Liberal Education, Women’s Leadership and the “Fierce Urgency of Now”

Andrea Chapdelaine and Lynn Pasquerella

In June 2018, as part of the College's 125th anniversary celebration and Reunion weekend, Lynn Pasquerella spoke about the importance of liberal education and women's leadership.

Lynn Pasquerella, President, Association of American Colleges and Universities

It is such an honor and privilege to be with you this afternoon to celebrate of 125 years of excellence at Hood College, and I am deeply grateful to President Chapdelaine for this opportunity and for her gracious hospitality. Hood’s commitment to providing an education for the 21-st century, grounded in the integration of the liberal arts and professions offers a model of excellence. Indeed, it is precisely the educational preparation the Association of American Colleges and Universities highlights in our new strategic plan, centered on creating an ascendant narrative that contests accusations of irrelevancy and illegitimacy leveled against higher education, in general, and liberal education, in particular. The plan serves as a collective call to action to make visible the transformative power of colleges and universities like Hood, and for those of us who believe that higher education is inextricably linked to our nation’s historic mission of educating for democracy, the work seems more urgent than ever.

 The public purpose of higher education is something I am particularly passionate about, not only because of my role as president of an organization whose mission it is to advance the vitality and public standing of liberal education by making quality and equity the foundations for excellence in undergraduate education in service to democracy, but also because I was the direct beneficiary of a program designed to promote civic engagement and leadership through educational opportunity. The summer I graduated from high school, I managed to escape the factory work I had done alongside my mother the previous summer only because I received funding under the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act.  At the time, CETA funds were reserved for high school students who were at risk of permanent unemployment due to extreme economic and social disadvantages. That fall, I continued working 35 hours a week under a CETA grant while attending a local community college, with the additional help of Pell grants and Perkins loans. An only child, I had decided to forego a full scholarship to my state’s flagship University to serve as a care-giver for my mother, who had become chronically ill.   

Two years later, I transferred to Mount Holyoke College and within another two years was headed off to Brown University for my Ph.D.  When I graduated, I vowed that I would never forget what I learned in my transition from community college to the Seven Sisters and the Ivy League. Thus, throughout my career, I have been committed to promoting access to excellence in higher education, to championing both the centrality of liberal learning and women’s leadership, and to defending political scientist Benjamin Barber’s notion of colleges and universities as “civic missions”–where we “not only educate every person to make her free, but we free every person to make her educable” by serving as a visible force in the lives of the most disenfranchised members of society.  

In these days of wide-spread skepticism regarding the value-added of a college education, I am concerned that we are eroding democratic access to the more substantive avenues by which learning enriches us all.  We are impeding access not only to the public purpose of higher education, but access to it’s personal purpose, as well. By the personal purpose of higher education, I mean engendering the capacity to grapple with and respond to the most fundamental questions of human existence. My own experience is illustrative.  

Among the courses I signed up for during my first semester of college was an American Literature class. There weren’t many students in that class: most enrolled in courses that more easily translated into better jobs—or any job at all. One evening my professor arranged for us to see a Hartford performance of “All the Way Home,” a Pulitzer Prize winning play by Tad Mosel.  I had never attended a professional production before, and Hartford was a world away–known only to me as the place my father traveled nightly on a third-shift bus to work at Pratt and Whitney. I remember piling into a car with my classmates, dressed in a blue velveteen jumpsuit (it was the 70s after all). And when the lights dimmed, I was transported. In the dark, perhaps especially in the dark, I felt part of something important. Surrounded by classmates, I stared ahead at the stage and waited for what I could not yet see.

After the play, our class went for Chinese food and talked. The performance had raised so many big questions about faith, grief, and trust. We discussed the last act when a wife mourns her husband’s unexpected death. “I hope he loved being,” she said, recognizing the possibility the he never realized his own strength and potential. What that evening taught me, and why I remember it after all these years, is that we all have a right to experience “being.” We are all entitled to live in our strength. We all deserve opportunities to find our best and most authentic selves. 

A liberal education can be a guide to such personal enrichment, but when we imply that the only outcome disenfranchised students care about is money, we run the risk of circumscribing their futures, both personally, and in the public domain. Indeed, positing employability as the lone metric for determining higher education’s value precludes a consideration of the ways in which the illumination of human consciousness through literature, philosophy, music and the arts allows us to flourish fully as human beings, enriching our experiences as individuals and as members of a community.

