On Pragmatic Liberal Education

I posted this piece a few weeks ago in the Washington Post under the title “Some see liberal arts education as elitist. Why it’s really pragmatic” (Washington Post, 2/5/2023).

At a time when misinformation grows more sophisticated and demagoguery runs rampant, the public should be able to turn to higher education for guidance. But there is declining trust in the sector, which has been embroiled in controversies ranging from its high cost, to tensions between academic freedom and religion, to questions about the role of social justice on campus. From Texas to Florida, government leaders have felt empowered to ramp up their war on universities. Critics on the left accuse universities of being the servants of neoliberal corporatism, while critics on the right view them as engines of indoctrination into world views that dismiss the lives of ordinary people. At a time when higher education should be contributing to our public lives, many of its leaders are busy playing defense, or worse, just laying low.

Colleges and universities in the United States come in a wide variety of forms, but one of their most distinctive elements is pragmatic liberal education. This form of learning — no matter what you are studying — combines the acquisition of specific skills (such as literacy and numeracy) with understanding of how those skills fit into broad contexts. Rather than being just trained how to be a cog in a machine, you are taught to understand how machines work within the systems in which they (and you) are embedded. Pragmatic liberal education in the United States has emphasized that in a diverse democracy, it is crucial that people develop the capacity to listen to those with views different from their own.

Today the relevance of that vision is being challenged on many fronts. There are those who claim that colleges are creating insular tribes adept mostly at canceling one another rather than promoting a diversity of viewpoints. Liberal learning, others argue, contributes to the divisiveness afflicting American society by reinforcing a sense of superiority — in turn, inciting righteous indignation among those who feel elites with fancy diplomas are looking down on them.

Critics are not wrong to point out that biases exist in the American academy that can lead to contempt for those who don’t play its idiosyncratic language games. They are not wrong to question whether professors are providing the tools of facile rejection under the guise of empowering critical thinking, paying lip service to academic freedom while expecting ideological or intellectual conformity. These are legitimate concerns for anyone who believes that education should liberate one from dependence on someone else’s thinking (even the teacher’s) and that learning should foster open-ended inquiry and self-reliance.

Because liberal education is a path well-trod by elites, it can also seem to be the pathway to elitism, cementing economic inequality and enabling a fortunate few to assume an attitude of haughty privilege. Selective institutions like my own take too much pride in the number of people they reject in admissions. Throughout U.S. history, writers have argued that while education was essential for a healthy democracy, it could also lead to a class of pretentious elites condescending to their fellow citizens (if they recognized them at all).

Champions of pragmatic liberal education have long recognized this issue. In the early part of the 20th century, Jane Addams, for example, saw that so-called 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. She insisted on the development of empathy and the sympathetic imagination, underscoring participation in civic life as a vehicle for liberal learning that wouldn’t become parochial and elitist.

The U.S. tradition of pragmatic liberal education of which Jane Addams is a part doesn’t just want students to have read a set of sanctified Great Books. They realize that real inquiry must be tested beyond the university, and that real learning, including the study of classic works, must be relevant beyond the classroom. 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.

That wager inspires students from all walks of life who choose educational paths that allow them to make unexpected connections to discover fields of inquiry of which they were unaware in high school. Students may enter higher education with very specific goals, but in large public universities and small liberal arts colleges, in historically Black colleges and universities, and in faith-based institutions, they encounter teachers who show them how to build skills while also broadening their awareness of the world around them.

I’m thinking of Kennedy Odede, who came to the United States from Kenya, and while studying social science at Wesleyan University started schools for girls in slums around Nairobi. Some of those girls are now applying to colleges in the United States. I’m thinking of Livia Cox, who studied neuroscience and trained as an emergency medical technician while an undergraduate, and who now has been awarded grant support to put her medical training into a broad public health context.

We should recognize how our campuses thrive with productive nonconformists and practical idealists who are building companies and purpose-driven organizations. On campuses today you can certainly find examples of cancel culture, but you also find faith-based groups supporting health care workers, liberal arts students working with the incarcerated, and an impressive array of young people defending the right to vote.

Higher education in the United States can be pragmatic without being conformist, and liberal education can inspire students to think for themselves in ways that include learning from people with views different from their own. A pragmatic liberal education promises to engage with issues that students will have to deal with beyond their university years; it’s more ambitious than a short-term training program. The jobs of the future and the problems confronting our world today cannot be tackled by technical specialization alone. Environmental degradation, artificial intelligence, public health, increasing inequality, international political tensions — these are complex areas that demand the kind of holistic thinking characteristic of liberal education.

