1 week ago

It was the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus who said that you can’t step into the same river twice, giving us a memorable illustration of the principle that things change.  The very nature of things is change. Actually, he should have said that you can’t step into the same river even once, since it changes while you are stepping. The pace of change in higher education these days is evidence for that stronger claim. While we are busy giving an account of things, they move on and our description is about something now passed by.

Consider a couple of extreme, but perhaps telling, events of the week that is passing as I write. In Arizona, the legislature zeroed out the state’s support of two very large community colleges, in Pima and Maricopa counties. Meanwhile, across the country and in a sector of higher education far, far away, the trustees of Sweet Briar, a women’s college in rural Virginia, fiercely beloved by many, famous for its equestrian programs, announced that the college would close in the coming summer. Here are resonant, baleful messages concerning institutions with very different missions, different clienteles, and different stressors. People are asking whether these are one-off cases or harbingers of much more to come.

The answer is, likely, that they are neither. State support for higher education around the country may continue to contract, though it may seldom be withdrawn completely. Independent institutions are likely to continue to face significant challenges, though maybe seldom will they succumb. What is clear is that American higher education is illustrating another, perhaps deeper, tenet of Heraclitus—that things are held in tension by the strife of contending forces.  And that, of course, is why things change. Opposing pushes and pulls shove them this way and that.

So what are the stakes of Phi Beta Kappa in this dynamic situation?   Because the great strength of American higher education lies in its diversity—diversity in institutional type and purpose, but also in mode of governance—we have to regret diminution in that diversity.  At a humane level we have to have empathy with the grief of those who have been devoted to these damaged or lost institutions.

Our commitment though, is to a certain sort of education, education in the liberal arts and sciences.  And that occurs in many contexts:  small liberal arts colleges, major state universities, middle-sized institutions, HBCUs, single-sex institutions, community colleges, and more.  No one can now predict with assurance what the mix of types will be in a couple of decades, or whether, as some current prophets proclaim, much of what we think of as higher education will take place outside colleges and universities entirely, in some parallel system of learning and credentialing.

Our stake is that the transformative power of education in the arts and sciences should remain the primary value of higher education.  Why? Because arts and sciences open opportunity, for individuals and society, because they drive innovation and ingenuity, and because they are investment in America.  Arts and sciences are education for all of life, for the unpredictable.  While we cannot predict much about the changes ahead, we can be confident that we will need that.

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Collecting Badges, or Becoming Someone?

3 weeks ago

The method of analysis is a characteristic feature of early modern thought—look at Francis Bacon or Rene Descartes.  Things and processes can be taken apart into their constituent elements in order to be understood.  We see what things really are by inspecting their parts individually.  There is much to be said for this method.  Big, messy systems can be clarified and made intelligible. This logic is now being applied to higher education.

Kevin Carey’s column In The New York Times, March 8, 2015, is titled, “Changing College for Good.”  The premise is that college is about credentialing, so it is the credentialing issue that must be resolved before the technology revolution can transform higher education.  He writes, “the only thing MOOCs provide is access to world-class professors at an unbeatable price.  What they don’t offer are official college degrees, the kind that can get you a job.  And that is mostly what college students are paying for.”

In Carey’s view, separating the credentialing function from the degree is to be done through badges, “a parallel system of free or low-fee credentials, not controlled by traditional colleges.”  Badges, he thinks, can provide “exponentially more information” than a mere degree.  In my mind’s eye I see a Boy Scout’s sash sewn thick with marks of accomplishment in specific tasks.  If college is about no more than accumulating a set of discrete competencies, then surely badges, and the cafeteria-style education they imply, must be the wave of the future.

But is that what college is all about?  Carey hints that he knows better.  “Almost,” “mostly,” and similar hedges crop up in his paragraphs, as when he says that the descriptors “‘Harvard graduate’ and ‘Harvard dropout’ tell the job market almost exactly the same thing….”

What Carey ignores is the possibility—the reality—that breaking down college into pieces and then offering the disassembled pieces fails to capture something important about college.  Credentialing is a big part of the story.  But it may not be the most important part, even if it pays the bills, both for the college and for the graduate.

