Phi Beta Kappa Oration • Theta Chapter of Pennsylvania
A few minutes ago I read to you the words of Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes when he addressed the Phi Beta Kappa chapter at Brown University back in 1930. "The particular interest of Phi Beta Kappa is liberal education," he said, and "It holds aloft the old banner of scholarship." Gazing at that old banner today, what we see looks a little soiled and frayed around the edges. No doubt some of that appearance stems from the hard times which have befallen that word "liberal" in recent years, a word that is one of the most important in the advance of civilization and yet has now fallen into some disrepute.
Today I'd like to talk about what that word means, in the contexts of both politics and education, about why it has been devalued into both contexts, and about how we might think about it in a more positive way relevant to both education and politics.
In education, liberal education has of course come to mean an education emphasizing general intellectual skills, the abilities to read, write, speak, and think, learning how to learn, and learning as a lifelong process and commitment, and as Professor Mitchell just said, intellectual integrity, a broad range of interests, and tolerance for others' views.
In politics, liberal has come to mean many different things: bigger government, more active government, higher taxes and higher spending, and government policies that promote individual freedom and economic equality - as opposed to conservative, which connotes smaller and less active government, lower taxes and less spending, government policies that promote civil and social order over individual freedom, and government policies that protect economic freedom and accept economic and social inequality. Liberals tend to be pro-choice, pro-gay, and anti-war and conservatives pro-life, anti-gay and pro-war.
Liberal and conservative have come to mean so many different things that scholars have searched for a common core. George Lakoff (2002) in his book, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, proposes this: liberal is nurturing and permissive while conservative is stern and controlling. The best way to distinguish between liberals and conservatives, he says, is to ask people this question: "If your baby cries at night, do you pick him up?" (p. xv) Does that work for you?
As disparate as these meanings of liberal may be today, they do have a common root, in the Latin word liber, meaning free.
In education, the Latin phrase "artes liberales" described in the Middle Ages the curriculum of the medieval university: "artes" meaning a course of study and "liberales" meaning "for a free man" - as opposed to a slave. Later during the Renaissance the term came to mean a general as opposed to professional or vocational education and later still emerged the ideas of free inquiry described by Chief Justice Hughes in the Phi Beta Kappa Charge I read a few minutes ago.
In politics the emergence of liberal thought focused on individual freedom and on limits on government as a way of protecting the individual from oppression by the state. Thus classical liberalism favored individual freedom and small government - closer to what today we call libertarianism.
One of the earliest American liberals was Thomas Jefferson, who finished at William and Mary fourteen years too early to become a member of Phi Beta Kappa, but instead belonged to its precursor, another secret society identified by the letters F. H. C. (for Fraternitas, Humanitas, et Cognitio) and publicly known as the Flat Hat Club, after the mortarboards which students of the day regularly wore. Jefferson later wrote, "When I was a student of Wm. & Mary college of this state, there existed a society called the F.H.C. society, confined to the number of six students only, of which I was a member, but it had no useful object." I hope you will speak more highly of Phi Beta Kappa in your future.
Jefferson exemplified early American liberalism in his belief that individual freedom was paramount and that, because government was a threat to freedom, it had to be kept as small as possible. But over the nineteenth century liberalism changed as the modern industrial capitalist society emerged to dwarf the individual. Woodrow Wilson (1913) seized Jefferson's mantle and articulated the transformation of liberalism from favoring small government to favoring big government in 1913 when he wrote:
If Jefferson were living in our day, he would see what we see: that the individual is caught in a great confused nexus of all sorts of complicated circumstances, and that to let him alone is to leave him helpless as against the obstacles with which he has to contend; and that, therefore, law [- government -] in our day must come to his assistance to see that he gets fair play..... (p. 284)
Wilson set the stage, but it took another decade and another cycle of capitalist excess and collapse in the 1920s before Franklin Delano Roosevelt would establish the federal government as, not a threat to individual freedom, but rather a protector of it, and not just the classical liberal freedoms of speech and religion, but the more modern and egalitarian freedoms from fear and want.