As a philosopher, whose father spent most of his life working as a welder, I was particularly interested in Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s attack on liberal education a few years ago using the dictum that we need more welders and fewer philosophers. Yet, Rubio was certainly not alone in attacking liberal education. Florida governor Rick Scott had already laid the groundwork by asking, “Is it of vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state,” adding “It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on, those types of degrees, so when they get out of school, they can get a job” (Neuroanthropology 10/11/211).  

North Carolina’s former governor, Patrick McCrory, had already proposed legislation that would base funding for public colleges and universities solely on the employability of college graduates, rather than the number of students enrolled. He said, “It’s not based on butts in seats but on how many of those butts can get jobs.” Challenging the value of public support for liberal arts majors, he insisted, “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if it’s not going to get someone a job” (IHE 1/30/13). For similar reasons, Sam Clovis, President Trump’s educational policy advisor during the campaign announced a plan that would deny federal student loans to liberal arts majors at non-elite institutions; while Wisconsin’s governor Scott Walker advocated meeting his state’s workforce needs by stripping out what he considers frills such as “the search for truth,” “public service,” and “improving the human condition” from the university system’s mission, maintaining that a purely technological education is the only way to stand up to global competition (On Point, WBUR, 2/19/15).

And though he tried to redeem himself by tweeting that he was a politics and English major and learned a lot more from reading novels than textbooks, former President Obama’s rhetoric around his proposed college rating system was not as far removed from the sentiments of the others as some would like. Introduced in 2013, Obama’s plan was rolled out with the purpose of comparing “schools based on a simple criterion: where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.” Obama promised to “reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math — the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.”  He later got himself into hot water by proclaiming that “folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree” (Christian Post 5/28/15). 

These comments each position a liberal arts education as reserved for those within the ivory tower, reflecting a willful disconnect from the practical matters of everyday life. In so doing, they fuel the image of a liberal education as a self-indulgent luxury—an image that has led to the excising of humanities programs, especially in public institutions, in favor of vocational and pre-professional programs that are regarded as singularly responding to demands for economic opportunity. The narrow focus on earning power makes it is easier for state legislatures and taxpayers to justify defunding higher education. 

Like Senator Rubio’s claim that if we privilege vocational over liberal education, “we will be able to increase wages for millions of Americans” … and “be able to leave everyone better off without making anyone worse off,” the underlying message is that colleges and universities are too expensive, too difficult to access, and don’t teach people 21st-century skills. It is a message that resonates deeply with a broad segment of the American public, grounded in fear that creates a false dichotomy between vocational or pragmatic education and liberal education, between welding and philosophy.

Yet, the dominant narrative that one’s undergraduate major is all that matters and that only some majors will prepare students for success in the workplace obscures the reality. The evidence from AAC&U’s own surveys of employers, and from many economists, suggests that this is simply not the case, as noted in our report of employers’ views, “It Takes More Than a Major.” In fact, more than 90 percent of employers agreed that “a graduate’s ability to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.” Such cross-cutting skills can be developed in a wide variety of chosen disciplines if the courses are well-designed and if they are integrated within robust, problem-based general education programs.  

A student’s undergraduate experience, and how well the experience advances critical learning outcomes, is what matters most, with 80 percent of employers agreeing that all students need a strong foundation in the liberal arts and sciences. A liberal education fosters the capacity to write, speak and think with precision, coherence and clarity; to propose, construct and evaluate arguments; and to anticipate and respond to objections. And it offers what employers value the greatest: the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings, to engage in ethical decision making and to work with diverse teams on solving unscripted problems with people whose views differ from one’s own. In a globally interdependent, multicultural world, it is precisely because employers place a premium on innovation in response to rapid change that they emphasize these students experiences rather than narrow technical training. 

While the liberal education for all campaign is derided by skeptics as elitist, the real danger of elitism comes from a failure to recognize the disparate impact of such rhetoric on those who are already the most marginalized and underserved members of society. The notion that we need more welders and fewer philosophers, that we should train more engineers than art historians, more people in business and industry than in anthropology and that only those at prestigious institutions should be able to take out loans to study religion, gender studies, or the classics runs the risk of enhancing inequity by perpetuating what Jefferson referred to as an unnatural aristocracy. For this reason, we need to be vigilant in rebutting accusations leveled against the liberal arts and sciences and to recognize those charges for what they are: collusion in the growth of an intellectual oligarchy in which only the very richest and most prestigious institutions preserve access to the liberal arts traditions. Democracy cannot flourish in a nation divided into haves and have nots. For this reason, the presumption that college is only about workforce training is dangerous to our democratic future.