For many people college is, and for most people college could and should be, a personal transformation.  It is, or could and should be, a time of exploration, inquiry, reflection, and acquisition of skills and knowledge across a broad front that takes the student from the cusp of adulthood toward a maturing humanity.  The college where I spent many years, Hendrix, has as its motto a Greek phrase translatable as “Toward Fulfilled Humanity.”

Here are two very different visions of higher education.  One sees the student solely as an economic entity, a collector of credentials, to whose attention never come questions about the meaning of things and questions about value.  This student proceeds through college accumulating marks external to him- or herself.  If there is inner change, who knows how or why?  The other sees the student whole, with a economic dimension, yes, but with a wider life to be shaped, a humanity to be thought about, crafted, even fulfilled.

If we allow that comprehensive vision of the student to be replaced by the narrow view that sees a pile of disconnected parts as better than the whole, then we will devalue institutions that serve the whole.  We will forget the bigger purpose they have served.  We must insist continually on that broader and deeper purpose.  College is about more than badges.  It is about becoming yourself, taking strides toward maturity, and entering a world primed for thought and action across the spectrum of life.

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“Great Job!”

2 months ago

One of the most delightful elements of Phi Beta Kappa’s National Arts & Sciences Initiative is the opportunity to greet old friends and make new ones among the people who are involved with the Society around the country.  We were in Seattle recently.  That “we,” by the way, is the plain, literal first-person plural, not the royal or the editorial arrogation.  “We” included Society President Kate Soule, Associate Secretary Ronnie Roha, Initiative Director Anne Tria Wise, Deputy Director Rhiana Quick, and I.  The occasion of the visit was a Key of Excellence Award for the Washington Consortium for the Liberal Arts (WaCLA).  We honored WaCLA at an event on the home turf of The Seattle Opera and The Northwest Ballet, McCaw Hall in The Seattle Center.  We also took advantage of the visit to have a working breakfast with the leadership of the Puget Sound Phi Beta Kappa Association.

Old friends at breakfast included Gerry Oppenheimer, Linda Willenberg, and Judith Crutcher.  One of the new friends turned out to be chocolate maven Sandra Andrews-Strasko. You can check out her expertise at  I’m not going to dwell on her chocolate lore, large though it is, but on a vignette she supplied in the conversation.

The general topic was the degree of awareness of Phi Beta Kappa among contemporary college students–our presence in their understanding as an aspiration.  Sandra told a story that illustrates the importance of personal contact in reaching people’s sense of meaning.  It applies to aspirational awareness just as well as to her experience.  She kindly agreed to reproduce her commencement experience in written form:

“When college graduation ceremonies are shown on television and film, they always seem to be small, cozy events with just enough students to fill a small lawn on a tree-filled quad. However, when I graduated from the University of Washington in 1998, I was only one among thousands of graduates filling the athletic field of Husky Stadium.  I was happy and proud, but the ceremony felt so massive and anonymous that I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing there.

“In preparation for the event I had donned my honor cords and affixed the Phi Beta Kappa pin I inherited from my grandfather, Frederick N. Andrews, onto my graduation gown.  As I stepped onto the dais to receive my diploma, the man in impressive robes shook my hand, and then did a double-take, exclaiming enthusiastically “Phi Beta! Congratulations!”

“That moment of recognition from a faculty member whom I had never met before lasted maybe three seconds.  But it made the ceremony suddenly very personal and meaningful to me.  I felt that I was part of something worth being proud of and excited about.  I also felt that my five years of blood, sweat, and tears were being recognized in a special way.”

The message here is direct and important: personal contact matters.  We all know that.  What Sandra’s story shows, though, is that even the industrially-scaled activities that characterize so much of contemporary life can offer openings for humane interaction at a personal level.  The scripts of big events may not specify the content of such interactions.  How could they, when the spontaneity of the expression is everything?   But there are openings.  There are opportunities to congratulate achievement that is specific to the individual, in her own particular circumstance, right there, right then.  And the same is true of awakening and shaping aspirations, early in the student’s career.