Just as these contemporary terms share a common root, they also share today a common plight, which is that both liberal education and liberal politics have come to be portrayed as irrelevant, useless, and even downright evil.
In education, skeptics have long questioned the relevance and utility of a liberal education, criticisms that have been heightened by the call for greater accountability in higher education and the current economic troubles. Liberal arts institutions are under increasing pressure to justify and even change what they do. A recent report by the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America's Promise decries the traditional distinction between "liberal arts education for its own sake and a more applied set of programs emphasizing preparation for work," concluding that "it is time to retire ... the old Ivory Tower view of liberal education" (National Leadership Council, 2008, p. 5). This is clearly a debate that has come to the F&M campus. In a recent issue of the student-run Liberal Arts Review, Kimberly Dustman (2009) of the Class of 2010 writes,
However sincere the announced goals of a liberal arts college may be, the extent to which a largely unspecialized "follow your heart" education proves useful in today's demanding, fast-paced corporate world remains largely speculative. Encouraging students to take a variety of classes, most liberal arts institutions do not require major declaration until the end of the sophomore year. During this interim, I have seen many college students navigate blindly through a series of tepid requirements and arbitrary courses that "sound interesting." Such indecision ill fits the inexperience of a fresh-from-high-school eighteen year-old, who has seen little of the world .... This period of uncertain floundering would be better spent outside the classroom, acquiring real world experience in the form of jobs, internships, or shadowing opportunities ... After this trial period of "real world beyond academia" experience, students can decide whether a degree in the liberal arts is in their best interest, and such broad education may not be. (pp. 52-53)
And earlier this year F&M joined with 89 other liberal arts colleges in an effort to demonstrate the effectiveness of their programs. Our own President John Fry was quoted in the College Reporter as saying, "While it becomes almost intuitive for people who work here what the benefits of a liberals arts degree are, most people are in the dark. I personally don't believe liberal arts institutions are a dying breed. But people do believe these institutions are becoming less relevant and that demands a response" (Dougan, 2008, p. 6).
In politics, the word liberal has been subjected to years of unrelenting bashing by conservative politicians, commentators, talk radio hosts, and TV talking heads. In the mid-1990s Newt Gingrich's political action committee sent to Republican candidates a list of "contrasting words to be used to define our opponents." Here's the beginning of the list: "decay, failure, collapse, crisis, urgent, destructive, destroy, sick, pathetic, lie, liberal..." (Unpublished GOPAC working paper, 1995). From 1980, the beginning of the Reagan Revolution, to 2000, the percentage of the American public who described themselves as liberal never exceeded 20%, with the one exception of 1992, the year of Bill Clinton's first victory, when it soared to 20.2% (American National Election Study).
But now aren't things changing - isn't liberalism making a comeback? The answer seems to be that liberal ideas are, but the word liberal isn't. Recent polls show that over the last several years the percentage of people who describe themselves as Democrats is up (Zakaria, 2008) and the percentage of people who support liberal policies is up (Halpin and Agne, 2009, p. 2), but the percentage of people who describe themselves as liberal is essentially unchanged, having risen to just 22% in 2008 (2008 National Election Exit Poll, reported by CNN). And one need only look at current political discourse to confirm what these surveys tell us. How long has it been since you have heard any politician to the right of Al Franken refer to himself or herself as liberal? That includes our new President, who often takes liberal positions but never describes them that way, saying instead as he did in his inaugural address that it is time to set aside "petty grievances, recriminations and worn-out dogmas" and "choose unity of purpose over conflict and discord" (Obama, 2009). Clearly the word liberal remains politically radioactive.
