The Liberal Arts in Illiberal Times

Hypersensitive spoiled brats who prefer safe spaces to free speech. Dishonest scientists who cook up rigged studies of climate change. Elitist humanists who study books no one reads using words no one can understand. Humorless social scientists who indoctrinate their students with politically correct sanctimony. Administrators who pander to students’ unreasonable demands and refuse to address reasonable ones. Self-righteous bastions that profess to protect free speech but censor those they don’t wish to hear.

The particular positions may vary, but they create a common discourse of attack. Even at a time when public opinion is bitterly divided, most voices oddly seem to converge on a fundamental point: something is rotten in higher education.

This discourse predates the 2016 election, but given the presidential administration’s reckless compulsion to dismantle governmental and civic institutions, to disparage the press and truth itself, the stakes have become urgent. It is time to return to a basic question: what is the point of higher education? More exactly, what justifies the existence of the liberal arts college as distinct from other forms of higher education? What is the value of a place like Amherst College today?

American colleges and universities have often posed self-critical questions to themselves during times of crisis. One hundred years ago, after a number of professors around the country were fired for religious nonconformity and political dissent, the very integrity of higher education seemed to be in question. Professors from over 60 colleges and universities came together to state the first principles of American higher learning in the form of the 1915 Declaration of Principles that articulated the meaning of “academic freedom” in the U.S.

They asked our very question — “What is the point of higher education?” — and replied that it included a threefold calling, a threefold vocation. First, “to promote inquiry and advance the sum of human knowledge” through research that could be independently verified by peers whose authority derives from years of disciplined training and study. Second, to teach a younger generation not only the best of what had been thought and said, but also to instill the courage to search for new truths. And third, to develop a generation of young leaders who were dedicated to serving the public interest.

Importantly, those who wrote a century ago drew a distinction between the public interest and public opinion. On this view, public opinion was changing, fleeting and sometimes tyrannical. It might prefer war one decade and peace another. Public interest, meanwhile, is the public at its best: decent and fair, just and equal, generous and thoughtful, self-critical and self-restrained. To say that the purpose of higher education is to serve the public interest is therefore to say that it serves the public we strive to create and join, even and especially when conditions of war, economic scarcity, jealousy or fear cause us to fall short of our aspirations.

This formulation, however, entails a curious paradox. Because higher education serves the public interest and not public opinion — because, essentially, it is an incubator of desirable futures — it may be out of step with its present. Stated in the words of the 1915 Declaration of Principles, higher education is “an intellectual experiment station, where new ideas may germinate and where their fruit, though still distasteful to the community as a whole, may be allowed to ripen until finally, perchance, it may become part of the accepted food of the nation or of the world.”

You could also put it this way: because higher education may need to be out of step with public opinion in order to serve the public interest, it is bound to taste rotten — or at least bitter — to the very public whose support is necessary for it to pursue its mission, and which it ultimately serves. Because higher education is a place where ideal publics grow slowly and gradually, at a pace that is often unrecognizable, it always will be vulnerable to accusations of rot — and this vulnerability will persist not despite its mission, but because of its mission, to the exact extent that it fulfills its mission.

What imagining of the future do liberal arts colleges and universities strive to incubate today? Our vision of the public interest is that people from vastly different backgrounds can live and learn together, form friendships together and engage in self-examination together. To say that this is rare in the United States would be an enormous understatement. Correlatively, we embrace the proposition that Socratic self-scrutiny — the idea that we should be courageous enough to be humble, that we should not hide our shortcomings but debate them openly — is the central principle and lifeblood of intelligent discourse.

We imagine this strong and vibrant democratic space to be more than simply a winner-take-all vote. Democracy is a habit, a way of making your way through the day. It’s a way of asking who you are and to whom you are speaking, how we can speak respectfully to each other and why we should try. It involves speaking openly and honestly with both courage and humility. It involves an acute awareness of the blues mentality, the tragicomic consciousness that to speak with another person is often to speak with someone who silently carries pain and sorrow. And it involves a prophetic wager, a leap of faith: imagining together a livable future, even at a moment when that may seem impossible.

Amherst in particular has, in recent years, insisted on this democratic vision, one that embraces rather than avoids the racial, gendered and socioeconomic contradictions in this country. When other institutions in our country are running away from the problem in denial, we are one of the few running directly at it. So it is not surprising, even if it is painful and humbling, when divisions flare up on campus. It would be a mistake, however, always to interpret these moments of division as symptoms of crisis rather than moments for reflection and growth.

Today, public opinion is governed by cable news networks, social media platforms and online news aggregators that feed consumers a constant drip of outrageous anecdotes that are designed to be easily quoted and quickly circulated. The resulting sense of unending scandal, in the world of higher education and beyond, is little more than a sugar high for the mind. To interpret our campus on these terms certainly may come with a rush of energy and excitement. But it also runs the risk of forgetting our institution’s most basic obligation: to serve the public interest, not public opinion.

Here is some hardier food for thought: to insist on a long-term democratic vision today, at this point in the history of the United States, is to insist on a need for an intellectual experiment that is as vital as it is fragile. Without fully knowing the way forward, we should hold fast to our vision; asking who “we” are, and how and why we speak to each other, is fundamental to the project of a liberal arts education.

Nothing in this vision implies or allows self-congratulation. Institutions of higher education are in fact sometimes swayed by external political and economic pressures; they are, after all, embedded in our economy and social structures, and it would be naïve to claim that they never replicate those structures’ inequalities, exclusions and demands. In turn, changes in higher educational institutions’ policies on admissions, the curriculum, hiring and investment have all resulted in part from student protest. But we believe protest and critique must always be tethered to deliberation about the place of colleges and universities in the broader society and an appreciation of both how far we have come and how far we still have to go. Before we lend our voices to the chorus of public opinion that declares our institutions to be irrevocably rotten, let us not fail to notice how strangely easy this criticism has become today, and let us always hesitate before taking the path of least resistance — this or any other. At a moment when norms of open debate and shared principles of governance are threatened, we must remain curious, inform ourselves well and remember the inestimable value in future-oriented thought and long-term imagination.

This is a challenging project in these times, but it is also precious and worth preserving. We can and should engage in vibrant debate about our institutional practices and commitments. We set high standards for ourselves, and when we fall short of them, we need open and honest self-criticism. But we must tether resistance to affirmation in order to protect the conditions of possibility for our self-criticism because ironically, it is those very conditions — so fundamental to the project of the liberal arts — that make us vulnerable when illiberal forces converge from all sides.

Critics may see our self-questioning as a sign of the worthlessness of the experiment itself. We could not disagree more. At a moment when democratic habits are in decline, we affirm the importance of our experiment. Any errors we make along the way offer a valuable opportunity for continued reflection and redoubled effort in service of the public interest. That is the proposition to which we have dedicated our professional lives, and we intend to defend it with conviction and pride, now more than ever.

Professor Amrita Basu
Professor Judith Frank
Professor Adam Sitze
Professor Martha Umphrey