Our pragmatic approach to liberal education is one of the reasons more than a million students from outside our borders flock to U.S. colleges and universities each year. Their confidence in our institutions is no replacement, though, for the trust of our fellow citizens. To strengthen that trust, we must demonstrate that our educational institutions foster open inquiry, deep research, and pragmatic approaches to the pressing problems and opportunities before us. If our colleges and universities graduate practical idealists rather than narrow-minded conformists, we will be serving our nation and the world.

Statement on Academic Freedom


Sharing this message I sent to the campus community this morning.

Dear friends,

Given recent conversations on campus and the controversies raging around the country concerning free speech, censorship, and the governmental intrusion into higher education, this seems a good moment to say something about academic freedom here at Wesleyan University. First, what does academic freedom mean? A former president of the American Association of University Professors started off this way:

  1. Academic freedom means that both faculty members and students can engage in intellectual debate without fear of censorship or retaliation.
  2. Academic freedom establishes a faculty member’s right to remain true to his or her pedagogical philosophy and intellectual commitments. It preserves the intellectual integrity of our educational system and thus serves the public good.

At Wesleyan, we might add that the intellectual integrity of our community is preserved when any of its members, including staff and students, can remain true to their intellectual commitments and their approach to learning. We trust that remaining true to one’s commitments is combined with remaining open to people with commitments different from one’s own. This is how real learning happens, with “independence of mind and generosity of spirit.”

As we state in the University’s governing documents (faculty handbook and student handbook): “every member of the Wesleyan community should feel that he or she can enter into controversy without fear of being silenced or constrained. This community’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas and pursuit of knowledge requires a wide range of protections for speech and expression, even when noxious or offensive. Belonging to this community, however, carries with it the responsibility of extending respect and openness of mind to others.”

In America today, academic freedom once again needs its defenders—people who know that learning requires freedom from intimidation and censorship while also demanding openness and attentiveness. The combination of qualities that constitute academic freedom may seem idealistic to some, but for us at Wesleyan it is the practical idealism at the heart of liberal education.

Michael S. Roth


RIP Jackson Seivwright

Today, we sent the following message to the campus community:

It is with deep sadness that we write to inform you of the death of Wesleyan student Jackson (Jack) Seivwright ’24. Jack, who was studying abroad this semester, passed away February 12 following a skiing accident. Known on campus as a student-athlete who brought people together, he will be sorely missed by so many. We offer our condolences to Jack’s family, friends, and loved ones.

Jack’s mother, Kimberly Bruno ’89, P’24 sent the following message:  “We loved our son Jackson, and we know so many who were lucky enough to know him loved him too. Jack had a unique zest for life and moved through the world with a giant grin. He embraced it all with gusto and always shared his enthusiasm with everyone. 

Even as we mourn, it is beautiful here in the Green Mountains Jack called home. So we ask that those of you who knew and loved Jackson go outside, find your own beautiful place of peace and a smile in your heart, and let Jack know you appreciated crossing his too-short path.”  

Expressions of condolence may be sent to Dean Mike Whaley at mwhaley@wesleyan.edu, who will collect and forward them to Jack’s family. We will all hold them in our thoughts.

May Jack’s memory be a blessing for his friends and family.

How to Help Victims of the Earthquake in Turkey & Syria

The news coming out of Turkey and northern Syria is shocking. The devastating earthquake that struck the region will continue to wreak havoc on those in the region. For those who would like to help, you may look to the International Blue Crescent Relief and Development Foundation (IBC) and Turkish Philanthropy Funds. 

The New York Times has published a guide to organizations bringing relief to the area.

  • The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, better known as UNICEF, said it is in Syria and prioritizing water, sanitation, hygiene and nutrition, and also focusing on helping unaccompanied children locate their families. UNICEF is accepting donations.
  • Global Giving, which helps local nonprofit agenciesis collecting donations to help fund emergency medical workers’ ability to provide food, shelter and medicine, among other necessities. As needs in Turkey and Syria change, the organization will focus on long-term assistance, it said.
  • The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is requesting donations for its Disaster Response Emergency Fund so it can send “immediate cash assistance.”
  • OXFAM, an international organization that fights poverty, said it is working with women’s cooperatives in Turkey to determine an appropriate immediate and long-term response plan. It is accepting donations.
  • CARE, an organization that works with impoverished communities, is accepting donations that will go toward food, shelter and hygiene kits, among other items.
  • Doctors Without Borders, which responds to medical emergencies around the world, is collecting donations.
  • The Syrian American Medical Society, a United States-based humanitarian group that supplies medical care in Syria and nearby countries, is collecting donations to deliver emergency aid. At least one of its hospitals in northwestern Syria, Al Dana, received major damage.
  • Save the Children is accepting donations for its Children’s Emergency Fund, which will help provide children with food, shelter and warm clothing.
  • The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, which since 2012 has provided medical relief and health care services inside Syria and to Syrian refugees in Turkey, is collecting money.