Finally, the tarnished images of liberal politics and liberal education are not two independent trends but related to each other. Perhaps the harshest critique of higher education in general and liberal education in particular is that it has become, not a haven for free inquiry, but a hotbed of liberal indoctrination. William F. Buckley, Jr., the recently departed great conservative icon, sounded this theme early on in his 1951 book God and Man at Yale. Twenty years later Richard Nixon told Henry Kissinger, "The professors are the enemy. The professors are the enemy. Write that on the blackboard one hundred times and never forget it" ("Nixon's the One," 2008, p. A1). More recently, probably the most prominent conservative critic of higher education, David Horowitz, has written, "All students are being deprived of a decent education by the leftist monopoly on campus" (Coyle and Robinson, 2005, p. 5). The conservative commentator Ann Coulter warns college students, "Your professors and instructors are, by and large, evil people whose main goal is to mislead you" (Coyle and Robinson, 2005, p. 3). Am I doing it right now?
But is this what liberal education has really become? Some facts are clearly established. Students do tend to become more liberal over the course of their time at college. As one major review of the literature puts it, "during college, attitudes and values tend to become more open, humanitarian, altruistic, tolerant, and [politically] liberal" (Lottes and Kuriloff, 1994, p. 33). And college professors do as a group tend to lean toward the left. Perhaps the most definitive recent study, a 2007 survey of nearly 1300 college faculty nationwide, found that 60% were liberal, 20 % moderate and 20% conservative (Smith, Mayer, and Fritschler, 2008, p. 74). And a recent study shows that, while most professors say they try to be even-handed in their discussions and avoid discussing their personal beliefs in class, students are quite accurate in figuring out their professors' political views (Woessner and Kelly-Woessner, 2009, p. 346).
But it would be a mistake to infer that, because college professors tend to be liberal and because students become more liberal during the college years, the former is the cause of the latter. Rather, many things go on during the college years that could account for the change: exposure to a greater diversity of people and viewpoints, living independently in a more open, tolerant, and permissive setting, new friends and new activities and new affiliations, and so on. Perhaps the most pertinent research is a newly published study by Matthew Woessner of Penn State-Harrisburg and April Kelly-Woessner of Elizabethtown College. They surveyed more than 1500 students in political science courses at twenty-four colleges and universities over the course of the academic year 2006-2007. Their study focuses on party rather than ideology, but the results are nevertheless revealing. They found that professors' partisan political views had no effect on their students' partisan political views. Students who had professors whom they perceived as Democrats showed no more shift to the Democratic Party than students with professors whom they perceived as Republican. The only significant effect they found was this - and this perhaps will be of more interest to faculty here than to the students: "students who disagree with their professors' political views are more critical of the course ... say they learn less" and give lower teaching evaluations to professors whom they perceive as more partisan. So the hypothesis of liberal education as liberal indoctrination so far has found little empirical support (Woessner and Kelly-Woessner, 2009, pp. 347-351).
But there is another and more important link between liberal education and politics that raises a fundamental question about democratic government: why do we believe in democracy? Why do we think that democratic government is the best form of government?
Many years ago when I was in graduate school at the University of Michigan, I ate at a Chinese restaurant and received a fortune cookie that read, "The will of the people is the best law." This was quite exciting to me as a graduate student in political science. You can only imagine how much more excited I was about twenty years later when I was eating at Peking Palace down on Dillerville Road and opened a fortune cookie that read, "The will of the people is the best law." This was for a political scientist like being struck by lightning twice. It seemed unlikely that such a profound statement would be the randomly coincidental product of two independent fortune cookie writers and neither of them had footnoted their work. So I did a little research and found that this quotation is frequently attributed in online sources and books of quotations to Ulysses S. Grant. However, more research reveals that Ulysses Grant, while he made statements from which this might possibly be inferred, probably never actually said it. Wikipedia and Google-based researchers, beware! But whatever the source, the quotation raises a good question: Is the will of the people really the best law? - do we value democracy because we think the people will make the best possible decisions or for some other reason?
