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Education in a Free SocietyPresident Robert H. EdwardsApril 10, 2001

Story posted April 10, 2001

I thought, as my time at Bowdoin comes to an end, to make this a brief speculation about the character of education in this still-new century mostly concerning higher education. But neither in Maine nor in the rest of the world can education be harshly stratified, its levels sealed off from each other. We at Bowdoin are in good measure the product of what goes on in the primary and secondary levels and what is happening broadly in the society and in the world of knowledge. In the same way, the college whose planning I'm involved with in Pakistan will be driven to be remedial or rigorous by the linguistic and cognitive preparation of students coming in the door and robust or timorous depending on the protections Pakistani society accords it. Both Bowdoin and the Aga Khan University are the collective expression of the attitudes to learning of their students attitudes formed early in life by families and their surrounding communities. So we will want to think broadly about education this morning. The broadest way to frame the subject may be to ask the question asked by Henry Rosovsky, Harvard's former Dean: "what do we expect the definition of an educated American to be in the 21st century"?

The title of these remarks "Education in a Free Society" in fact comes from the name of the study that resulted when President Conant asked a group of Harvard scholars to answer roughly this same question in 1943: What should an educated American be like when World War II ends? "We are concerned," he said, "with a general education a liberal education not for the relatively few, but for a multitude." He saw that not only knowledge, but our democratic American society itself, was to explode and enter a new phase in the post-war. That new, free society needed a certain kind of education.

The scholars' answers to Conant's question were interesting and their vision was both clear and opaque. They saw clearly that the new industrial society required new knowledge and skills: people had poured off the farms and out of the villages into the factories and the cities during the war. Knowledge had become increasingly specialized: scientists and humanists had little to say to each other. How could they be brought together? The Red Book, as the Conant study came to be called, still seems an articulate, passionate plea for an understanding of our cultural rootedness in the western tradition; for broad, integrated learning, and for a grasp of democratic institutions. But their view of democracy was remarkably narrow. The enormous impact on the American society they cherished scarcely fifteen years down the road of the entry of women, minorities, and new immigrants was not even imagined. Their democracy remained one of white males: their world was the Atlantic Alliance; their values were Judeo Christian.

This was very much the spirit of the age, and academic writers of the first decade of the post-war shared their common social optimism, a unified view of knowledge, agreement about what needed to be known, and a confidence in the institutions of the West. But, although Harvard's scholars totally failed to imagine our tumultuous diversity, at a broad level they got the model right. For they understood the great tension the contrary pulls that have always existed in America between the power and creativity of the unencumbered individual, on the one hand, and the controlling, common standards of society on the other. This is how the Red Book lays out these two propositions for higher education:

+ First, "the concern with the individual and the advancement of learning which is at the heart of the university are inseparable and indispensable. The development of the individual is inseparable from and indispensable to the advancement of knowledge."

+ Then later on, it states a second proposition: " the Second World War has shown us equally that in general education the strongest incentive comes from the whole man's awareness of his share in the common fate, of his part in the joint undertaking. In effect, the individual's growth must be informed by a sense of the common purpose, the joint undertaking of the surrounding society."

On both these axes American society today is beyond anything Harvard's twelve scholars contemplated. We are certainly freer: sexual freedom, divorce, abortion, pornography they would be surprised at our licentious freedoms. But surely they would be even more amazed at other freedoms: the availability of transportation; the diversity of instantaneous communication and information transmission; and, most of all, our spectacular inventiveness the intellectual and creative freedom that, to cite only one instance, draws the smartest individuals from all over the world to Silicon Valley to invent and make their fortunes.

