Diversity and Democracy

Creative, Humanistic, and Pragmatic: Liberal Education in America

The news about the American education system has been bleak of late —from elementary schools that seem “designed to fail” to for-profit universities that are scooping up borrowed tuition dollars without providing graduates much hope of gainful employment. It’s no surprise, then, that the American public has grown increasingly suspicious of educators and their institutions. College programs that were once widely respected are now criticized for raising tuition, despite the fact that they are giving significant financial aid and satisfying demands for increasingly costly support services. The growing lack of confidence in American education mirrors the general crisis of confidence in the future, with pundits capitalizing on this market niche for their cultivated pessimism.

The anti-intellectual pessimists often chide our educational system to become more practical, but their notion of “practicality” is rooted in the old economy (and in maintaining its traditional inequalities). If heeded, their calls for pragmatism are likely to lead to the opposite: men and women who are trained for yesterday’s problems and yesterday’s jobs, who have not reflected on their own lives in ways that allow them to tap into their capacities for innovation. Indeed, calls for “practicality” are really calls for conformity, for conventional thinking that will impoverish our economic, cultural, and personal lives.

The search for a neatly useful undergraduate education defined in these terms is a critical mistake that often neglects a deep American tradition of humanistic learning and artistic practice. This tradition has been integral to our success as a nation and has enriched the lives of generations of students by enhancing their capacities for shaping themselves and reinventing the world they will inhabit. Since this country’s founding, education has been closely tied to individual freedom and to hope for a collective future —to the ability to think for oneself and to contribute to society by unleashing one’s creative potential. Cultivating these abilities can undermine entrenched inequality, and unleashing this potential through a liberal education that includes engagement with the arts and humanities as well as the social and natural sciences is the most broadly pragmatic thing we can do.

Liberal Education’s Deep American Roots

When I began my freshman year at Wesleyan University more than thirty-five years ago, I had only the vaguest notion of what a liberal education was. My father and my grandfather were furriers, and my mother had wanted to make a career out of singing with a big band before deciding to start a family. Giving their children access to a college education was for them part of the American dream, even if they had little understanding of what happened on campus. How much things have changed! More than thirty-five years later, I serve as president of the same institution where I first stumbled into courses like Intro to Philosophy and Art History 101. Many undergraduates now behave like consumers, arriving on campuses with specific demands and plans for their eight semesters. Parents want their children’s education to be immediately useful, and with a dramatically shrinking job market, undergrads themselves are often eager to follow a narrow path that they imagine will lead to that coveted first job. A broad liberal education, providing significant opportunities to explore oneself and the world, is increasingly seen as a luxury for the entitled, one that is scarcely affordable in a hyper-competitive world. This is especially true for those studying the arts and humanities, who are often made to feel that they are disconnected from the economic realities of the real world.

And yet, a broad, self-critical, and pragmatic education has been and remains essential for our well-being as individuals and as members of a society that aspires to be democratic. Thomas Jefferson recognized this in the early days of American democracy when he saw the health of the republic as dependent on the education of its citizens. In founding the University of Virginia, he emphasized that the university would not prescribe a course of study directing graduates to “the specific vocations to which they are destined” (Jefferson [1823] 2002, 294). Jefferson had a broad view of educational purpose for the individual and society, a view that has continued to inform our approach to college despite calls for more vocationally tailored training. As he wrote to John Adams in 1823:We shall have our follies without doubt....But ours will be the follies of enthusiasm, not of bigotry….Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education and free discussion are the antidotes of both” (Jefferson [1823] 1995, 53). Jefferson knew that a liberally educated citizenry is better able to recognize and overcome our distance from, and our strangeness to, one another. We learn to recognize that people and ideas that at first seem foreign may indeed have much to teach us.

In recent years, educational institutions have been expanding their borders, literally and figuratively. Where elite American schools once sought homogeneous student bodies as the basis for cooperative learning, today almost all highly selective universities seek to mold diverse campus communities. Indeed, we want our students to become adept at crossing borders, and skillful and generous in helping others do the same. This is not solely a matter of demographics, and many colleges now adopt programs (like those influenced by the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Making Excellence Inclusive initiative) that aim to leverage diversity as an educational asset. Some schools might take their commitment to diversity for granted, but it is important to reflect on and assess how one’s institutional inclusiveness can become most effective. With hindsight, Jefferson’s blind spots are easy enough to see. For example, while he wanted to secure public funding for education as a means of combating entrenched economic inequality, he was for the most part unaware of how his own racism corrupted his educational vision. We must continually check for our own blind spots to build a more robust and dynamic inclusiveness by recognizing whom and what we are excluding.

In a similar spirit of inclusiveness, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that colleges “serve us when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame” ([1837] 1981, 51–52). Liberal education teaches us to open ourselves to the world’s “various genius” and to ignite our own, and perhaps someone else’s, imagination. At its best, education develops the capacities for seeing possibilities and for relishing the world across borders we might otherwise not have dared cross. Education must lead us beyond these borders if it is to be more than training for roles already allocated to us by the powers that be.