Our success, at Phi Beta Kappa, will rest not only on personally congratulating success–though we should certainly do that.  It will rest as well on personally acknowledging aspiration, and defining it, both for those who ultimately may be inducted as members, and for many who may not.  That’s where we can be, it may turn out, of widest usefulness, in helping students define their aspiration as a love of learning, through the arts and sciences.

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Phi Beta Kappa’s New Toolkit

4 months ago

I had a friend from another country who referred to the workout gear he kept in his gym bag as his “kit.”  In this country, we speak of sewing kits, shaving kits, first aid kits, survival kits, emergency kits, and of course, tool kits. A kit is a purposefully collected assemblage of things intended for a specific use, or use in a specific sort of circumstance.  The trusty snake bite kit will be remembered by scouting and camping types.

The etymology of “kit” is a bit contested, but most authorities seem to lean toward a Middle Dutch origin in the word “kitte,” meaning a wooden container built with staves and hoops, ranging from what might be called a tankard to a small chest of the sort in which a soldier might pack his belongings. The warm and homely connotations fit nicely with other English words of Dutch origin, like “cookie,” “snack,” and “snug.”  What is especially noteworthy in “kitte” is the idea of containment, a collection fitted into a handy package, ready for access and use when the occasion arises. A kit.

And so, Phi Beta Kappa is offering its toolkit for advocacy on behalf of the arts and sciences.  This represents the next stage of our National Arts & Sciences Initiative.  I spoke recently with the Wake County, North Carolina, Phi Beta Kappa Association about the Initiative.  After my account of our purposes and efforts to date, one member posed the hoped-for question: “What can we do?”  The toolkit is the answer to those questions.

Unveiled before the Phi Beta Kappa Senate in its meeting on December 5 (our 238th anniversary), the National Arts & Sciences Initiative toolkit is a handy collection of “tools” for use by members of Phi Beta Kappa and others to make the case for arts and sciences education.  What’s there? Well, not hammers and screwdrivers, pliers and awls.  Instead, there are facts about the arts and sciences relative to career opportunities and global trends in higher education.  There are talking points under the heading “You Can Make the Case,” setting out six reasons the arts and sciences are central to the nation’s future.  The reasons are concise and specific, with elaboration and documentation available at a click, if needed. There are templates for letters and emails to state officials and members of Congress, available to be personalized and adapted.  There are templates for social media posts, and a place to share stories relevant to arts and sciences education.

Check it out at, and join the Initiative!

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The Value of the Humanities, from Britain

4 months ago

My friend Bob Patten, Autrey Professor of English at Rice University, facilitated my receipt of a copy—autographed by the author, no less!—of the recent book The Value of the Humanities by Helen Small, Professor of English and Aisbitt Fellow of English at Pembroke College, Oxford. Bob is not only a personal friend, but also a great friend of Phi Beta Kappa, having done, among many other things, yeoman service a few years back as a Couper Lecturer in our Mellon-funded series of campus scholarly visits.

This time, through Bob’s good offices, I found a copy of Professor Small’s book in my hands just as I was preparing to participate in a conference aimed toward defining the sort of research that would show that engagement with the humanities has a detectible—and one hopes salutary—effect. I was especially interested in a perspective from the UK, where challenges and opportunities facing the humanities are analogous, in a different context, to those in the US.

The British context shows, not only in the much more unified financing scheme of higher education in England (Scotland has its differences), but also in her placement of arguments against the backdrop of Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold and T.H. Huxley, John Ruskin, John Henry Newman, C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis, and even Wordsworth.  In this rich terrain the exposition is intricately situated; so much so, in fact, that the book reads like a condensed history of modern thought about education and well-being in England, organized around a set of ideas about the value of the humanities.

