Biggest Threats to Free Speech Not on College Campuses

In response to some of the misinformation and manufactured outrage in the press, I wrote an opinon piece for the Hartford Courant on Sunday. This was reproduced on the HuffingtonPost the next day. ICYMI, I post it here.


As we prepared to honor Middletown military veterans at Wesleyan University’s first home football game, I sought out one of our engaged and thoughtful student vets. Bryan Stascavage had published an opinion piece in The Argus, the school newspaper, raising critical questions about the Black Lives Matter movement. The reaction to his provocative piece was intense: Some students were angry, some hurt and still others wondered what editors of The Argus were thinking when they published an essay that questioned a civil rights movement that has claimed the hearts and minds of so many of us on campus.

I trust the editors thought that Bryan’s essay would spark real conversations — the kind that make newspapers a vital part of so many communities’ cultural ecology. Sure, the editors got more than they bargained for. Some students argued that the essay was racist (I don’t think it was), or at least that it participated in systems of racist domination (what doesn’t?). They made the important point that opinion pieces like these facilitate the ongoing marginalization of a sector of our student population; and they angrily accused The Argus of contributing to that marginalization.

I’m very glad these important issues were made public — sometimes quite forcefully. Those who think they favor free speech but call for civility in all discussions should remember that battles for freedom of expression are seldom conducted in a privileged atmosphere of upper-class decorum.

Unfortunately, in addition to sparking conversation, the op-ed also generated calls to punish the newspaper. Protests against newspapers, of course, are also part of free speech. But punishment, if successful, can have a chilling effect on future expression. Many students (I think the great majority) quickly realized this and, contrary to what has been reported in the press, the student newspaper has not been defunded. Students are trying to figure out how to bring more perspectives to the public with digital platforms, and I am confident they can do this without undermining The Argus.

Commentators, perhaps weary of their impotence in the face of the perversion of free expression in politics by means of wealth, have weighed in on this so-called threat to free speech on college campuses. “What’s the matter with kids today,” these self-righteous critics ask, “don’t they realize that America depends on freedom of expression?” While economic freedom and political participation are evaporating into the new normal of radical inequality, while legislators call for arming college students to make them safer, puffed-up pundits turn their negative attention to what they see as dangerous calls to make campuses safer places for students vulnerable to discrimination. But are these calls really where the biggest threat to free expression lies? I fear that those who seize upon this so-called danger will succeed in diverting attention from far more dangerous threats.

Students, faculty and administrators want our campuses to be free and safe, but we also acknowledge that the imperatives of freedom and safety are sometimes in conflict. A campus free from violence is an absolute necessity for a true education, but a campus free from challenge and confrontation would be anathema to it. We must not protect ourselves from disagreement; we must be open to being offended for the sake of learning, and we must be ready to give offense so as to create new opportunities for thinking.

Education worthy of the name is risky — not safe. Education worthy of the name does not hide behind a veneer of civility or political correctness, but instead calls into question our beliefs. We learn most when we are ready to recognize how many of our ideas are just conventional, no matter how “radical” we think those ideas might be. We learn most when we are ready to consider challenges to our values from outside our comfort zones of political affiliation and personal ties.

Historically marginalized groups have the most to lose when freedom of expression is undermined by calls for safety. Just look at Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans for silencing anything deemed “extremist” and in conflict with “British values,” or Donald Trump’s fascistic rhetoric about closing mosques as part of his effort to “make America great again.”

My role as a university president includes giving students opportunities to make their views heard, and to learn from reactions that follow. As I wrote on my blog shortly after Bryan’s opinion piece was published, debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are uncomfortable. As members of a university community, we always have the right to respond with our opinions, but, as many free speech advocates have underscored, there is no right not to be offended. Censorship diminishes true diversity of thinking; vigorous debate enlivens and instructs.

Our campus communities, like the rest of society, will be more inclusive and free when we can tolerate strong disagreements. Through our differences we learn from one another.