American Pragmatism

In the early nineteenth century, Jane Addams and John Dewey took up the cause of liberal learning precisely because it fit so well with the pragmatic ethos that linked inquiry, innovation, and self-discovery. Rejecting a view of education as narrow training, pragmatists embraced a capacious practicality energized by a vision of broad, flexible education.

Jane Addams’s notion of “affectionate interpretation” is a deep resource for understanding how we can overcome our visceral defense against points of view different from our own ([1896] 2003). For Addams, compassion, memory, and fidelity are key aspects of understanding in a context of community. Generosity, as she saw it, is not just a moral quality, but an educational virtue. John Dewey, a great supporter of Addams, famously wrote that “Philosophy recovers itself...when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men” (1917). Thus the arts and humanities, as well as the natural and social sciences, should turn us toward the world, not away from it into cloistered campuses. The pragmatists explored how liberal learning provides a context for hope, how education depends on and reinforces confidence in the future. As Dewey put it, to discover “what one is fitted to do, and to secure an opportunity to do it, is the key to happiness” (1916). Rather than starting with a predetermined outcome for what one must do, liberal education helps one make this discovery, and secure those opportunities.

As educators, we have all seen how students making discoveries about themselves can take up the challenges of their communities. Whether this means bringing philosophy out of the classroom and into downtown Scranton or connecting the arts and humanities to underserved communities in Syracuse, students and teachers are applying their liberal learning to engage the issues around them. At Wesleyan, I have seen Shining Hope for Communities, an organization founded by students, build an elementary school for girls in Kibera, Kenya, one of the largest slums in Africa. The organization went on to develop the Johanna Justin-Jinnich Community Health Clinic adjacent to the school, and is now creating clean water and sanitation facilities. Much closer to home, the Wesleyan family has been instrumental in creating health services, a children’s museum, and community development projects in Middletown, Connecticut. Through projects like these, liberal arts graduates became social entrepreneurs by building on a broad educational base.

Now More than Ever

All over the world, educators and students look to American higher education as a place to develop human potential. Governments and foundations creating liberal arts institutions in Asia and Africa hope to nurture platforms of innovation and communities of engaged citizens. International students competing for admission to American universities see our educational system as offering opportunity. We must demonstrate to our own citizens that this is indeed the case.

The young men and women who are creating free schools and clean water in Kenya or educational services right here at home are using their broadly based education to engage specific and important issues out in the world. They are pragmatists steeped in liberal learning. Organizations like the Association of American Colleges and Universities see a recession —economic and civic —as the best time to invest in America’s future. By embracing civic learning and partnerships that strengthen communities, we can do the hard work of restoring confidence, opening opportunity, and building engagement —all core responsibilities of liberal education.

The demands for education that is “useful” have gotten louder, and threats to liberal education, especially in the arts and humanities —from government regulators, the business sector, and even within the university —are indeed profound. We live in an age of seismic technological change and instantaneous information dissemination; we work in an era of increasing American diversity and global interconnectedness. In our time, it is more crucial than ever that we not abandon the creative, humanistic foundations of education in favor of narrow, technical forms of teaching intended to give quick, utilitarian results. Those results are no substitute for the practice of inquiry, critique, and experience that enhances students’ ability to appreciate and understand the world around them —and to innovatively respond to it. A reflexive, pragmatic liberal education is our best hope of preparing students to shape change and not just be victims of it.

The mission of schools focused on liberal learning should be, in Richard Rorty’s words, “to incite doubt and stimulate imagination, thereby challenging the prevailing consensus” (1999, 118). Through doubt, imagination, and hard work, students “realize they can reshape themselves” and their society. Liberal education matters because by challenging the prevailing consensus, it promises to be relevant to our professional, personal, and political lives. The free inquiry and experimentation of a reflexive, pragmatic education help us think for ourselves, take responsibility for our beliefs and actions, and be better acquainted with own desires and hopes. Liberal education, including deep engagement with the arts and humanities, increases our capacity to understand the world and contribute to it by reshaping ourselves.


Addams, Jane. (1896) 2003. “A Modern Lear.” Edited by Jone Johnson Lewis. http://www.swarthmore.edu/library/peace/DG001-025/DG001JAddams/links.htm.

Dewey, John. 1916. “The Place of Vocational Aims in Education.” Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan.

———. 1917. “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy.” Creative Intelligence Essays in the Pragmatic Attitude. New York: Holt.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. (1837) 1981. “The American Scholar.” In Selected Writings of Emerson, edited by Donald McQuade. New York: Modern Library.

Jefferson, Thomas. (1823) 2002. “Letter to George Ticknor, Monticello, July 16, 1823.” In Thomas Jefferson: A Chronology of His Thoughts, edited by Jerry Holmes. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

———. (1823) 1995. “Letter to John Adams (Oct 12, 1823).” In Thomas Jefferson: Political Writings, edited by Joyce Oldham Appleby. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rorty, Richard. 1999. “Education as Socialization and Individualization.” In Philosophy and Social Hope. London: Penguin Books.

Michael S. Roth is the president of Wesleyan University.

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