Teaching and Religion

This essay on teaching intellectual history courses that take religion seriously builds on some pages in Safe Enough Spaces. It recently appeared in The Atlantic

 

I had hardly finished my lecture when the student came bounding down the auditorium’s stairs.

“You’re just like all the others,” he said, fuming. “You don’t really take religion seriously.”

This happened a few years ago, when I was teaching a college course on virtue and vice. I had just finished talking about the Catholic thinker Thomas Aquinas. My sin? According to my student, I had “intellectualized” Saint Thomas. I had described his philosophical sources and his historical context, but had said little about the philosopher’s fundamental project—one that had everything to do with the salvation of our souls.

My student’s name, fittingly, was Tom. He was a believer at a secular liberal-arts school, and he was sick of being condescended to either by a campus lousy with self-congratulatory progressives or by teachers (like me, he assumed) who treated religious faith as an inert museum piece. “Wait,” I told him. “Today we talked historical context, and next time we’ll illuminate religious practice.”Tom was a rare exception. As a teacher, I find remarkable resistance to bringing religious ideas and experiences into class discussions. When I ask what a philosopher had in mind in writing about salvation, or the immortality of the soul, my normally talkative undergraduates suddenly stare down at their notes. If I ask them a factual theological question about the Protestant Reformation, they are ready with answers: predestination; “faith, not works”; and so on. But if I go on to ask students how one knows in one’s heart that one is saved, they turn back to their laptops. They look anywhere but at me—for fear that I might ask them about feeling the love of God or about having a heart filled with faith. In my cultural-history classes, we talk about sexuality and identity, violence and revolution, art and obscenity, and the students are generally eager to weigh in. But when I bring up the topic of religious feeling or practice, an awkward silence always ensues.

How to Choose (Our) University

Throughout the month, high school seniors with the acceptance letters in hand, will be visiting campuses as they try to decide where to attend college. They are trying to envision the school at which they will be most likely to thrive. Where will I learn the most, be happiest, and form friendships that will last a lifetime? How to choose? As I do each spring, I thought it might be useful to re-post my thoughts on choosing a college, with a few revisions.

Of course, for many the decision will be made on an economic basis. Which school has given the most generous financial aid package? Wesleyan is one of a small number of schools that meets the full financial need of all admitted students according to a formula developed over several years. Wesleyan has made a commitment to keep loan levels low and to maintain only moderate (very close to inflation) tuition increases. We also offer a three-year program that allows families to save about 20% of their total expenses, while still earning the same number of credits.

After answering the question of which schools one can afford, how else does one decide where best to spend one’s college years? Of course, size matters.  Some students are looking for a large university in an urban setting where the city itself plays an important role in one’s education. New York and Boston, for example, have become increasingly popular college destinations, but not, I suspect, for the classroom experience. But if one seeks small classes and strong, personal relationships with faculty, then liberal arts schools, which pride themselves on providing rich cultural and social experiences on a residential campus, are especially compelling. You can be on a campus with a human scale and still have plenty of things to do. Wesleyan is somewhat larger than most liberal arts colleges but much smaller than the urban or land grant universities. We feel that this gives our students the opportunity to choose a broad curriculum and a variety of cultural activities on campus, while still being small enough to encourage regular, sustained relationships among faculty and students.

All the selective small liberal arts schools boast of having a faculty of scholar-teachers, of a commitment to research and interdisciplinarity, and of encouraging community and service. So what sets us apart from one another after taking into account size, location, and financial aid packages? What are students trying to see when they visit Amherst and Wesleyan, or Tufts and Pomona?

Students who are visiting campuses this month are trying to discern the personalities of each school. They are trying to imagine themselves on the campus, to get a feel for the chemistry of the place — to gauge whether they will be happy there. That’s why hundreds of visitors come to Wesleyan each week. They go to classes and athletic contests, musical performances and parties. And they ask themselves: Would I be happy at Wesleyan?

I hope our visitors feel the brave exuberance and ambition of our students, the intelligence and care of our faculty, the playful yet demanding qualities of our community. I hope our visitors can sense our commitment to creating a diversity in which difference is embraced and not just tolerated, and to public service that is part of one’s education and approach to life. Our students have the courage to find new combinations of subjects to study, of people to meet, of challenges to face.

