother a big band singer. Giving their children access to a college education was part of their American dream, even if they had little understanding of what happened on campus. Today I head up the same institution where I first stumbled into courses like Intro to Philosophy and Art History 101.

Much has changed in higher education in the past three decades. In the past year, for instance, I’ve taught not only on campus but also more than 150,000 students enrolled through Wesleyan’s partnership with Coursera, a provider of free massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

But students and their expectations have also shifted. Many undergraduates now behave like consumers, intent on building resumes. Parents often want their children’s education to be immediately useful, and with a dramatically shrinking job market, undergrads themselves are often eager to follow a straight and narrow path that they imagine will land them that coveted first job. A broad liberal education, with a significant opportunity to explore oneself and the world, is increasingly seen as a luxury for the entitled and scarcely affordable in a hyper-competitive world.

Throughout most of our history, Americans have aimed to expand the realm of what counts as a liberal education. In recent years, however, in sync with growing inequality, critics have argued that some people just don’t need a broad education because these folks will not be in jobs that will use advanced skills. Richard Vedder, director at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, puts it this way: “Do you really need a chemistry degree to make a good martini?”

The bartender with a chemistry degree is the contemporary version of the Jeffersonian ideal of a farmer who reads the classics with pleasure and insight, or John Dewey’s image of the industrial worker who can quote Shakespeare. For generations of Americans, these have been signs of a healthy republic. But, for many critical of liberal education today, these are examples of a “wasted” — non-monetized — education. Furthermore, if ever more people are encouraged to get a college degree, won’t the degree be worth less — who wants to be a part of a club with that many members? We should beware of critics who cloak their desire to protect privilege (and inequality) in the garb of educational reform.

But employers do recognize the importance of a liberal education. The majority of those hiring agree that what’s important for recent college graduates to achieve long-term career success is having both field-specific skills and a wide range of knowledge. According to a recent survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 80 percent of employers agree that, regardless of the major, every college student should acquire a foundation in the liberal arts and sciences.

Even many of those enrolling in online courses want this broad-based education. The “massive” part of these open courses is the least interesting thing about them. And I don’t treat my students online like a mass. My aim, the same as with my “in-person” classes, is to “ignite the fire of learning” — as a student from Singapore put it — while bringing them into a more thoughtful and productive conversation with the world around them. I am trying to help them develop their critical thinking skills while also inviting them to become absorbed in great achievements in philosophy, history, and literature. And they respond with curiosity and enthusiasm and, most importantly, a desire to continue learning. “Learning makes me feel alive,” an older student in South India related.

The willingness today by some to limit higher education to only certain students or to constrict the college curriculum to a neat, instrumental itinerary is a critical mistake, one that neglects a deep American tradition of humanistic learning. This tradition has been integral to our nation’s success and has enriched the lives of generations of students by enhancing their capacities for shaping themselves and reinventing the world they will inhabit. 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 in American higher education has never been faster, and the ability to shape change and seek opportunity has never been more valuable. Our rapid search engines can only do so much: If we want to push back against inequality and enhance the vitality of our culture and economy, we need pragmatic liberal education.

Review of AMERICA THE PHILOSOPHICAL

The Washington Post today published my review of Carlin Romano’s America the Philosophical. Although I didn’t find the book all that satisfying, I do appreciate his effort to consider how intellectual life in America exceeds the boundaries that we try to set for it in academia.

 

Carlin Romano has a story to tell about philosophy and about America. Romano, a critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Chronicle of Higher Education, relates how philosophy long ago took the wrong path by seeking ultimate Truth, and how this quest has led academic philosophers to become increasingly detached from the concerns of just about everybody else. While philosophy pursued purity, American culture in the last century became ever messier — more heterogeneous, dynamic and difficult to categorize. Then, as the white, Protestant, elite culture broke down and diverse groups found their ways into universities and media networks, some philosophers and most of the culture abandoned the quest for Truth and focused on expanding the circles of inquiry and discussion.

Romano spends just a fraction of this long book articulating the outlines of this story. Academic, analytic philosophy became ever more technical in the decades after World War II as professors sought to be helpmates to scientists by spelling out how objective truths could be guaranteed. That the language of these philosophers became increasingly divorced from everyday discourse was supposed to be a sign of the field’s sophistication. For Romano, though, it’s really a sign of the narrowing of philosophical vision and the abandonment of its public role.

A current of more public-minded philosophy, though, plays a heroic role in Romano’s saga. Pragmatism, which emerged as the 19th century turned into the 20th, spoke in a language that had cultural (rather than merely professional) resonance. The pragmatists had arguments about Truth, to be sure, but they were arguments that showed why the pursuit of the big T should be replaced by an understanding of what was “good in the way of belief.” That’s a phrase made famous by William James, who, as Romano notes, developed a philosophy that “suited the American predilection for practical thinking.” James was fond of giving credit to his colleague Charles Sanders Peirce, who underscored that the whole function of thought is to produce habits of action. Peirce and James viewed thinking not as a more or less accurate reflection of the world but as a tool for coping with the world.