There are five of them—ideas, that is—and they stick pretty close to what the humanities are and do in themselves, closer than a typical American apologia would do.  Small starts with the idea that the humanities do a distinctive kind of valuable work, fostering an understanding that knowledge is “inextricable from human subjectivity.” Second, she sees the humanities as preserving and curating culture, and interpreting it in contemporaneously relevant terms. She appends to this point a warning: “any defense that gives primary place to the instrumental value of a humanities education will quickly disfigure the broader kinds of goods it nurtures.” The third point is about happiness: not that humanities make individuals or populations happier, but that they extend and enlarge the accessibility of ideas of happiness and notions about how it may be attained.  Fourth, humanities contribute to the health of democracy by fostering certain kinds of skills of reasoning and perspective. Finally, the humanities are valuable “in themselves.” Small does not say that the humanities have intrinsic value, viewing the “in themselves” claim as broader and less exposed to the need to defend, presumably, a theory of intrinsic value.

This account yields, perhaps, less to convince the unsympathetic than some arguments on this side of the Atlantic that have tended to emphasize the acquisition of transferable skills useful in personal self-realization and career advancement, and the citizenship issues that Americans tend to trace to Adams, Jefferson, et al.  On the other hand, it does offer much that appeals to the distinctive character of humanities studies themselves, and rests on a perception of that character that seems to me to be right on target: the humanities are disciplined reflections on the emergence of meaning in human lives.  Any account of their value, or of their usefulness, that obscures that point will have missed the boat.


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Complementarity, Not Opposition

6 months ago

In The Wall Street Journal (on-line), September 30, 2014, Brian Costa wrote as follows: “For the second straight year, the New York Yankees have missed the playoffs, abdicating one of their most important social responsibilities: giving America an obvious team to root against in October.  So, as a public service to fans looking for pleasure in the misery of others, The Wall Street Journal has assembled its second-annual Major League Baseball Hateability Index, ranking this year’s 10 playoff teams in order of general loathsomeness. The rankings are based on how many points teams racked up in 10 contempt-worthy categories, such as drug suspensions, ridiculous beards and winning too much.”

Everybody knows that sports competition is apt to generate this “love-to-hate” phenomenon.  I confess to being caught up in it myself, though I will note that this year, in the run-up to Derek Jeter’s retirement, I had an epiphany.  Driving down the highway I glanced over at my wife, Jean, and confessed, “Hey, I just realized something.  I don’t hate the Yankees anymore.” It was, in a way that was maybe not completely trivial, a bit cathartic.

I sometimes think that sports enthusiasm does have a general cathartic function;  it provides a locus where passions that would be counterproductive or even destructive, in an area of life that mattered for anything, to be indulged and discharged harmlessly.  After all, in the grand scheme, it doesn’t matter who wins the World Series.  But there goes all that passion and energy, drained away from departments of life where it could wreak real harm, like religion or politics

There is a flip side to this notion, though. You could argue that sports fanaticism doesn’t offer harmless cathartic relief, but habituates us to those attitudes and that kind of behavior.  Having gotten used to the craziness of sporting fanaticism, we carry the belligerent oppositionalism, the hating of the opposing side, out and over into departments of life that do matter.  Again, like religion and politics.

Which of these views is more nearly right?  Hard to know.  In John Williams’ novel Augustus, the emperor muses on the social impact of gladiatorial games, noting how a Roman woman he saw screaming for blood in the afternoon gently cradled her infant that night.

But it does seem to me that those of us who advocate for the liberal arts and sciences need to be tremendously careful not to let our enthusiasm for these studies turn into, or even be perceived as, partisan opposition to other fields.  Phi Beta Kappa supports excellence in the arts and sciences, but does not oppose other fields of study.  It’s not “us” against “them.” It’s about all of us striving for balance in a diverse academic ecosystem.

It’s also not about our side engaging solely in the disinterested pursuit of the true, the good, and the beautiful, while the other guys are grubbing around for utilitarian ends.  Art history has its impact, just as engineering has its beauty.  We have to guard against simplistic characterizations that divorce inherent value from usefulness.

The other day I had lunch with someone who, rather than put his studies of rhetoric to use in academe, does consulting in trials.  He’s published an interesting book on the rhetorical style and impact of U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments.  As he described the conceptual matrix of his work, I recognized themes and characters from my own studies among the linguistically-turned philosophers of the mid-20th century.  I had never imagined that Wittgenstein, Austin, Searle, Grice, and the rest would equip someone to make a living helping lawyers in the courtroom.  But on reflection?  Sure. What is of value in itself may well be useful.  And vice versa.