Whatever college or university students choose, I hope they get three things out of their education: discovering what they love to do; getting better at it; learning to share it with others. I explain a little bit more about that in this talk to admitted students a few years ago:

We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into, especially this year (once again) with a record number of applications. But even in the group of highly selective schools, Wes is not for everybody. We aspire to be a community committed to boldness as well as to rigor, to idealism as well as to effectiveness. Whether in the sciences, arts, humanities or social sciences, our faculty and students are dedicated to explorations that invite originality as well as collaboration. The scholar-teacher model is at the heart of our curriculum. Our faculty are committed to teaching and to shaping their disciplines. At Wesleyan, we know how to work hard, but we also know how to enjoy the work we choose to do. That’s been magically appealing to me for more than 30 years. I bet the magic will enchant many of our visitors, too.

Liberal Education and Conformity

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking about Liberal Education in China and Korea

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

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

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

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

On Liberal Education and the New Economy

This week the Wall Street Journal published my review of two new books celebrating how a liberal education prepares one for the new economy. I repost it here.

A PRACTICAL EDUCATION

By Randall Stross
Redwood, 291 pages, $25

YOU CAN DO ANYTHING

By George Anders
Little, Brown, 342 pages, $27

 

College students returning to their campuses for more reading, writing and ’rithmetic may find they’re not doing all that much of the first two—unless you count messages that come in 140-character chunks or disappear soon after finding their recipient. Breadth of study and deep critical thinking, once thought to be the crowning achievements of American higher education, now strike fear into the hearts of many parents and policy makers, who view them as luxuries or distractions. Instead they clamor for a greater emphasis on quantitative reasoning, involving ever increasing amounts of data. Students and families worry less about being on the “right side of history” than about being on the wrong side of the great economic divide between winners and losers.

Undergraduates today often crave narrow specialization in fields that they imagine will be of immediate interest to employers. Although many still sign up for classes in literature, history and philosophy, the percentage choosing to major in the humanities or social sciences (apart from economics) has been declining. Looking at these trends, a contrarian might conclude that this is an especially good time to choose a major that allows for the development of skills and experiences that set one apart from the hordes clutching STEM degrees. Buy low, sell high.

Randall Stross’s “A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees” is meant to persuade recruiters to hire liberal-arts grads, while George Anders’s “You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Education” is meant to inspire students to recognize how a multifaceted undergraduate experience can aid them in the workplace. Both books are filled with stories like that of Josh Sucher, a Bard graduate who translated lessons from cultural anthropology into market research for Etsy. Mr. Anders calls him an “anthropologist in action,” who uses his skills of observation to more effectively connect artists and potential buyers.

Mr. Stross’s book is based on a narrow sample: Stanford alumni with degrees in the humanities and social sciences. This elite university is among the most selective in the country, admitting less than 5% of those who apply. Sure, one might say, its graduates will do pretty well no matter what they study in school. If they have trouble landing in the very best private-equity firm or start-up, they can use the school network to make connections that lead to good jobs. Even the wealthy neighborhood is a resource. One story features Jessica Moore, who cultivated influential connections for jobs by baby-sitting in affluent Palo Alto, Calif.

Mr. Stross is well aware that his sample is narrow but presents his anecdotes about non-engineering Stanford grads as being meant to show “the skeptical what is possible.” Interspersed among these stories of enterprising young alumni are short chapters on the history of Stanford, highlighting the institution’s longstanding struggle to offer both a practical education and a broad, flexible one. People interested in the history of education will find these sections illuminating, but for many readers this, too—like the rest of the book—will prove too parochial.

That said, it’s certainly true that many people find ways to add value to enterprises that at first glance seem to have little to do with their undergraduate majors. They have learned to learn, to productively reframe stories, to cultivate teamwork and to communicate in compelling ways. Skills like these—“power skills,” in business-speak—are what students in the liberal arts develop, and this is why Messrs. Stross and Anders find so many examples of young people translating their studies in history, philosophy or political science into value for others—and impressive career trajectories.

Adventurous possibilities abound in today’s economy, says Mr. Anders. Sure, technology is eliminating jobs, and increased automation can be scary. But innovation creates the need for even more people who can imagine the ways in which technology can be put in the service of individuals and communities. “The big societal challenge for the modern world doesn’t involve how rapidly engineers create new technology,” Mr. Anders writes. “The great point of strain involves how rapidly the skeptics and the hesitant can absorb each new wave.” Liberal-arts grads, he suggests, will be especially adept at helping translate technological innovation into everyday uses because they have studied and practiced the “nuanced feat of changing people’s minds.”

Mr. Anders wants his book to be a practical resource and, like Mr. Stross, provides many instructive examples. Readers should feel permitted to sample them rather than plow through them all. And though I suspect that the authors would agree with bromides about the importance of failure, there are no real failures here. Instead they emphasize that the intensity students bring to their studies—combined with the ability to translate that intensity into other areas—is more important than choosing a so-called practical major. And it remains important for a lifetime. “Strong grounding in the humanities or social sciences,” Mr. Anders writes, “doesn’t have an expiration date.” As another academic year begins, these books are salutary reminders that what is learned on campus should have its greatest value beyond the university.