Defending Diversity and Liberal Education

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

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


How to Destroy College Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Yale Prez Retires

The editors of the Huffingtonpost asked me for my reactions to the announcement that Rick Levin was stepping down as president of Yale. Here’s what they have posted.
The news of Rick Levin’s retirement as president of Yale surprised me. True, the tenures of university presidents are notoriously short, and the dangers of burnout are great for even the most well trained administrators. But Levin was the great exception. He’d been President at Yale for 20 years, and he had been a graduate student and professor there for about the same length of time. Given the new initiatives we’ve heard coming out of New Haven, I had no reason to think change was in the air. But it’s certainly the case that Levin has more than earned his “retreat rights” to teaching and writing.

Levin has steered Yale through a period of dramatic changes in American higher education, and he has done so in ways that have made the University stronger than ever before. Many others will assess the Levin years in regard to the shaping of the curriculum, the stature of the professional and graduate programs, and the dramatic expansion of the campus. There will surely be extended considerations of his efforts to make Yale a more responsible partner to educational and civic ventures locally, nationally and internationally. Yale’s work with the New Haven school district and with the local community college is a model for many schools. The New Haven Promise Program, which funds college scholarships for all New Haven high school graduates earning a B average, completing 40 hours of public service during high school, and maintaining 90% attendance, is a great example of what a financially strong institution can accomplish locally. Levin’s participation in the national conversation about science education and his devotion to creating more financial aid opportunities have made a significant impact on higher education in America.

As a strong leader of a powerful institution Levin has surrounded himself with good people who have become distinguished leaders themselves. Several Yale faculty have gone on to become successful deans and then on to distinguished presidencies across the country. As I know from experience, hiring a senior administrator from Yale means hiring someone of high integrity who can quickly make a difference through leadership and teamwork.

Levin has long championed international partnerships, and it is in this area that his recent efforts have been controversial on the Yale campus. The university’s collaboration with the National University of Singapore will be an important experiment in developing the liberal arts outside of the United States. The Yale faculty, and many of us who care deeply about liberal learning, wonder how an educational project can advance in a political context that punishes ways of thinking and living that have been vital dimensions of scholarship. Will the university be corrupted by these oppressive tendencies, or will the university help create currents of thoughtful change? Levin and Yale have clearly bet on the latter. What would it say about the depth of our faith in education to bet on the former?

I’m no expert on Yale or on the Levin presidency. I’ve met Levin just a couple of times, even though my own university is just a short drive north of New Haven. But I’ll end on a personal note. When a member of my family was seriously ill and I was worried about our treatment options, I emailed Rick to see if he knew with whom I might speak at Yale. I was surprised to get a response almost immediately, and he followed up after I had talked with the people he’d recommended. The doctors with whom we met proved to be both impressively knowledgeable and wonderfully humane. That’s what one wants, isn’t it, from a doctor, a professor or a university president. From where I sit, it’s the sweet spot of academic leadership: knowledge and humanity. Rick Levin has hit that spot more than most over the past 20 years. I’m grateful and wish him well.

Blurry Disciplines, Clear Learning

In the last week I attended two meetings worth travelling to.  The first (in Washington D.C.) dealt with the intellectual-financial challenges facing American higher education, and the second (in Princeton) examined the role of the humanities in the public sphere. I was in Washington for a meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, on whose board I now serve. We began with a very interesting talk by environmental scientist James P. Collins of Arizona State University. Jim talked about the changing face of scholarly inquiry today, when pressing questions just aren’t fitting into distinct disciplinary borders. His particular interest is in the intersection of biological, geological and social sciences, and we were asked to consider synthetic biology, restoration ecology and how engineering and “big data” analysis could be added to the mix. I thought of how Wesleyan’s College of the Environment is also working in this sphere under Barry Chernoff’s direction, and how Lisa Dierker’s work in the Quantitative Analysis Center also blurs the boundaries among disciplines in powerfully productive ways.

In Princeton I was part of a conference that focused on the “ethics of reading.” Peter Brooks, the organizer of this great gathering, asked speakers to consider how the ways we are taught to read in the humanities might foster modes of attention that have positive impact on the public sphere. To whom or to what are we responsible when we learn to read well? How is the exercise of the imagination in reading a narrative related to empathy, and to the desire to reduce harm to others? Literary critic Elaine Scarry gave a powerful presentation on how increases in literacy might be linked to efforts to reduce violence, and she returned to her theme of how the pleasures of beauty might create “opiated adjacencies.” By this she means that the pleasure we take in beauty might stimulate us to make the world more fair, more just. Yale law Professor Paul Kahn talked about teaching humility when we cultivate wonder in the classroom. The practice of creativity and interpretation give us an experience of freedom. Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah noted that when we betray that practice, it is less a betrayal of an author than a betrayal of our community.