By the way, The Wall Street Journal article says the most “hateable” team is the St. Louis Cardinals.  My friends who care about these things say that’s clearly wrong:  it’s the Dodgers.  Myself, I’ve never forgiven the Dodgers for leaving Brooklyn.

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In It for the Long Haul

6 months ago

In a very influential book, After Virtue, some decades back, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre made the case that every living tradition is composed in part by a continuing, argumentative inquiry—even dispute—concerning its nature and ends.  We might be tempted to regard a tradition as an unchanging heritage, passed intact and inviolate from generation to generation.  But in fact, as MacIntyre writes in another work, “A tradition is an argument extended through time in which certain fundamental agreements are defined and redefined.”  Things change.

The stipulation that we are talking about a living tradition means that the life and relevance of a tradition includes, centrally, on-going contention as to what it is that constitutes that tradition.  In other words, there’ll be disagreement, and argument, a built-in impulse to reflection and self-criticism.  Without such a dynamic principle, presumably, a tradition ossifies, unresponsive to the changes in its environment.  Life is change.

In this spirit we hear posed questions like these:  “What will education in the arts and sciences be in twenty years, or in fifty?” and, “What will become of the disciplines we look to for a definition of the arts and sciences, themselves now little more than a century or two old?”  Most immediately pressing, perhaps, we hear, and pose ourselves.

“However changed and adapted, how will the impulse of arts and sciences education fare in the face of widespread indifference to their value?”  This question defines the project to which Phi Beta Kappa is committed.

Our aim is to ensure that whatever the shape of their future, the arts and sciences fare well, very well.  That’s why we are engaged in our National Arts & Sciences Initiative.  We are making sure that the conversation about the purposes of higher education in America includes pride of place for the recognition that the arts and sciences open opportunity for a broad swath of American students.  We want to make sure it’s understood that the arts and sciences are the wellsprings of ingenuity and innovation to move our society forward, and that resources devoted to the arts and sciences are an investment in the future.

Change is inevitable. It is necessary for life, and the future is, to a degree, unpredictable.  The question is whether we will equip ourselves to meet it. Flourishing arts and sciences will equip us well, and that’s the argument about the character of our tradition we will carry forward.

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Space to Make Fun

7 months ago

In summer, 2008, The American Scholar published William Deresiewicz’s “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” a foreshadowing of his recent book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, which is reviewed in The New York Times Book Review, August 24, 2014, by Anthony Grafton, eminent Princeton University historian and former Phi Beta Kappa senator.  Both in the article and in the book, Deresiewicz charges the Ivies and their emulators with fostering a culture, based on the hyper-competitive status-seeking of upper-middle class over-achievers, that leads students to “waste the precious years that they should be devoting to building their souls to building their resumes” (Grafton’s phrasing of Deresiewicz’s charge).

Grafton admits that “much of [this] dystopian description rings true.”  But the coin has another side.  Deresiewicz acknowledges that many liberal arts colleges, with their engaged teachers, are places where “college is still college,” but Grafton makes the point that this is, or can be, true still in the Ivies.  He cites what must have been a wonderful educational moment.

Grafton had assigned his students “a very good–but very long–book about classical antiquity in 19th century Germany.” It seems that two of his students turned up for  seminar wearing enormous fake beards to evoke the spirit of 19th century Germanic scholarship (thereby also gently mocking Grafton) and playing “The Ride of the Valkyries” on their laptops.  By indulging in “cheerful mockery,” the two students “sparked a searching and substantive discussion.”  The Ivies can’t be as bleak as Deresiewicz claims, Grafton implies, if this kind of thing can happen.

The scene rises vividly in the imagination, and it is easy to imagine what a powerful moment it must have been.  But it is impossible to predict, to plan, or to build this sort of thing into the syllabus of a course.  This sort of thing–a pinnacle educational moment–arises spontaneously, or can arise spontaneously, if the right space has been provided. What is that “right space?”