As sociobiologist E. O. Wilson cogently observed, contemporary society is “drowning in information, while starving for wisdom.” Accompanied by his prediction that “the world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely,”1Wilson’s comments highlight both the value of a liberal education and the ideal of an educated citizenry in an age when the democratization of information through the Internet has given rise to a new wave of anti-intellectualism—one steeped in the denial of reason and the distrust and disdain of experts. The result has been an increasing polarization of American society and an entrenched refusal to countenance opposing points of view, contributing to a marketplace of ideas at risk of falling prey to those who have the resources to control the shaping of public opinion and policies. In this arena, asserted claims become orthodoxy despite the absence of evidence and in the face of enduring questions. In a country in which partisan divides are greater than they have been in more than half a century, and in a world in which the oceans are rising and civility is plummeting, we need to ask what we can learn from the past. 

In May of 1863, in a nation enmeshed in the Civil War, Emily Dickinson wrote a letter to two of her cousins, confessing “I must keep ‘gas’ burning to light the danger up, so I could distinguish it.” The poet’s words reflect her unflinching pursuit of the truth, and the need she felt to move beyond her own narrow viewing point. Dickinson wanted to “light the danger up”—not turn away from it. She sought to look at what others either could not or did not want to see. In the midst of national dissension and uncertainty, she strove to use every ounce of her being in the process of discovery—perhaps understanding that deliberative democracy, especially in times of crisis, relies on the creation of a critical public culture that foments reasoned debate and independent thought.

One hundred years later, during the 1963 March on Washington, in a nation still divided, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there ‘is’ such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.” King was advocating for what he referred to as “dangerous altruism,” contending that the “real question of life is whether an individual is able to say I do this not because of what it means to me, but because of what it will mean to my brother (or sister) if I fail to do it.”          

Paying attention to the object lessons of both Dickinson and King is more crucial than ever. We need to light up the danger and reassert the power of a liberal education in discerning the truth. At the same time, we need to face the fierce urgency of now and engage in dangerous altruism, recognizing that higher education and its graduates must play a leadership role in jettisoning a belief in the hierarchy of human value.    

If people’s beliefs are based more on tribalism than reason, in addressing the misinformation and incivility resulting from the debilitating impact of a rhetoric-for-hire, we need to redouble our focus on world citizenship and the interdependence of all human beings and communities as the foundation for education. Understanding that anger, hostility, and pity each carry the risk of creating barriers to humanistic identification, facilitating humanizing identification, finding commonality among individuals with radically different perspectives and offering a starting point for collective social transformation carries new import.  

A commitment to global learning grounded in rigorously analyzing and openly questioning the sources of narratives, including history, evidence and facts, is based on the principle that the world is a collection of interdependent yet inequitable systems and that higher education has a vital role in expanding knowledge of human and natural systems, privilege and stratification, and sustainability and development to foster individuals’ ability to advance equity and justice at home and abroad. It is the at the very heart of Hood’s mission to empower students to use their hearts, minds and hands to meet personal, professional and global challenges and to lead purposeful lives of responsibility, leadership, service and civic engagement. 

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum offers a compelling defense of this type of global education for the future. She observes, 

One of the greatest barriers to rational deliberation in politics is the unexamined feeling that one’s own current preferences and ways are neutral and natural. An education that takes national boundaries as morally salient too often reinforces this kind of irrationality, by lending to what is an accident of history a false air of moral weight and glory. (Nussbaum 1994)

Nussbaum argues that placing a community of human beings above national boundaries will bring us closer to solving global problems that require international cooperation, but it will necessitate the revision of curricula in support of the recognition of a shared future and the fostering of global dialogue grounded in the geography, ecology, traditions and values of others. It is one in which our deliberations are, first and foremost, “deliberations about human problems of people in particular concrete situations, not problems growing out of a national identity that is altogether unlike that of others” and in which students not only “recognize humanity wherever” it is encountered, but also “understand humanity in all its ‘strange’ guises” (Nussbaum 1994). When every human being becomes part of our community of dialogue and concern, and our political deliberations are grounded in that common human bond, it becomes more difficult to be dismissive of the well-being of others and easier to denounce ignorance and bigotry. 