I’m more skeptical about the positive “adjacencies” to aesthetic delight than are some of my colleagues, but the conference gave me much to think about. I am convinced that work in the increasingly blurry disciplines of the sciences, arts, humanities and social sciences provides us with an increased ability to navigate within contexts of ambiguity and change. As I noted in a recent blogpost, “liberal learning can help our students unplug from the inputs they have customized to reinforce their own tastes, expectations and identities. We get to introduce them to stories and poems, historical events and paintings, scientific experiments and political debates that they might not have attended to, even googled, on their own. And then we get to learn with them about how these complex cultural artifacts can be understood in relation to our present. In this way, we develop a richer sense than our little devices can give us of who we are. More important, we develop a deeper sense of who we might become.”

A Wesleyan education helps us develop this deeper sense of who we might become. Happily, this occurs in a context of supportive community in which the treasures of continuity find their balance with the pleasures of change.

Cracking the Genetic Code: Genomic Science and Bioethics

Thanks, I suppose, to my friends Joshua Boger ’73 and Joe Fins ’82, I joined the board of the Hastings Center last year. At our last meeting, we saw a film that Hastings consulted on with PBS’s NOVA. It has to do with the tremendous advances in genomic science, and the ethical issues that have arisen as the clinical applications of the science become more accessible. Wesleyan’s strengths in science studies are really formidable, and some of those strengths fall into the bioethics category. The Science and Society Program, Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies, the Center for the Humanities, the Sociology, History and Philosophy departments are just some of the areas where one can find sophisticated work on bioethics at Wesleyan. And in throughout the life sciences at Wes, one can find advanced work that depends on genomics.

I put his up today on the Huffingtonpost.

On Wednesday, March 28th (9 p.m./8c), PBS will broadcast an important film that explores some of the crucial ethical issues that are emerging from the life sciences: how to use our knowledge of personal genetic information; and who should have access to this information about our individual and familial genetic data? On the one hand, genomic science promises us an unprecedented look at the material sources of our lives, and on the other hand, this science may tempt some to think that we are nothing more than our genetic makeup.

Cracking Your Genetic Code is a joint project of PBS’s NOVA producers and the Hastings Center, a bioethics research center on whose board I sit. The film gives an insightful and moving portrait of how people who suffer from genetic disorders are investing their hopes in genomic science. Designer drugs, like those to combat some forms of cystic fibrosis, are shown to have enormous potential for patients who can get access to them early enough to reverse the ravages of disease. In addition to the patients’ stories, we hear from scientists eager to use their understanding of the genetic bases of disease to prevent symptoms from emerging in future generations. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, is particularly compelling as he describes the clinical potential of genomic medicine.

Cracking Your Genetic Code also describes the more troubling potential in our new understanding of our biological heritage. Will we want to know if our genes make it likely that we will develop a life threatening or debilitating disease? Will we want to tell our children, and, if so, when? Will the knowledge be helpful, or just a burden? Who else will know about our genetic destiny? Insurance companies? Advertising firms?

The Hastings Center’s Help With Hard Questions website provides a useful way of navigating in the new world opened up by contemporary genomic science. NOVA, too, has a website that complements the film. Both use social networking to bring together people concerned about what to do with the new knowledge that is available to us through science and technology.

It was not long ago that the goal of cracking the genetic code seemed like a wild ambition. Soon we will be able to get our own personalized genetic information almost anywhere for under $1000. The information tells us about our biological constitution; how will we relate that to our sense of self, family and destiny? Cracking Your Genetic Code raises more questions than it answers — perfectly appropriate as we strive to understand how to use and to protect these new modes of knowledge.

Here’s a clip from the film:


New Year’s Resolution: Make Stuff that Matters

The Huffingtonpost asked me to write something for their New Year’s Eve front page. Thinking back over the year can feel depressing, but one can also find a positive trajectory. And why not focus as we start 2012 on a simple commitment: make stuff that matters.