There are other lists or organizations that have been vetted for their effectiveness. 

The devastation is all but unimaginable. Help will be needed for a long time.


Lunar New Year Tragedy

I’m tired of writing these sad posts, and I know you must be tired of reading responses to the outbursts of violence that plague our country’s communities. I was a few miles away from Monterey Park over the weekend, adjacent to the violent tragedy. There is relief now that the shooter is no longer a threat, but also profound sadness at the loss of life. 

As German Lopez reminded us this morning in the New York Times briefing:

“This kind of mass shooting has become tragically common in the U.S.; what would be a rare horror in any other developed country is typical here. Yet the cause is no mystery. America has an enormous amount of guns, making it easier for someone to carry out a deadly shooting … All over the world, there are people who argue, fight over relationships, suffer from mental health issues or hold racist views. But in the U.S., those people can more easily obtain a gun and shoot someone.”

Monterey Park will find community resources to heal from this awful event. May the memory of the deceased be a blessing.
UPDATE: And now we must add Half Moon Bay to this sad list of tragedies. We don’t have to live this way.



Historical Recollection and Political Inspiration on MLK Day

A couple of years ago on the the holiday commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr., I quoted my friend and Wesleyan alumna Saidiya Hartman (’84, Hon. ’19) on the importance of remembering for the work of political imagination: “In every slave society, slave owners attempted to eradicate the slave’s memory, that is, to erase all the evidence of an existence before slavery.” We don’t have to accept the triumph of amnesia. “Never did the captive choose to forget; she was always tricked or bewitched or coerced into forgetting. Amnesia, like an accident or a stroke of bad fortune, was never an act of volition.” Today, we can choose recollection.

Memory always takes place in context; it is never neutral. Prof. Hartman writes:

To believe, as I do, that the enslaved are our contemporaries is to understand that we share their aspirations and defeats, which isn’t to say that we are owed what they were due but rather to acknowledge that they accompany our every effort to fight against domination, to abolish the color line…To what end does one conjure the ghost of slavery, if not to incite the hopes of transforming the present.

In the past year, Prof. Hartman published the 25th anniversary edition of her pathbreaking Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in 19th Century America. In her new preface to the book, she notes that even in slavery “everyday practices cultivated an imagination of the otherwise and elsewhere, cartographies of the fantastic utterly antagonistic to slavery…the enslaved articulated a vision of freedom that far exceeded that of the liberal imagination.” Of course, recollection and imagination were not enough to change the world. “What awaited us were centuries of struggle animated by visions that exceeded the wreckage of our lives, by the avid belief in what might be.”

Recollection and imagination and struggle in hopes of transforming the present. This, too, can be a way to mark this holiday and those who fought to transform their lives. To what end does one conjure the memory of Dr. King, one might ask, if not to incite the hopes of transforming the present?

Remembering Representative Quentin Williams

Yesterday we learned the very sad news that Quentin Williams, who represented Middletown in the Connecticut General Assembly, was killed in a car accident. I first met “Q” years several years ago, and, like everyone who knew him, I was struck by his energy, optimism and … that SMILE. As our state representative, he listened attentively, worked constructively and was indefatigable in support of those most in need. He was joyfully dedicated to the common good, and when one was with him, more things seemed possible. 

Our hearts go out to Q’s family, colleagues and friends. The Middletown community will gather to honor Q’s life at 7:00 pm Friday, 1/6, on Middletown’s South Green (corner of Main St and Pleasant St). All are welcome.

May his memory long be a blessing.

A new book on failure and humility

Last week, The Washington Post published my review of philosopher Costica Bradatan’s new book on failure and humility. I thought it might be of interest to many of you.

At the start of his latest book, “In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility,” the philosopher Costica Bradatan notes without chagrin that when we consider our origins and our ultimate fate, humans are not very impressive. We are designed to fail, he emphasizes, and death is the framework for all our attempts to make something of ourselves. In a previous book, “Dying for Ideas,” he considered how philosophers across the ages wrestled with mortality. In “In Praise of Failure,” he looks at how various thinkers — Seneca, Mohandas Gandhi, Simone Weil, Emil Cioran, Yukio Mishima — detached themselves from an obsessive drive for worldly success by reckoning with failure and death. Bradatan wants us to grasp how striving to succeed prevents us from dealing with our mortality and hence from living a more meaningful life.

One hears plenty of voices these days singing the praises of failure, but Bradatan is not to be confused with those Silicon Valley types who drone on about an “iterative process,” aiming to “fail better.” Those folks like to quote a snippet of Samuel Beckett in this regard, but, observes Bradatan, the stern Beckett actually proposed something much more pessimistic: “Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good.” Bradatan quotes this passage approvingly because he despairs of those who would co-opt the idea of failure into some happy tale of ultimate progress. Reading this most interesting philosopher, I was reminded of a Bob Dylan lyric: “There’s no success like failure, and … failure’s no success at all.”