It seems that every time we see recommendations about teaching, the emphasis is on gaining greater and greater control of the pedagogical process.  The emphasis is on design, intentionality, the careful tailoring of means to specified ends, and the measurement of outcomes that are known in advance.  I think of an interview I saw decades ago with the French minister of education, overseeing a vast but highly centralized and uniform system of formal instruction.  He leaned back in his chair and said, “I know what every child in France is doing at this moment.”  How could it have been clearer that the educational process had been reduced to an industrial model, with completely scripted, standardized operations being performed upon presumably passive students whose individualities counted, apparently, for nothing.  Let’s hope the French do better now, but how much of what passes for urgency toward educational reform in this country embodies these presumptions?

Yet where, in an educational system dominated by predictability and control, is there room for an event like the one Grafton holds up as exemplary?  That “right space” we want cannot be found in a totally controlled process.  It can be found only in a process that has design, but not absolute constraint.  There has to be play in the system, a certain looseness of construction, opening space for spontaneity, play, the creative and unexpected.  That space has to be in the design of the curriculum and the course.  It has to be in the array of possible outcomes envisaged by the teacher.  And it has to be in the manner, or style, in which the course is conducted.  How much it says, about the sense of purpose within latitude enjoyed by those students of Grafton’s, that they saw both the humor and the serious point of their parody, and how much it says about Grafton, that they felt permission to move into that space.

Nothing about such an event can be predicted, prescribed, or made to happen according to a formula.  But that’s where the best education happens.  Let’s hope there’s more of it in the Ivies than Deresiewicz thinks, and more of it in institutions of all kinds than would be supposed by those who want to design every moment for a preconceived outcome.

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How Not to Write About Higher Education

7 months ago

IS COLLEGE DOOMED?“, in all capital letters, bold-faced, read the biggest letters on the cover, except for the magazine’s title: The Atlantic. It being nearly fall, it was time for “the educational issue,” a phrase tucked into a round, hot pink dot just below the “A” in Atlantic.  And in the middle of the all this, a wrecking ball, caught in the moment of impact, breaking through a wall in the direction of the observer, and sending into chaotic flight an array of higher education icons:  a chemistry text, a football, notebooks, a mortar board, more books flying open as they scatter, and pieces of the wall itself, representing, no doubt, the physical campuses whose demise is indicated in the smaller print at the bottom:  ”Traditional universities are in trouble. . . .”

The sensationalist tone is continued inside, with the wrecking ball again, and more books now being buried in the detritus of the smashed campus.  The featured article, by Graeme Wood, has a slightly more tentative title, “The Future of College?,” and it deals largely with the Minerva Project, an attempt by a tech entrepreneur named Ben Nelson to launch a user-intensive, on-line instructional format that would replicate the active classroom engagement that is thought to lead to the most desirable liberal arts outcomes.  Minerva seems to be both an anti-MOOC and also a mini-MOOC; “mini” in that its total enrollment is now 33, in contrast to the tens of thousands claimed for some MOOCs, and “anti” in that the emphasis is on engagement and personal development, not the transmission of content.

The article’s advocacy of the project rests on snarky comments about traditional higher education—its biggest innovation has been doubling costs and hiring more administrators; its technology is medieval; its finances are full of perverse incentives.  This is, of course, a caricature, as if a fair picture of American higher education could be assembled from a composite of its worst dimensions.  But there’s a lot of this sort of thing around.  The advocates of creative disruption thrive on it.

To be fair to Wood’s piece, there are, buried in it, the right questions to be asking about innovation in higher education.  If, in the Minerva vision, lectures, tenure, Gothic architecture, football, and ivy are gone, gone, gone, gone, and gone, “what’s left will be leaner and cheaper.”  Likely so.  But then Wood adds, almost as an afterthought, this:  ”We have little clue as to whether the process of stripping down the university removes something essential to what has made America’s best colleges the greatest in the world.”  Well, exactly.  And this:  “Can a school that has no faculty offices, research labs, community spaces for students, or professors paid to do scholarly work still be called a university?”  I think that question answers itself.