In the first half of 2011, we heard the word”deficit” in wave after wave of political discourse. The Republicans used it as a signifier of Washington’s lack of fiscal self-control — of an intellectually and morally bankrupt government that spent our money without concern for the views of those who had earned it in the first place. The “deficit” was real, and it was also symbolic of a failure to maintain an economy that promised a reasonable opportunity for creating a better future. Government spending was seen to be the problem because those who spent (and perhaps those who benefited directly from the spending) had no connection to how Americans made a living. Real work seemed completely divorced from massive expenditure because it was borrowing that enabled the spending. The collapse of the credit markets in 2008 and the bailout of the wealthiest institutions (and individuals) that followed underscored for many Americans that spending through borrowing created deficits, and that deficits robbed us of the promise of a better future. Raising the “debt ceiling” no longer seemed like a mere formality.

Sometime in the late summer the tide turned, and the wave of words concerning the evil of deficits receded before a wave of rhetoric on the production of inequality. Despite all the negative press about the “leaderless” and “agenda-less” Occupiers, the movement successfully repositioned the political conversation around how the richest 1% had been accumulating an ever-greater share of the nation’s wealth and political influence. This massive shift of wealth to a small percentage of the population was seen not as the result of hard work or great feats of productive imagination but as the result of policies (tax breaks, subsidies, bailouts)geared to bringing more advantages to the most advantaged. The system is rigged, and this denies most Americans any chance at a better future.

Throughout 2011, another current of conversation, less powerful perhaps than the cries of “deficits” or “inequality” but important nonetheless, had to do with “creativity and innovation.” Book after book explored the roots of individual genius, and pundits from all over the political spectrum opined on the ingredients of organizational innovation and the cultural components that make productive invention more likely. There was general recognition that we need not just products that were artfully put together, but platforms that would give rise to renewable cycles of innovation.

Platforms create new value rather than just borrow on the basis of past credit. A culture that simply borrows to maintain the status quo is doomed to fall apart. Spending without creativity is just depletion. Some of the rhetoric on deficits of the first half of 2011 recognized that. Innovation demands a culture of equal access so that “the best idea can win.” A society that is geared to protecting the powers of its most advantaged is also doomed — doomed to corruption and stagnation. Some of the rhetoric on inequality in recent months has rightly pointed this out.

Although talk of creativity can be vague, it can offer us a way of navigating the future with hope and purpose. Charting a course that includes innovation turns us toward practices of “making stuff that matters” rather than berating ourselves for failures to defend traditions, products or advantages that we have held in the past.

As we begin 2012, I trust we will remain wary of those who promise us that the future will be more secure if we borrow against the credit accumulated from the past, and that we will remain suspicious of those who tell us that freedom for the rich is freedom for us all. As we begin the new year, I trust that our interest in creativity will remain strong. Our fascination with innovation stems from our determination to keep our hopes for a better future alive, despite the well-justified fears of depletion and corruption. Innovation doesn’t just mean better gadgets – phones that are ever faster or music players that can hold more tunes. Innovation should mean creating stuff that matters: renewable energy that will power our industries without destroying the planet; medicines that will cure seemingly intractable illnesses; educational structures that will enable more of our citizens to engage in productive and meaningful work — and to become innovators themselves.

If we can learn from the critics of borrowing and of inequality, and if we can foster a culture of innovation, perhaps we can make the new year one of promise and fairness, of learning and creativity. It’s almost New Year’s Eve, a time to be hopeful. And then it will be the time to work on realizing those hopes.

Occupy Wall Street and Education

Students have asked me about how I feel about the protests going on under the banner of Occupy Wall Street. I know several who have been participating in New York, and others who plan to join in during the fall break just about to begin.  Today I posted the following piece on the Huffington Post.


The Occupy Wall Street protests have become an important topic on college campuses. At Wesleyan, some of our students have joined the group in Zuccotti Park in New York, and others have found a variety of ways of expressing their support. Given the mainstream media’s treatment of the movement, it’s easy to mock the lack of clear policy initiatives or to roll one’s eyes at the absence of leaders to express a neat list of demands. But in talking with students and reading some of the statements from the Occupy Wall Street participants, it seems to me that we get a pretty clear picture of their discontent. Like many Americans, they are revolted by how huge infusions of money are corrupting our political system. And, they are aghast at the trajectory of increasing inequality.

