On Pragmatic Liberal Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

Champions of pragmatic liberal education have long recognized this issue. In the early part of the 20th century, Jane Addams, for example, saw that so-called sophisticated modes of education often stifled the ability to see things from another’s point of view. She recognized that strong thinking often became self-protective and detached from the concerns of others. She insisted on the development of empathy and the sympathetic imagination, underscoring participation in civic life as a vehicle for liberal learning that wouldn’t become parochial and elitist.

The U.S. tradition of pragmatic liberal education of which Jane Addams is a part doesn’t just want students to have read a set of sanctified Great Books. They realize that real inquiry must be tested beyond the university, and that real learning, including the study of classic works, must be relevant beyond the classroom. This American educational tradition took a bet on what pragmatist philosopher John Dewey called “practical idealism,” a bet on the value of situating learning in relation to society and the aim of contributing to its well-being.

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewing Stanley Fish on Free Speech and Other Topics

I recently reviewed Stanley Fish’s collection of columns from the New York Times. I have read his work with interest and pleasure for many years, and he takes on topics (free speech, BDS movement, pragmatism, academic freedom) that I find tremendously engaging. Prof. Fish will be delivering the Hugo Black lecture at Wesleyan on February 18th. My review appeared in The Chronicle for Higher Education last week.


Unprincipled on Principle

When The New York Times enlisted Stanley Fish as a columnist, it found a great partner in this literary critic — someone who writes with clarity about academic matters but who is at ease with everyday rhetoric. An accomplished Miltonist, professor of law, and university administrator, Fish has an uncanny feel for the interests and tastes of that obscure object of intellectuals’ desire: “generally educated readers.”

Princeton University Press has collected more than 90 of his Times columns in Think Again: Contrarian Reflections on Life, Culture, Politics, Religion, Law, and Education. The productive Fish is not served well by either the quantity or the selection. Each piece is short, so it seems churlish to complain about any one of them, or even about the redundancies in the points made and the enemies skewered. But we can Google Professor Fish’s favorite movies and his country-music choices — we don’t need them collected in a book. And how many times does one have to resurrect the New Atheists and academic activists just to bury them again with argument and scorn?

These are minor quibbles with a volume that covers so much ground so thoughtfully. Whether he is writing about French theory, religion, poetry, law, liberal education, or politics in upstate New York — where he tries hard to be just an ordinary guy (in his country home) — Fish is both stimulating and precise. He doesn’t strive for consistency, but he manages to achieve the coherence of a pragmatist. His ideas hang together so they can be put to work.

But they don’t hang together around any principle, save one that denies the point of having one. “Knowledge is irremediably perspectival,” he writes in the introduction, “and perspectives are irremediably political.” This is the kind of thing that lots of people have said over the past 50 years, many of whom thought they were being progressive or radical. Fish joined in the merry iconoclasm in the early stages of his career, but now he prefers a more curmudgeonly posture.

In Fish’s world there are no solid foundations — that’s part of what it means to say that knowledge is perspectival. From my perspective, your solid foundation looks pretty shaky — just an accumulation of privilege acquired through oppression, ripe for critique. My critique, of course, is based on another “privilege,” on another accumulation of shared language and beliefs. When people defend their positions, they are really just appealing to their preferred group — those who share their perspective and perhaps their privilege (or their critique of privilege).

In the heady days of deconstruction and postmodernism, Fish’s arguments were taken to be part of the wave of anti-establishment thinking. Not so, he retorted: You can develop better defenses of the establishment without foundations. Fish has made this pragmatist point again and again: When you take away foundations and goals, you really aren’t taking away anything important. The loss of the goal of absolute knowledge doesn’t keep us from “do[ing] all the things we have always done; we can still say that some things are true and others false, and believe it.” We always made these statements in relation to our group’s perspective; now we can just give up the ultimate justification talk. “The world, and you,” he writes, “will go on pretty much in the same old way.”

This is an argument tailor-made for annoying nearly everyone. Conservative scholars who believe in ultimate grounds for truth and morality find Fish’s anti-foundationalism anathema. The alternative to Truth with a capital “T,” they want to believe, is relativism, chaos, nihilism. On the other hand, scholars who believe they have destroyed something essential when they have deconstructed metaphysics and religion are similarly disappointed. When someone claims to have shown that a belief system or social practice is socially constructed, they haven’t, in fact, generated any particular political position at all. “Believing or disbelieving in moral absolutes is a philosophical position, not a recipe for living.”

A philosophical position is merely academic for Fish, separate from any kind of recipe for living. Professors, he has reminded his readers, should “just do their jobs” — which means introducing students to bodies of material and helping them develop analytical skills. He is impatient with the rhetoric of character building, citizenship, or leadership. The humanities are at the core of a liberal education, Fish declares, but their only justification is “the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.”

As a pragmatist, Fish should know that justification always depends on the audience one is addressing. But he oddly seems to believe that literature needs to be kept unsullied by arguments that might appeal to nonacademics. Fish keeps repeating his narrow version of the “job description” of professors but has no arguments for the purity of academic purpose; he must know there is no real basis for his dictum “always academicize.” Does he really think that the humanities will get more support on the basis of aesthetic wonderment rather than civic engagement? He’s too smart for that. Fish abandons a pragmatic attitude because he just enjoys (more than is necessary) popping the puffery of activist professors who confuse opinions formed while reading blogs and magazines with knowledge developed through research and analysis.

Fish appears to have one thing in common with the radical scholars he critiques, and that’s contempt for liberalism. For the radical, liberals are too invested in the status quo, and their supposed neutrality only perpetuates injustice. For Fish, liberals evince a wrongheaded commitment to pure procedure and abstract principle. They can’t take religion (or any strong content) seriously because they retreat to ideals of fairness and process. Fish knows that “fairness” and “process” are always determined by one’s own group — there is no meta-procedure that escapes all contexts to render a perfectly fair judgment.

He is right about the impossibility of pure procedure, but many contemporary liberals would agree with him. The fact that you can’t have a view from nowhere doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to see an issue from another person’s point of view. To do so, even Fish admits, is just “serious thought.” But Fish’s fear of being a mere liberal drives him to fetishize academic purity and aspire to a higher neutrality. “I don’t stand anywhere,” he writes; “that’s the (non)point of most of these columns.”

Of course, Fish stands somewhere; he just doesn’t want to be caught doing so. Too bad. In these provocative, intelligent essays, Fish winds up taking stands to support his own “genuine pleasure,” and usually this is engaging enough. But he could have taken a page from another pragmatic anti-foundationalist, Richard Rorty. “The point of reading philosophy,” Rorty wrote, “is not to find a way of altering one’s inner state, but rather to find better ways of helping us overcome the past in order to create a better human future.” Now there’s a reason to “think again.”


“We pride ourselves upon a practical idealism”

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

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

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

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