But we are also more controlled. American society is gradually abandoning the heroic model of the lone, exploitative frontiersman. The greatest battles now, I think, are those in which we or groups of us representing common interests seek to create a benign commonality, a society in which the individual is protected, but is also inevitably constrained. A very high percentage of the issues I deal with as president of Bowdoin are rooted in this ongoing struggle to define wise, enduring social objectives, while protecting a free space for the talented individual. Take a couple of areas: affirmative action the long-term needs of a diverse society for economic and social inclusiveness for social peace rather than the endemic revolutions of Latin America versus the powerful claims of the immediately, obviously qualified individual; or the environment the society's attempts to establish limits on the use of water, air and land that will assure a sustainable envelope for a future collectivity of Americans limits that create costs and frustrations for individuals and institutions. (It now costs more for Bowdoin to dispose of a chemical reagent than to purchase it.) At a more immediate level, we as a college, a small-scale social collectivity, establish and enforce standards of civility and honesty that must exist if we are to safeguard our academic mission. Most of Bowdoin's litigation, however, is the result of individual, parental challenges to the impact of those standards when they are applied to individual students.

Ramifying this tension between the individual and society is of course the explosion of wealth in America from 6 to 10 trillion dollars in GNP this past decade. On the one hand nothing helps equality and participation in our society like an unemployment rate that is under 4 percent and buoyant federal and state revenues that can be spread around. On the other hand, there are few elements of the social model that large, ardent, well-financed groups of individuals are not determined to deflect one way or the other, through hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions and litigation.

So, not just this wonderful society of ours, but the educational institutions that function within it, feel today this tension between the individual and the joint undertaking far more acutely than the Red Book people ever foresaw.

What do we seem to be doing about it? Are there any trends or guiding philosophical agreements? any binding, or informal, consensus points or common understandings? Or is our model simply one of endless, passionate contestation in which everything is uncertain and can be purchased, negotiated or litigated?

Let me make two or three observations, for possible discussion or refutation, about our collective condition.

First and this is based on a look around the world at Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia a reminder that we start with one unique American inheritance. We have a broad constitutional commitment to contestation to the rules of play and the sanctity of the institutions that regulate the contest. The recent presidential election was anomalous and peculiar, but it was a triumph of proof that as a nation we accept the constitutional rules of the game as interpreted by the courts. Read Joe Ellis's book, Founding Brothers, which describes the remarkable debates in the late 18th century just as Bowdoin was being established when it was by no means clear what those rules would be. Today they are pretty clear. Free speech and its limits; rights to petition short of violence; freedom of thought and action short of actions to subvert and overthrow. These are the conventions and protections that enable Bowdoin to flourish and that a university cannot assume in Pakistan or Africa. It is that we are a nation of laws that creates the intellectual freedom and safety we enjoy in the academy. Lawless, ineffective states have lawless, ineffective universities.

Within our American, constitutional field of force, I think we can see several enduring issues that position both higher and secondary education today between the X axis of uncontrolled individualism and the Y axis of oppressive, leveling social organization.

1. The Curriculum: how we organize what we teach. Broadly speaking, this is still a bad time for the idea of a broad, integrated core curriculum. Those of us of a certain age grew up in a period in which the model of western civilization and study within a core, integrated field of learning was substantially accepted. The discipline-based academic department is today the driving unit of academic organization. I think this is because for the past generation new knowledge, individual discoveries particularly scientific knowledge have driven what universities and, infrequently, colleges do. This independent spirit is reflected in the primacy of the specialized academic department, and in the academic major or concentration as the definer of a student's academic experience. But inter-disciplinary programs have become far more powerful than they were 50 or even 20 years ago, and they are diluting the notion that academic work is a solitary business with the recognition that modern knowledge frequently emerges today as part of a joint undertaking. It may be specialized, but its compartments are larger and growing. Thus the hyphenated scientific disciplines of biochemistry, physical biology, physical chemistry, neuro-science (which brings together psychologists, computer scientists, applied mathematicians, philosophers, and linguists) to study human cognition; and the great socially and problem-driven programs of environmental studies, Africana studies, women's studies, and Asian studies. The western civilization model, as important and pervasive as it still remains, no longer defines an institutional curriculum, but individual academic departments increasingly are driven by knowledge itself to develop links.