And how’s this for exposing the likelihood that projects like Minerva are essentially parasitical on the existing higher education system:  “No one yet knows whether reducing a university to a smoothly-running pedagogical machine will continue to allow scholarship to thrive—or whether it will simply put universities out of business, replace scholar teachers with just teachers, and retard a whole generation of research.”  What Wood is pointing to here is a very real prospect:  Commodification of instruction is dependent upon a substrate of research to produce the commodity, but it does nothing to support or sustain that substrate.

American higher education has been and will continue to be a very diverse field, whose diversity reaches into several dimensions.  There are great institutions and some that are not-so-great.  There are institutions of different types, with different purposes, serving different populations.  Questions like “Is College Doomed?”, the imagery of a wrecking ball demolishing the entire sector, and blanket characterizations of higher education as “sclerotic,” (Wood’s word),  obscure that diversity, and mask enormous underlying complexity.  In that complexity there are very important questions about the impact of coming changes.  Wood identifies a couple, and that in itself makes the article worth reading.  But how much better it would have been, had The Atlantic chosen to respect the intelligence of its readers by leading with these more sophisticated and, frankly, more realistic issues.  Higher education is like the rest of life:  more complicated than we’d like to think, and rife with risk for unintended consequences.  That’s what we need to be thinking about.

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“You Can’t Say That Here!” “Oh, Yes, I Can!” “Oh, No, . . .”

10 months ago

In the commencement season just passing, we have seen a spate of incidents involving campus speech issues.  Some guest speakers withdrew from their commitments after student criticism or intimidation.  Some prospective guests have had their invitations to speak withdrawn by the college in response to criticism.  It’s important to find what’s at stake here for Phi Beta Kappa’s commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.

A responsible mapping of these controversies would include landmarks like these:

  • Institutional commitments–and our broader cultural commitment–to academic freedom, most broadly the notion that college and university campuses should be dedicated to free and open expression of ideas in pursuit of truth;
  • The bounding principle that respect for free and open expression requires a context of community, guided by norms that differentiate its conduct from mere free-for-all;
  • The idea that maintaining such norms is indispensable to the continuing existence of a community of free expression, since that freedom is meaningless unless others are free to hear, and disposed to listen.
  • The essential distinction between discourse seeking truth, and violence or intimidation.

The big questions raised by current events have to do with the shape of those norms. But, of course, no community of any size shares a unified set of homogeneous norms. We are almost always in settings composed of overlapping communities, sharing some norms but not others, holding fast, perhaps, to conflicting norms. Many individuals will have internalized versions of this complexity. A college or university will be populated by students, faculty, staff, as well as alumni and other stakeholders, who understand themselves to be members of various different communities, as well as of the institution itself.  Also at stake, sometimes, may be the question of institutional endorsement of a speaker’s views, by conferring an honorary degree.  That’s why respect for diversity is such a big deal, a cornerstone of collegiate community.

But respect for diversity comes packaged with tensions, if not contradictions. Does it entail freedom to offend others in speech? Or freedom from offense by others? What is offense? Is it when someone is made uncomfortable? Does the degree of discomfort matter? Or does it matter what sort of topic gives rise to the discomfort?  Or is offense more than discomfort?

At what point does discomfort amount to feeling threatened? Does feeling threatened amount to being threatened? What is threat? Is it danger to one’s views? One’s standing in the community? One’s person?  One’s community of primary identity?

This welter of issues holds scant promise of conclusive resolution. There is little prospect that colleges and universities can settle them for very long, let alone that a nation’s sense of its identity could be defined by settling them. We must learn to live with the idea that our different understandings of the norms governing freedom of expression are themselves objects of contention.  We must figure out how to extend our conversation to that level, by critically exploring how offense is given and taken, while continuing to keep alive the substantive discussions.

This is a very tough prescription, because admitting that the norms of civil discourse are themselves in play requires us to do two very difficult things. The first is to admit, without abandoning our principles, that they will be stronger for having been critically examined; the second is to assure others that opening their own principles to critical examination is not just opening them to unsympathetic demolition.  Both moves require substantial trust, and that may be the most delicate part; but because it is the most delicate, the most difficult and most important.

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Love of learning is the guide of life.