Certainly one reason we value democracy is that it seems inherently the most legitimate form of government. But if the best government is one that makes the best decisions, do we really believe that the great mass of the people, a mixture of the educated and the not-so-educated, the smart and the not-so-smart, the informed and not-so-informed, will actually make the best decisions, especially in this increasingly complex modern world? Would we not be better off if we were governed by a more intelligent and better educated elite? William F. Buckley, Jr., gave his answer when he said that
I would rather be governed by the first two thousand people in the Boston telephone directory than by the two thousand people on the faculty of Harvard University (Keyes, 2006 pp. 82-83).
But it is likely, as suggested by our earlier discussion, that Buckley's expression was driven more by his animus for the liberal Harvard faculty than his faith in the ordinary people of Boston.
Is the will of the people really the best law? Much evidence suggests that it is not always. Richard Holbrooke, President Clinton's Ambassador to the United Nations and President Obama's Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan has said, "Suppose elections are free and fair and those elected are racists, fascists, separatists." The Nazi Party came to power in Germany in 1932 in a free and fair election. Fareed Zakaria writes, "Across the globe - from Peru to the Palestinian territories, from Ghana to Venezuela, people democratically elect governments that routinely ignore constitutional limits on their power and deprive their citizens of basic rights" (Zakaria, 2003, p. 17). In the United States, we need look no farther than California, which with its frequent use of the initiative, referendum, and recall is arguably the most democratic state in the country, but also clearly one of its most dysfunctional. In statewide referenda Californians have regularly voted to cut taxes at the same time as they have voted to spend billions of dollars on public projects and programs, leading to huge and unsustainable deficits. Then they turn on their elected public officials because they can't make the government work - first on Gray Davis who was recalled from office in 2003 and now on Arnold Schwarzenegger, who replaced him, but whose approval ratings, currently at 33%, now rival those of the man he replaced. So it is hard to argue that the will of the people is always the best law.
Thus it is interesting and important to know that the classical liberal democratic theorists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did not think that democracy was the best because it would always necessarily produce the best decisions, the best policies, but because it was best for the people and their development as individual human beings. In his classic treatise, "Considerations on Representative Government," John Stuart Mill wrote
The most important point of excellence which any form of government can possess is to promote the virtue and intelligence of the people themselves. The first question in respect to any political institutions is how far they tend to foster in the members of the community the various desirable qualities ... moral, intellectual, and active (Mill 1951, p. 259).
Note those words -not an important point of excellence, but the most important point of excellence. And not one of several questions, but the first question. And then note those various "desirable qualities - moral, intellectual, active" By becoming politically active and confronting difficult political issues, we sharpen our moral judgments. Is it right to destroy a human embryo to create a cure for a disease or injury that might improve the lives of other human beings? Is it right to torture a suspected terrorist to gain information that could save the lives of thousands of other people? Is it right to raise taxes on the wealthy to fund better healthcare and education for the poor?
Intellectually, by addressing complex policy questions, we make ourselves better observers and thinkers. Is it true that that the world is getting warmer and, if so, why, because of human activity or a natural cycle? Does capital punishment deter crime? Does cutting taxes on the wealthy end up helping or hurting lower income people?
And then there is that last word, active. By acting on our intellectual analyses and our moral judgments, we test their validity and we test ourselves.
Let me tell you a story about one of my earliest attempts at political action. During the 1972 presidential election campaign I was angrily anti-Nixon and passionately pro-McGovern. But I was so busy studying for my doctoral exams that I had done nothing to support McGovern throughout the whole campaign. Feeling angry and passionate - and guilty - I resolved I had to get out and work for the Democrats on Election Day. So I left my apartment in Ann Arbor about 10:30 in the morning and arrived at the Democratic party headquarters at 11. There I was given the name and address of a woman who lived a few miles away and needed a ride to the polls. I arrived at her door about 11:45, just as it began to pour cold rain. Mrs. Higgins, an elderly African-American woman, wasn't quite ready, so I went back and waited in my car for what turned out to be about half-an-hour. She eventually came out and we drove to her polling place, arriving there to find a long line winding around a big old church and into a basement door. Mrs. Higgins got in the line and waited patiently in the cold rain for about 45 minutes as she inched around the building and eventually disappeared into the basement. After another 45 minutes she emerged to report, "They said I don't vote here anymore. We have to go to another place." So she directed me to another church where we confronted another long line. Again, Mrs. Higgins waited in the rain, disappeared into the building, and finally emerged to report that yes, she had been able to vote. As darkness fell, I delivered her back to her front door, where she turned to me as she entered and said, "Thank you so much for taking all your time today to help me vote. It certainly was a pleasure to vote for Mr. Nixon." Stunned, I returned to my car and looked at the clock. It was 4:30. I had, as an activist Democrat, just spent six hours producing one vote for Richard Nixon. I returned to party headquarters and asked if there was anything else I could do. They said no, everything was covered, and so I went home in dejection.