There is plenty to protest. There is no question that our politicians now spend enormous amounts of time raising money; we all get the robocalls and the junk mail to prove it. And there is little doubt that elected officials make decisions about particular legislation or policy initiatives while considering how those decisions will affect the willingness of their donors to contribute. At least in this way, money is eating away at our increasingly dysfunctional political system. This is not something that other representative democracies accept as a necessary part of politics. We can try to show how the money flows – that’s been one of the tasks of the Wesleyan Media Project – but we don’t stem the tide.

Meanwhile, economic inequality in the country is accelerating in frightening ways. Here are three representative facts from Nicholas Kristof’s column from last Sunday’s New York Times:

The 400 wealthiest Americans have a greater combined net worth than the bottom 150 million Americans.

The top 1 percent of Americans possess more wealth than the entire bottom 90 percent.

In the Bush expansion from 2002 to 2007, 65 percent of economic gains went to the richest 1 percent.

Add to this that in many parts of the country 1 in 5 children are growing up in poverty, and you begin to have a sense of what is fueling the anger of protestors who feel they have to “occupy” public spaces in their own country – a country they feel is being stolen from them.

How have these trends concerning money and inequality affected life on a university campus? We can see it at either end of the college experience, beginning with access and ending with jobs after graduation. More of our students need financial aid than ever before, and they often need bigger scholarship packages to get through school. We also see the effects of rising inequality in the choices students face when looking for jobs as graduation nears. They hope to have had practical internship experiences to bolster their resumes while undergraduates, and they often worry that the first job they get after college will set them in an income bracket that will frame them for life. They worry that if their education doesn’t seem like job training, then it isn’t education at all.

But in the campus’s classrooms, concert halls, theaters and sports facilities, I see little evidence of the pernicious economic-political trends poisoning the country at large. That’s because the educational enterprise assumes a core egalitarianism linked to freedom and participation; that’s because as teachers we are committed to equality of opportunity for our students and to their freedom to participate as they wish in the educational enterprise. In big lecture halls, students can’t buy the best seats or arrange for extra help sessions with their parents’ checkbooks. In small seminars, there is a face-to-face equality altered only by the talent, ambition and creativity of the discussion participants. Differences often quickly emerge, but these are the differences of performance —  variations able to emerge exactly because of the environment of equality and freedom.

As a university president, I do spend a lot of my time fundraising. And I am grateful for the generosity of alumni and foundations who support our financial aid and academic programs. But I am also a professor, and this support has no impact on my teaching role or on the role of my colleagues in the classroom.  Now I know that this will strike some readers as impossibly idealistic.  After all, some of our students  have had great help along the way, while others have had to struggle alone. Some come from wealthy families, others from backgrounds of poverty. There is  no doubt that some students are better prepared than others, and that some of that preparation was facilitated by wealth. Still, in the campus culture at schools like Wesleyan, these advantages of birth or luck don’t mean much over time. In order to learn, you have to park your privilege at the classroom door. In order to teach effectively, we try to ensure that our students have an equality of opportunity that doesn’t erase their differences. Furthermore, in those schools that have protected the autonomy of professors, students come to see intellectual freedom modeled by their instructors in ways not dependent on wealth.

When inequality is a charged political problem, as it is right now in the United States, it is because efforts to scale back disparities of wealth are seen as an assault on freedom.  Increased state power is often needed to redistribute wealth, and many (and not only those with the money) see this as the growth of tyranny. Of course, increased state power is also used to protect wealth, which creates its own assaults on freedom. Universities and colleges are lucky insofar as they still have an ethos of equality that is linked to freedom in the classroom and around campus. You don’t need strong central power to ensure this. That’s why efforts to control speech with university regulations, are rightly seen (by either the Left or the Right) as anathema to the educational enterprise.  But graduation into a world in which inequality is ever more powerful comes as a rude awakening.

The campus as a place of equality and freedom has deep roots in America, at least as far back as Thomas Jefferson.  Even with all his prejudices, he favored education at the public expense to prevent the creation of permanent elites based on wealth who would try to turn the government’s powers to their own private advantage. Jefferson believed strongly that given the variability in human capacities and energy there would always be elites —  his notion of equality was an equality of access or opportunity not an equality in which everybody wins. But he also believed strongly that without a serious effort to find and cultivate new talent, the nation’s elites would harden into  an “unnatural aristocracy,” increasingly privileged, corrupt and inept.