2. Specialization versus general education. Despite the fact that this is still an age of specialization, the idea of general education a liberal arts education is in fresh, good repute. A liberal education is seen today not as an alternative to specialization; it is believed instead to be the broadening, humanizing, morally strengthening precondition of a functioning professional of a lawyer, doctor, researcher, public policy maker, or business person. The liberal arts, in a word, are the point of access to the higher professions. (Four percent of Bowdoin's first year students this year expect their Bowdon BA to be their final degree.) This interest in the liberal arts, or general education, is interestingly growing even in the developing world. An example: The Aga Khan University has been effectively training very talented young physicians for 15 years, on the European model of an undergraduate medical education that begins when students are age 17 or 18 and yields an MBBS degree. The University now realizes that, although it is producing first-rate scientists, residencies and internships are revealing that these bright young scientists simply haven't thought deeply or systematically enough about human existence, ethics, and values to deal imaginatively and mercifully with death and the prolongation of life to be good doctors. Hence the University's determination to establish an undergraduate college of arts and sciences that will expose students to philosophy, art, poetry, psychology and anthropology. Even the World Bank today laments that its rate-of-return analyses of educational investment focused so totally on primary education. It now sees the high cost of the terrible dearth of highly and broadly educated people in the developing world. So the single eye, the narrow definition of truth in the mind of the brilliant specialist, may still drive the higher education model, but flexibility of mind, tolerance, human understanding and the beginnings of wisdom the business of the liberal arts are considered increasingly important if individuals are to contribute to the functioning of societies.

3. Finally, after a generation of great individualism with its happy consequences of creativity and its less attractive aspects of individual self-indulgence and greed there seems to me to be a broad consensus in American society about the need for communities and institutions to define, adopt and enforce reasonable rules of behavior, if individuals are to flourish.

An interesting indicator is the new report of a Commission, established by the Maine Legislature, called "Taking Responsibility: Standards for Ethical and Responsible Behavior in Maine Schools and Communities." It was established in response to evidence that, even in Maine, 20 percent of students feel unsafe at school; 45 percent of them believe that students do not show respect for teachers. The assumption of the report is that Maine's Learning Results prescriptions for higher academic standards have no chance of practical expression if the schools are not communities where fairness, honesty, respect and responsibility define and protect individual freedom. School boards are now required in Maine to establish standards of school behavior and to enforce them. I see these same impulses strongly at work at Bowdoin. Students here, far more than when I entered, respect, enforce and are proud of the College honor code and social code and have adopted them as their own. They tell me that they derive individual freedom and a lack of pressure from the knowledge that the Bowdoin culture stands against dishonesty and violence. In effect they are seeing learning as inseparable from its context of law and society.

This may be partly Maine: it is not true everywhere. I was sad to see a note the other day that my institution, Princeton, has felt it necessary to give up its honor code because students no longer believe that it prevents inventive, entrepreneurial cheating. I can vouch for the fact, clear at Bowdoin, that if educational leaders will stand strongly for the collective values of honesty, civility and personal responsibility, students and faculty will support them.

I could go on with examples of what I believe are encouraging reinforcements of the "joint undertaking" that was so important to the founding fathers and to the drafters of the Red Book.

I will only suggest in conclusion that this tension between individual freedom and the awareness of the commonweal will continue. To use a current example, the creators of the new field of genetic engineering, with its clear potential for good in the realms of medicine and agriculture, will need freedom, encouragement and resources. And the society including the academy will need to wrestle to establish collective, communal rules of play for this new field that are based on knowledge, good sense, and a reasonable definition of the "joint undertaking," not upon fear, the well-funded prejudices of interested opponents, or simple wrong-headedness. Power in America will continue to be contested by the center and the periphery, the Federal government and the states, the state and the individual.

My optimistic sense is that schools and colleges, and perhaps the society as a whole, after a tumultuous generation of individualism and preoccupation with the rights of sub-groups, are setting about to define again on various levels, the nature of the commonality and the rules within which all individuals can truly thrive the rules of play for everyone. As for the educated American of the coming century, I think she and he will have engaged deeply a field of knowledge in science, the humanities, social sciences or arts but will have developed, through wide learning and a great range of contacts with other students and the surrounding community, also a feeling for the great complex system of American society and its ethical and civic requirements.

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