On Intellectual Diversity

Some weeks ago, I wrote an op-ed arguing that the free-market approach to freedom of speech (often identified with the University of Chicago) is inadequate for bringing more intellectual diversity to college campuses. The recent string of right wing provocateurs successfully baiting left leaning students on college campuses is, I think, a symptom of a deeper problem. We need to find productive ways of dealing with intellectual/ideological difference. The Wall Street Journal published the piece this past weekend under the title “The Opening of the Liberal Mind.”

I have received plenty of responses from readers—some applauding my call for greater intellectual diversity, some angered by my use of “affirmative action” as a label for the kind of proactive work that universities should be doing in the humanities and social sciences to explore different viewpoints with students. I thought the irony was obvious; legacy preference in admissions, after all, is often described as “affirmative action for the wealthy.” My point is that we can’t rely on the market of ideas to create intellectual diversity; we must be intentional in seeking out serious ideas from traditions under-represented on campus. This is critical for our students’ intellectual development, giving them the opportunity to test their own thinking against different approaches to enduring questions.

Since I took an early stance against what I called “the Trumpian Calamity” and have urged resistance to attempts by the current administration to curtail civil rights, others have asked how I could now call for more scholarly attention to conservative ideas and intellectual traditions.  It should be clear that I do not regard the president’s incoherent leadership—which is so often driven by impulse, resentment and prejudice—as belonging to significant streams of conservative thought, even broadly conceived. And we already study the dynamics of authoritarianism.

My example of the Posse Program for Veterans as contributing to intellectual diversity does not, of course, imply that all our Posse Scholars (or all veterans) are conservative. The point is that these older students have different life experiences than most undergraduates, and that this likely leads to a different mix of political views.

I should emphasize that the courses supported by the endowment gift mentioned in the op-ed will be created and taught by faculty—not donors—as is always the case.  The goal here is to expose students to a wider range of thought—with especial attention to the classical liberal tradition—and develop their capacities to engage with those who may hold positions different from their own. We are regularly developing our curriculum to fill gaps in instruction and provide students with a broad education. We have engaged in similar fundraising to develop: the Quantitative Analysis Center; The College of Film and the Moving Image; The College of the Environment; and the Creative Writing Program—just to name a few.

Our present political circumstances should not prevent us from engaging with a variety of conservative, religious and libertarian modes of thinking, just as they shouldn’t prevent us from engaging with modes of thinking organized under the banner of progressivism or critical theory.  Such engagement might actually lead to greater understanding among those who disagree politically, and it might also allow for more robust critical and creative thinking about our histories, our present and the possibilities for the future.

Naturally, I didn’t expect my op-ed would generate agreement among all readers, least of all among all Wesleyan readers. I am pleased it has generated conversation. That’s the idea!  

 

There is no denying the left-leaning political bias on American college campuses. As data from UCLA’s Higher Education Institute show, the professoriate has moved considerably leftward since the late 1980s, especially in the arts and humanities. In New England, where my own university is located, liberal professors outnumber their conservative colleagues by a ratio of 28:1.

How does this bias affect the education we offer? I’d like to think that we left-leaning professors are able to teach the works of conservative thinkers with the same seriousness and attention that we devote to works on our own side of the political spectrum—but do we?

It is hard to be optimistic about this challenge in the wake of recent episodes of campus intolerance for views on the right. Would-be social-justice warriors at Middlebury College transformed the mild-mannered political scientist Charles Murray into a free-speech hero, and campus appearances by the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald and the right-wing provocateur Ann Coulter have been handled badly, turning both women into media martyrs.

Most colleges, of course, host controversial speakers without incident and without much media coverage. In March, for instance, Franklin & Marshall College gave a platform to the Danish editor who published cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad. There were protests and arguments but no attempt to silence the speaker.

Academics worried about attacks on free speech have felt the need to respond, and they have articulated sound principles. Princeton professors Robert P. George and Cornel West recently attracted lots of supporters for a statement underscoring that “all of us should seek respectfully to engage with people who challenge our views” and that “we should oppose efforts to silence those with whom we disagree—especially on college and university campuses.”

The issue, however, isn’t whether the occasional conservative, libertarian or religious speaker gets a chance to speak. That is tolerance, an appeal to civility and fairness, but it doesn’t take us far enough. To create deeper intellectual and political diversity, we need an affirmative-action program for the full range of conservative ideas and traditions, because on too many of our campuses they seldom get the sustained, scholarly attention that they deserve.