From Jefferson to our own day, we have preserved the belief that education allows for the experience of freedom as one’s capacities are enhanced and brought into use. The author of the Declaration of Independence wanted university students to make these discoveries for themselves, not to be told to study certain fields because their futures had already been decided by their families, teachers, churches or government. Jefferson saw education as a key to preventing permanent, entrenched inequality.

Citizens are feeling they have to “occupy” the public spaces of their own country because they believe their land is being appropriated by entrenched elites. The call to “occupy”  is very similar to the Tea Party cry to “take back” our country. Can we find a way to take the experiences of freedom and equality we find in education at its best and translate them to the sphere of politics and society more broadly without at the same time increasing governmental tendencies toward tyranny? Of course, higher education has its own dilemmas of fairness and of elitism, but that does not absolve us of the responsibility to connect in positive ways what we value in research and learning to our contemporary political situation.  To make these connections productive, universities must at the very least serve as models: they must continue to strive to be places where young people discover and cultivate their independence and must themselves resist the trends of inequality that are tearing at the fabric of our country.

Commemoration Without Agenda

At Wesleyan this afternoon (Friday, September 9) from 2:30-3:30 there will be a prayer vigil in Memorial Chapel to mark the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001.

The following is cross-posted from the HuffingtonPost.

As the tenth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon approaches, hundreds of journalists, commentators, writers and artists are telling us how to mark this occasion. On my left, Noam Chomsky is there to remind us of what he always knows before any events have to happen: that U.S. imperialism is responsible for everything evil that happens in the world. On my right, John Yoo is there to remind us that the terrorist attacks are evidence that the United States is justified in doing anything whatsoever to destroy those who might possibly be its enemies – even if we destroy our political values in the process. The commemoration of the awful killings is being used by those with political agendas to advance their various causes. That’s what happens with public memory.

There are others who will argue that we still must get the facts straight about the factors that led up to the events of September 11, 2001. They want more research about the causes of the rage that fueled the Al Qaeda operatives, and a deeper understanding of the intelligence failures that made Americans vulnerable to suicidal terrorists. On this 9/11 anniversary, they want to make sure what really happened before and after the planes pierced those crystal clear skies on that awful morning.

As I argue in Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living With the Past (coming out this fall), these are two of the important ways that we connect to the past – how we try to turn memory into history. The first is pragmatic: let’s use the events in the past (even awful, traumatic ones) to learn lessons for the future. We can make sense of the painful past by making it a useable past. The second connection to the past is empirical: let’s make sure we have an accurate representation of what really happened. The first attitude gives us agendas; the second gives us research task forces.

There is a third way of relating to the past that makes no particular claims for the future. I’ve called this “piety,” an acknowledgement of the existence of the painful past, and of the capacity of what-has-been to make a claim on us. By using the word “piety” I do not mean to evoke some necessarily transcendent or religious aspect to one’s connection to the past. I do mean to evoke recognition that we sometimes strive to relate to our memories and histories in ways that are not reducible to a quest for using them well or getting them right. We connect to our memories just because they deserve our caring attention. Piety doesn’t have to do anything; it is an attitude of respect and care, even of reverence.

As the anniversary of the attacks of 9/11 nears, I think back to my shock and horror as I watched the television news. I feel my way back to the concerns that I had for my family, my students, my country. I wanted to gather with my community to simply be together as we absorbed the shocking loss of life and the experience of horrific vulnerability. Yet, even moments after the planes hit, some began making political speeches about how to confront or support our public officials. It was time, they said, to engage in political or military battle. And even in those moments some were calling for research into what really happened. Conspiracy theorists were off and running.

As we commemorate the trauma of those days, as we remember the loss of life, the heroism of so many on the scene, and the solidarity of sorrow and anger that welled up across the country, let us remember — but not only in the register of the pragmatic and the empirical. Sure, there are political and military issues that still demand our attention and struggle. Sure, there are still open historical questions about the facts and their interrelationship. We will continue to engage in those pragmatic and empirical dimensions.

But on this 10th anniversary of 9/11 let us also simply acknowledge the claim that our painful memories still have on us. Let us recognize with piety that we still carry the traces of those traumatic events with us, and that we acknowledge their importance to us without trying to use them.