But I did learn several important things that day, about the frustration that comes with action, about learning to laugh at myself, about the dangers of stereotypes - just because Mrs. Higgins was African-American and registered as a Democrat didn't mean that she was going to vote the way I thought she was - and about how the most important thing was not how she voted, but that she voted and that she voted for the candidate she thought best.
And I learned these things not because I had made all my moral judgments and intellectual analyses about Richard Nixon and George McGovern, but because I had acted.
We often think of education as a means to the end of citizenship and certainly it is, but Mill and his contemporaries also saw citizenship as a means to the end of education. We generally think of education as an institution that promotes democracy and democracy as a system of government, but classical liberal theory sees democracy not just as a system of government, but also as a system of education.
Liberal education is often described in speeches like this as being about learning how to learn and making a life-long commitment to learning. Our college's mission statement speaks of inspiring "in young people of high promise and diverse backgrounds a genuine and enduring love for learning." And I remember sitting at my Phi Beta Kappa initiation many years ago and thinking, "Yes, yes, I will read books and go to art museums and attend classical concerts."
But there can and should be more to it than that. Following in the classical liberal tradition, involving yourself in the political process, being an active citizen, is one of the best ways to continue along that path of life-long learning. In this increasingly complex world, our cities, our states, our nation, our world need all of you, not just the government majors, but also the history, math, humanities, natural and social science majors to contribute your knowledge, your judgment, and your energy to the resolution of the challenges we face. But you also owe it to yourself because it will, as the classical democratic theorists firmly believed, make you a better person, morally, intellectually and actively - a person who is thoughtful, appreciative of evidence, and aware that others may not agree, but willing to fight for what you believe
The former Speaker of the House Thomas O'Neill once said "All politics is local." But if we think of liberal in the sense that the classical theorists did, as referring to the development of virtue and intelligence in individual human beings, then we can say that "all politics is, or at least can be, liberal" - whether you are politically a liberal, moderate, or conservative, progressive, communitarian, libertarian, whatever - liberal in the educational sense of making you a better person. That, I would suggest, is the best way to think about liberal education and liberal politics. I hope that you will pursue a life of learning and I hope that you will make being a moral, intellectual, and active citizen an important part of that.
American National Election Study Cumulative Data File 1948-2004, available at sda.berkeley.edu
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"Nixon's the one still preoccupied with enemies." (2008, December 3). New York Times, p. A1
Obama, Barack. Presidential Inaugural Address, January 20, 2009.
Smith, Bruce L. R., Jeremy D. Mayer, and A. Lee Fritschler. 2008. Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in American Universities. Washington: Brookings Institution Press.
Unpublished GOPAC working paper. 1995. Accessible at www.wfu.edu/~zulick/454/gopac.html
Wilson, Woodrow. 1913. The New Freedom. New York: Doubleday, Page.
Woessner, Matthew, and April Kelly-Woessner. 2009. "I Think My Professor Is a Democrat: Considering Whether Students Recognize and React to Faculty Politics." PS: Political Science and Politics 42 (2), pp. 343-351.
Zakaria, Fareed. 2003. The Future of Freedom. New York: Norton.Zakaria, Fareed. (2009, May 4). "The Secret of His Success." Newsweek, p.28.