Such an effort can take many different forms. In 2013, Wesleyan decided to join Vassar College in working with the Posse Foundation to bring cohorts of military veterans to campus on full scholarships. These students with military backgrounds are older than our other undergraduates and have very different life experiences; more of them also hold conservative political views.

One notable episode illustrates how this program has contributed to broadening discussion on campus. A student named Bryan Stascavage, who had served almost six years as a U.S. Army military intelligence analyst in Iraq and Haiti, came to Wesleyan to study social sciences. In the fall of 2015, he published an op-ed in the student newspaper questioning the Black Lives Matter movement, which enjoys widespread support here. He asked whether the protests were “actually achieving anything positive” because of the damage done by the extremists in their ranks.

The essay caused an uproar, including demands by activists to cut funding to the school newspaper. Most students, faculty and administrators recognized that free speech needed to be defended, especially for unpopular views. They rose to the challenge of responding substantively (if sometimes heatedly) to Bryan’s argument. As for Bryan himself, he felt that he had “field-tested” his ideas. As he told the PBS NewsHour in an interview about his experience at Wesleyan, “I don’t want to be in an environment where everybody thinks the same as me, because you just don’t learn that way.”

At Wesleyan, we now plan to deepen our engagement with the military. We have been working with the U.S. Army to bring senior military officers to campus, and starting next year, the first of them will arrive to teach classes on the relationship between military institutions and civil society.

Another new initiative for intellectual diversity, launched with the support of one our trustees, has created an endowment of more than $3 million for exposing students at Wesleyan to ideas outside the liberal consensus. This fall, our own academic departments and centers will begin offering courses and programs to cover topics such as “the philosophical and economic foundations of private property, free enterprise and market economies” and “the relationship of tolerance to individual rights, freedom and voluntary association.”

We are not interested in bringing in ideologues or shallow provocateurs intent on outraging students and winning the spotlight. We want to welcome scholars with a deep understanding of traditions currently underrepresented on our campus (and on many others) and look forward to the vigorous conversations they will inspire.

Many of our undergraduates already have a strong desire to break out of their ideological bubbles. Recently, the student Republican and Democratic clubs began jointly hosting lunchtime lectures and discussions. Catherine Cervone, a member of the Wesleyan Republicans and an organizer of the series, put it this way: “We recognized the necessity on this campus for dialogue and communication. We decided to reach across the divide to team up with WesDems in hosting this speaker series, a discussion forum with the purpose of really understanding what the other side thinks.”

Trying to understand the logic of someone else’s arguments is a core skill that schools should be paying more attention to, and it doesn’t always require elaborate new programs. The group Heterodox Academy, which includes faculty from many universities and from across the political spectrum, has recently launched the “Viewpoint Diversity Experience,” an online effort to combat “the destructive power of ideological tribalism.” The aim is “to prepare students for democratic citizenship and success in the political diverse workplaces they will soon inhabit.”

Such efforts are sorely needed, but they can succeed only if we do a better job of bringing underrepresented points of view into the mix. Simply relying on the marketplace of ideas isn’t enough. We need an affirmative-action program for conservative, libertarian and religious modes of thinking.

As someone who identifies with the political left, I welcome this intellectual diversity—and as a teacher, I know that education requires it. If you are on the right, you might call this a remedy for political correctness; if you are on the left, you might prefer to call it the “new intersectionality.” Whatever the label, the result will be a fuller, more meaningful educational experience for everyone.

Rejecting Bigotry is Core to Our Mission

This morning I published this essay at Inside Higher Education

 

I was horrified reading the latest diktat on immigration from an administration blown into power by the winds of intolerance and resentment. President Trump’s executive order barring immigrants and nonimmigrant visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States is an exercise in cynical obfuscation, bigotry and hard-heartedness.

The obfuscation begins early on with the linking of this crackdown to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 when, as has been pointed out by many commentators, those responsible for those attacks had no connections to the countries targeted by this order. The bigotry of the decree closing our borders to refugees from these seven countries is most evident in the exception it makes for religious minorities in predominantly Muslim countries.

The hard-heartedness of the executive order is unmistakable. Desperate families who have been thoroughly vetted for months have had their dreams of a safe haven in America shattered. Students, scientists, artists and businesspeople who have played by the immigration rules to ensure that they have secure passage to and from the United States now find themselves in limbo. Colleges and universities that attract and depend on international talent will be weakened. So much for the so-called respect for law of an administration that has made a point of promising to crack down on undocumented children brought over the Mexican border by their parents.