John Dewey most famously took up the pragmatist call to action, building on his professional work in philosophy to contribute to political and educational reforms. Dewey confronted human problems, not just academic ones, and his thinking and his sympathies were expansive. Romano quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes’s joke that Dewey wrote as God would have spoken — if God were inarticulate.

The hero of Romano’s tale is Richard Rorty, who combined Dewey’s energetic connection of philosophy to society with James’s capacity for graceful writing. Rorty was especially important for professional analytic philosophy because he understood it as an insider yet rejected its narrowness of spirit and empty precision. Rorty (who, I should note, was my teacher) breathed new life into pragmatism. He thought of philosophy as a conversation in which we discovered things about ourselves and others rather than as an arbiter between the “really real” and the illusory. He hoped that our conversations might lead us to build on those elements of our moral, aesthetic and political lives that we most prized. He hoped that discussion would lead to habits of action that were in accord with our best selves.

Much of Romano’s book is made up of his takes on a variety of participants in our literary, scientific, political and popular culture as what Romano describes as “the white male domination of discourse” gives way to interventions by African Americans, women, Native Americans and others, but otherwise there’s no apparent rhyme or reason for the philosophers he chooses to discuss. Perhaps he reviewed their books over the years; he surely has interviewed several of them. Psychiatrists, literary critics, political theorists, linguists, mathematicians and a neurologist all receive (brief) consideration. There is even a chapter on “casual wisemen,” such as Hugh Heffner. What makes these figures “philosophical?” It seems it’s just that they have published books.

The treatment of these dozens of writers is haphazard. Susan Sontag gets several pages of inquiring prose, while Hannah Arendt warrants only a brief discussion of biographers’ views of her love affair with her teacher Martin Heidegger. Some authors are treated directly, others through secondary sources. Romano makes no effort to put these figures in dialogue with one another but instead offers an uneven compendium of summaries with occasional commentary. America might have a big, messy culture, but that doesn’t mean a book about the culture should mirror its disorganization.

Toward the end of the volume, Romano says this is all in the spirit of Isocrates, a contemporary of Plato’s who did not pursue Truth with a capital T. Isocrates, like the American pragmatists centuries later, was more interested in encouraging participation in the process of thinking than he was in picking the winner of the game of thought. I’m not sure why Romano thinks he needs an ancient Greek ancestor for American messiness, except insofar as it gives him ammunition to use against those who, like the great political philosopher John Rawls, still pursued the philosophical justification of truths. Rawls, Romano awkwardly notes at the end of his book, failed because “he didn’t convince most Americans.” This is an odd criterion to introduce as a conversation-stopper more than 500 pages into the book.

I doubt that “America the Philosophical” will convince most Americans of anything in particular, but I don’t think it fails on that account. Many readers will learn many things from this big, messy book, despite the fact that it does not have much in the way of coherent argument or compelling narrative. Romano does offer a series of often intelligent reflections on a diverse group of American writers. That doesn’t make his work or our country philosophical, but it does remind us of books we might turn to as we continue our conversations.

cross-posted with the Washington Post

“We pride ourselves upon a practical idealism”

This weekend I was re-reading John Dewey’s 1917 essay, “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy,” in which he famously calls for a re-orientation of philosophy away from a focus on general problems of knowledge and toward human problems.  The essay is a pragmatist manifesto, urging us away from knowledge as a spectator sport and toward inquiry as an activist enterprise motivated by social and personal concerns. The goal of our intellectual endeavors should not be to mirror reality accurately, but “to free experience from routine and from caprice.”

As I read Dewey’s essay about recovering philosophy, I found myself substituting “education” for “philosophy” time and time again. Many of his points about pragmatism and inquiry reminded me of how we have been describing a Wesleyan education. As we spoke about civic engagement this year, we have been calling on students and faculty to enhance the relevance of their work. When I have written about the “translational liberal arts,” I have been emphasizing the importance of converting what one is learning in the classroom to what one is doing off campus. The point of a liberal arts education, I stress time and time again, has never been more relevant than it is today because this kind of education develops resources for lifelong learning. That sounds a lot like Dewey’s call to recognize how even our “imaginative recovery of the bygone” is in the service of our current needs.

At the close of his essay, Dewey wrote: “We pride ourselves upon a practical idealism, a lively and easily moved faith in possibilities as yet unrealized, in willingness to make sacrifice for their realization.” “Practical idealism” is a phrase used by a president of Bowdoin College in the early twentieth century as well as by Gandhi a generation later. We’ve used the same words to talk about some of the important ingredients in a Wesleyan education. But Dewey warns us not to get too comfortable with our highfalutin ideals: “all peoples at all times have been narrowly realistic in practice and have then employed idealization to cover up in sentiment and theory their brutalities.”

We must all be careful not to fall prey to merely covering over our brutalities with ideals and sentiment. We must develop the intellectual and moral capacities to imagine a future that is worth striving for, and we must enhance our ability to create the tools for its realization. This is, to paraphrase Dewey one more time, a sufficiently large task for our education.