The French thinker Simone Weil brooked no happy tales. She was attracted to suffering and has attracted readers somehow satisfied by her failure to find anything satisfying. Weil was moved to help those in distress but was quite inept at doing so; and since she was writing during the Nazi occupation, there was plenty of distress to go around. Still, her identification with suffering has struck many of her readers as noble, and Bradatan thinks she had mystical insight into the ways that things fall apart. All things. Always. Weil developed the notion of “decreation,” which is “to make something created pass into the uncreated,” thus getting closer to God. The things of our world are products of the Fall, and by giving up on the material world we “give back to God what is properly his.” Bradatan sees a radical humility in Weil’s luxuriating in suffering; another might see mostly mystical arrogance in her insistence that by abjecting herself she approached the divine.

The second tale of failure concerns politics, and here Bradatan is especially good at showing the hypocrisy of leaders who proudly display their humility. Front and center is Gandhi, who worked very hard at showing that he was giving up working for anything like material success. He lived a very public life of renunciation to inspire those around him to find meaning in their poverty. Bradatan quotes one of the great Indian leader’s aides who bemoaned how expensive it was to keep the Mahatma in poverty. Political leaders who become inordinately powerful, Bradatan emphasizes, are those who tell stories that satisfy their community’s desire for meaning. Going beyond Gandhi, he shows that the most dangerous stories are those that ground that meaning in a violent attack on an enemy, a scapegoat. The leader is the opposite of that enemy, embodying the patriotic virtues to which the community aspires. The moral is that the search for political purity is always dangerous.

The third tale of “In Praise of Failure” explores how we frame “the losers,” the people who just can’t measure up to the standards of the world around them. The doctrine of predestination is particularly tough in this regard since it deems losers those whom God has not selected for salvation. There is nothing the losers can do, though many wind up striving for worldly success because they imagine this is the way to prove they are among God’s chosen. The central figure of this chapter is the idiosyncratic Romanian writer Emil Cioran, for whom Bradatan has enormous sympathy. Like Weil, Cioran has terrible judgment and seems incompetent at everything but writing (especially about his incompetence). But whereas Weil found something divine in her failures, Cioran was content to trace the human dimensions of not being able to do anything right. “Only one thing matters,” he wrote: “learning to be the loser.” I don’t understand why Bradatan finds something redemptive in this embrace of failure, but the Cioran he presents is an entertaining, aphoristic writer whose pessimism becomes comedic, and the ability to laugh in the face of inevitable failure is for Bradatan a very good thing.

The fourth and final tale in the book concerns, you guessed it, death. A concern with mortality hovers over all of Bradatan’s writing, and in this section of “In Praise of Failure” he underscores that “nothing in the world compares to what we experience when we face the ultimate failure: our own death.” This is the kind of thing that a great many thinkers have said for a very long time, and here Bradatan selects two: the Roman Stoic Seneca and the Japanese novelist Mishima. Although separated by millennia, the two men are joined by the strong desire to make a good death. Bradatan tells us about the complexities and hypocrisies of each and how both, despite years of planning, botched their suicides in gory, if not obscene, ways. But he respects their willingness to consider (even choreograph) their deaths in detail, even if this didn’t seem to help all that much when the final moments came.

Bradatan wears his erudition lightly. He is a pleasure to read, and his prose conveys a happy resilience in the face of life’s inevitable contradictions. His lessons in humility remind us that the pursuit of success is often motivated by the dread of failure — and that our attempts to create things are often driven by an avoidance of our mortality. The Stoics considered fear of death to be debilitating, and Bradatan emphasizes that fear of failure can sap the meaning from our lives. It doesn’t have to be this way, he assures us.

Acknowledging that we are designed to fail might lead us to live more joyfully and meaningfully, whatever our origins and ultimate fate.

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His latest book is “Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech and Political Correctness on College Campuses.”

 In Praise of Failure

Four Lessons in Humility

By Costica Bradatan

Harvard. 273 pp. $29.95



Happy New Year!

As 2022 comes to an end, I send my best wishes to the extended Wesleyan community around the world. Campus has been cold and quiet until very recently, and in the next week or so students, faculty and staff will start returning for Winter Session, research activity, athletic training and competition, and to continue the preparations for the semester ahead. 

Our past year has been filled with challenges and with the creative energies we’ve summoned to meet them. The pandemic has continued to take a toll on us all, and yet we have found ways to build back an ever more capacious environment of learning, innovative experimentation and achievement. This will be the foundation of our efforts in 2023.

I do hope your holidays have been joyful and restorative. I look forward to seeing what we can all come up with as the sun rises on a new year!