Let us commemorate, if only for a few moments, without agenda.


“Preach a Crusade Against Ignorance”

On a slow Sunday morning browsing through the paper, I came across Nicholas Kristof’s column describing what he calls “our broken escalator.” He is referring to our education system, what has been for so many of us the moving stairway of social mobility. He details the ways that his own beloved high school is being slowly eviscerated by budget cuts. More than 80% of school districts across the US are going to cut their budgets this year, and three quarters of them made cuts last year. “The immediate losers are the students,” Kristof writes, “in the long run, the loser is our country.”

These thoughts echoed with what I’ve been reading lately about education programs at the very beginning of our country’s history. I am spending a good part of the summer doing research for a book about why liberal education matters. Recently I’ve been reading Thomas Jefferson, and also some of his contemporaries. The political importance of education has rarely found as powerful a proponent as Jefferson, one of whose proudest achievements was founding the University of Virginia on a model of liberal learning that is ultimately practical. His friend and political rival John Adams was also a stalwart proponent of the importance of an educated citizenry. At the dawn of the Republic Adams, too, knew that only through education could citizens ensure that their government would remain responsive to their needs. As he wrote to Jefferson: “Wherever a general knowledge and sensibility have prevailed among the people… arbitrary government and every kind of oppression have lessened and disappeared in proportion.”

Jefferson was a man of the Enlightenment, and for him this meant faith that the accumulation of knowledge would improve public and private life. His conception of “useful knowledge” was capacious — extending from an array of languages to mathematics, sciences and history. He wrote: “education generates habits of application, of order, and the love of virtue; and controls, by the force of habit, any innate obliquities in our moral organization.” The experience of undergraduates, as we all know, doesn’t at all points stimulate the habits of moral organization that the author of the Declaration of Independence had in mind. But don’t we still hope that our students acquire a love of virtue, even as they discover through hard work and sociability just what “love” and “virtue” might mean?

Of course, we have grown accustomed to criticizing problematic aspects of the Enlightenment worldview of our nation’s founders. Jefferson’s hypocrisy is legendary; his insight into structures of oppression didn’t disturb his own personal tyrannies. If our third president understood that education was inexorably linked to the possibility of freedom, his racism and sexism led him to think that women, Africans or native peoples should not enjoy that possibility.

But this summer, as I listen to the partisan haggling over the debt ceiling in Washington while the epidemic of unemployment rages on, and as I hear about school districts and university systems across the country slashing budgets and cutting back on educational programs, I read Jefferson with renewed energy and engagement. As representatives in 2011 labor to preserve the tax advantages of multi-millionaires, I admire how Jefferson recognized that a sure way to preserve the privileges of wealth is to curtail educational opportunity for those without them. In his proposal for public education in Virginia, he advocated a system for discovering youngsters with talent who would benefit from scholarships so that they could pursue their studies and serve the public at the highest level. His proposed that “Worth and genius would thus have been sought out from every condition of life, and completely prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth and birth for public trusts.” In our own time, with school districts shortening their academic calendars to save money and universities struggling to replace financial aid support once provided by government, we are undermining the hope for change and improvement that is so essential to both learning and democracy. What will become of this nation if it turns its back on the promise of education as a vehicle for social and economic mobility?

At many of the highly selective universities that have the benefit of alumni support and endowment funds, we aggressively look for “worth and genius” in all areas of the country so as to create a diverse cohort of students who will stimulate learning for and from one another. Through programs like QuestBridge or Posse Posse, and with many community-based organizations as partners, we find young men and women who can thrive in and contribute to our campus communities. We do this not out of some imagined commitment to “political correctness,” as critics of higher-ed like to complain, but so that every student (rich or poor, private, public or home-schooled) has the opportunity to expand his or her horizons. And we do this, to paraphrase Jefferson, because education should be the keystone of the arch of our nation.

As the morning wore on, I left the newspaper in the kitchen and headed out to our town’s local Sunday softball game. It’s a great community event, with kids, parents and grandparents joining in our version of the American pastime. Waiting our turn at bat, two neighbors talked with me about how the local towns had balanced their budgets this year. Guess what had to be cut in order to balance the books? Education turned out to be the easiest target. My neighbors shook their heads in sadness because, as they said, the towns balanced the books at the expense of the future. Students lose now; in the long run our region will suffer.