Eighteen months ago I solicited ideas from Wesleyan alumni, faculty members, students and staff members as to what a small liberal arts institution like ours could do in the face of the momentous human tragedy unfolding around the world. We discussed the many ideas we received on our campus and with leaders of other institutions. The steps we took were small ones, appropriate to the scale of our institution. Working with the Scholars at Risk program, we welcomed a refugee scholar from Syria to participate in one of our interdisciplinary centers. We created internships for students who wanted to work at refugee sites in the Middle East or assist local effort at resettlement. We began working with the Institute of International Education to bring a Syrian student to Wesleyan. And, perhaps most important, we redoubled our efforts to educate the campus about the genesis and development of the crisis.

In the last few months, I have traveled to China and India to talk about the benefits of pragmatic liberal education, and in both countries I saw extraordinary enthusiasm for coming to America to pursue a broad, contextual education that will develop the student’s capacity to learn from diverse sets of sources. Since returning, I’ve already received questions from anxious international students and their parents about whether we will continue to welcome people from abroad who seek a first-rate education. Students outside the United States are often fleeing educational systems with constraints on inquiry and communication; they are rejecting censorship and premature specialization, and they are looking to us. Will they continue to do so?

Here at home we must resist orchestrated parochialism of all kinds. 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 our country is substituting demonization for curiosity. Without tolerance and open-mindedness, inquiry is just a path to self-congratulation at best, violent scapegoating at worst.

With this latest executive order, the White House has provided colleges and universities the occasion to teach our students more thoroughly about the vagaries of refugee aid from wealthy, developed countries that are themselves in political turmoil. The new administration has also unwittingly provided lessons in the tactics of scapegoating and distraction traditionally used by strongmen eager to cement their own power. There are plenty of historical examples of how in times of crisis leaders make sweeping edicts without regard to human rights or even their own legal traditions.

Our current security crisis has been manufactured by a leadership team eager to increase a state of fear and discrimination in order to bolster its own legitimacy. The fantasy of the need for “extreme vetting” is a noxious mystification created by a weak administration seeking to distract citizens from attending to important economic, political and social issues. Such issues require close examination with a patient independence of mind and a respect for inquiry that demands rejection of falsification and obfuscation.

As the press is attacked with increasing vehemence for confronting the administration with facts, universities have a vital role to play in helping students understand the importance of actual knowledge about the world — including the operations of politics. To play that role well, universities must be open to concerns and points of view from across the ideological spectrum — not just from those who share conventional professorial political perspectives. At Wesleyan, we have raised funds to bring more conservative faculty to campus so that our students benefit from a greater diversity of perspectives on matters such as international relations, economic development, the public sphere and personal freedom. Refusing bigotry should be the opposite of creating a bubble of ideological homogeneity.

As I write this op-ed, demonstrators across the country are standing up for the rights of immigrants and refugees. They recognize that being horrified is not enough, and they are standing up for the rule of law and for traditions of decency and hospitality that can be perfectly compatible with national security.

America’s new administration is clearly eager to set a new direction. As teachers and students, we must reject intimidation and cynicism and learn from these early proclamations and the frightening direction in which they point. Let us take what we learn and use it to resist becoming another historical example of a republic undermined by the corrosive forces of obfuscation, bigotry and hard-heartedness.

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.

Veterans Day

For many years now, veterans have enrolled at Wesleyan or worked here as faculty and staff. Since the fall of 2014, we have cooperated with the Posse Foundation to bring cohorts of 10 undergraduate veterans to Wes each year. Here is the latest group:

Posse Class of 2020
Posse Class of 2020

You can learn more about the program here and here. Some of our Wesleyan undergraduate veterans are featured in this video:


Tomorrow we will have a “salute to service” just before our final football game of the year. Today is Veterans Day, and I ask that we pause and remember the men and women who have served our nation in uniform. They are family members, neighbors, friends, faculty, staff, alumni, and students. They deserve our acknowledgment and our gratitude.

Wesleyan in London

Kari and I are in London for a few days. She gave a paper at a conference on the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, and I hosted an event with about 50 Wesleyans who live on this side of the Atlantic. There was a great mix of folks at the event. Alumni from each decade since the 1960s, and current students studying abroad—and even a few pre-frosh from the Class of 2020.

I had the great pleasure of meeting up with a few of my old students who have settled in London. I love hearing about the variety of ways their education continues to resonate in their lives and work.

We’ve seen some great art and have marveled at the new buildings that seem to be sprouting is this incredibly busy city. Think I’ll head over to the Freud Museum to get my bearings…

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Tomorrow, back to Middletown!