As we wrestle with notions of “shared sacrifice” and “living within our means,” let us not ignore our responsibility to invest in the future by supporting education. We must not allow our representatives to protect tax breaks for the most advantaged while ignoring our responsibility to give the next generation the education they need. Only education will allow the youngsters on that baseball diamond and at others across the country to protect their freedoms while competing in the world. Only by supporting their right to learn, will we have the chance to strengthen our country’s economic, political and cultural future. As Jefferson said: “Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people.” “No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness.”

Cross-posted with

Our Desperate Need for Honest Leadership

This past weekend I posted the following on the HuffingtonPost, and it provoked a fair amount of comments. I cross-post it here, though it is somewhat more directly political than what I usually write for this blog. I won’t use this blog to support specific candidates, but from time to time political issues are so relevant to educational ones, and I do write on a variety of topics...

What a week it has been! On Monday the New York Times‘ conservative columnist, David Brooks, was criticizing the Republican Party in the harshest terms. On Friday, the paper’s liberal economist, Paul Krugman, was attacking President Obama for adopting the conservative fiscal agenda and betraying his core progressive creed. What’s going on?

For Brooks, we are faced with what he called “the mother of all no-brainers.” We now have broad agreement in Congress that we must deal with the long-term deficit, and this itself is a victory for the Republicans. They control the political discourse, and they can achieve many of their economic goals. But in a move that recalls the Dems’ ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, the Republicans refuse to make a deal that would reduce the deficit by trillions.

Brooks is scathing:

But we can have no confidence that the Republicans will seize this opportunity. That’s because the Republican Party may no longer be a normal party. Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.

And he goes on:

Members of this tendency have taken a small piece of economic policy and turned it into a sacred fixation. They are willing to cut education and research to preserve tax expenditures. Manufacturing employment is cratering even as output rises, but members of this movement somehow believe such problems can be addressed so long as they continue to worship their idol.

He concludes that if the talks on the debt ceiling fail, it will be clear that the Republicans are not fit to govern.

Krugman is just as exercised by what he sees as Obama’s failure to apply either progressive values or sensible economic principles in his approach to dealing with the Republican deficit hawks:

But let’s be frank. It’s getting harder and harder to trust Mr. Obama’s motives in the budget fight, given the way his economic rhetoric has veered to the right. In fact, if all you did was listen to his speeches, you might conclude that he basically shares the G.O.P.’s diagnosis of what ails our economy and what should be done to fix it. And maybe that’s not a false impression; maybe it’s the simple truth.

For years, Krugman has viewed Obama’s compromises as an abdication of his responsibilities, and he speculates that the president is trying a Clintonesque maneuver that may have political sense but is an economic disaster. In a period of anemic job growth, Obama’s channeling of Herbert Hoover’s economic philosophies will only prolong the experience of dire recession for millions of Americans.

Brooks and Krugman both see that the Republican Party has been enormously successful in focusing attention on fiscal responsibility, which is resulting across the country in massive cuts to spending. These cuts will necessarily cause most pain to the most vulnerable — those who depend on government services. If the GOP were really serious about fiscal responsibility, its members would complement the cuts already won with increased revenue from those who have reaped the greatest rewards from our economic environment. This is what a political party ready to govern should do.

Meanwhile, we have an epidemic of unemployment, and nothing that the government is now doing is addressing this issue. Where is the enormous intellectual and political energy that Obama’s team displayed in preventing a banking system collapse, and that saved a large segment of the American automobile industry? Why has the president not had the courage of his convictions? Can he really believe that an imaginary bipartisan political pragmatism will trump economic realities?

Sensible government seems to have become a contradiction in terms. Democratic leaders have no ideas of their own, while Republican leaders are dedicated to protecting the rich — not to fiscal responsibility. Republican “non-starter” talk about additional revenue is an ideological fixation, not an economic theory. Democrats pandering to their base with calls to maintain the entitlement status quo won’t produce a sustainable health care system.

Protecting the least vulnerable remains the Republican’s highest priority, while protecting their political future seems to be what concerns Democrats. Where can we find honest leadership worthy of the name? We desperately need it.