Further, if we are to contest the widespread perception that colleges and universities are out of touch with mainstream America, those of us championing liberal education must use whatever modes of engagement are available to us to connect the work being done in the academy with people’s lives—radio, television, videos, tweets, blogs, theater, hip-hop.  For instance, Anna Deavere Smith, founder and director of Harvard’s Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, uses documentary theater to demonstrate this capacity while confronting some of the most pressing social issues of the day. In her linguistic ethnography and one-woman show “Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines,” Smith places herself in “other people’s words” in the way that one might place oneself in another’s shoes. Her objective has been to “reignite our collective imagination about what it’s like to be the ‘other person’” and to “show the empathetic soul of American identities whose words wait and create change.” A riff on John Cage’s notion that “We only hear what listen for,” Smith insists, “If there is any hope for us, it lies in relearning to tell the truth and hear it, in reclaiming ourselves as a listening space.”  

I am convinced that this is where women’s leadership, in politics, education, business, industry and in communities, can make a profound difference. Yet, the exercise of the types of transformational practices suggested by Nussbaum and Deavere Smith are often thwarted by hidden biases and barriers. Six years ago, when Academy Award-winning writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron died, I went back to read several of her works one more time, beginning with her collection of stories, Crazy Salad, which was assigned in a class I took as an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke on Women and Moral Rights. From the significance of breast size and the rapid demise of the first woman umpire to the impact of feminism on sex and the mysteries of feminine hygiene products, Ephron used wit and sarcasm to paint a portrait of feminism in the 70s. A decade later, when she rewrote the introduction to her book, she marveled at how so much of what happened in the early 1970s seemed to have been undone, and how so much of what ought to have happened since simply hadn’t. The “crazy salad” to which she refers is lifted from a poem by Yeats, and for Ephron it is comprised of the “mistakes, the contradictions, the counterproductiveness, and the glorious mess of it all.” I laughed out loud at her reflections in this and other of her notable works like Heartburn, but the piece I found most compelling was her 1996 commencement speech given at Wellesley, her alma mater.

Ephron reminded the graduates that despite enormous gains, the pay differential between men and women has persisted, that while there was an increase in female directors, making a movie about women was as difficult as it ever was, and that though many of her contemporaries had successful personal and professional lives, the powerful cultural values that wrecked the lives of so many of her classmates were still lurking in the background. She asked them not to underestimate how much antagonism there still is toward women and how many people wish we could turn the clock back. She says, “One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is, don’t take it personally, but listen hard to what’s going on and, please, I beg you, take it personally. Understand: Every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you. Underneath almost all those attacks are the words: Get back, get back to where you once belonged.”

Of course, she’s right, and her words are more resonant today than they were in 1996. We should all take it personally when social and political realities deny women full participation in the public sphere, create barriers to healthcare and fail to provide workplace free from harassment. The dominant social norms that traversed the decades and centuries in which Hood’s first alumnae lived encouraged women to keep quiet and listen rather than speak, to be empathetic rather than critical, to be caring rather than aggressive, and to be collaborative and consensus building rather than authoritarian and autocratic.

Paradoxically, these very same characteristics often make women more effective than their male counterparts as leaders, while at the same time inhibiting some women by preventing them from taking a place at the table, exercising their voices and, when necessary, making noise. Yet, following Ephron’s advice to take things personally is not enough. We have to act to promote change where we believe it is necessary to meet the demands of social justice. We need to ensure women’s equal access to and full participation in power structures and decision making. 

Rather than personalizing environmental assumptions, we must identify structural limitations that reflect hidden biases and promote organizational understanding from the viewpoint of structural, rather than internal, dynamics. If we hope to make meaningful strides in promoting women’s leadership, we must be prepared for a shift that reflects a valuing of authentic leadership. But, this brand of leadership cannot make a difference unless structural change is coupled with cultural change. Social justice champion, author, and television host Wes Moore reveals the inextricable link between the two in his commentary on Freddie Gray’s death. In April 2015, Gray, a twenty-five-year-old black man, was arrested in Baltimore, Maryland, and died a week later from injuries sustained while being transported in a police van. As a Baltimore native, Moore was deeply affected by the tragedy. After talking about the injustice he saw embedded in the case, a friend made him watch the tape of the incident leading to Gray’s death through a different lens—without looking at the officers or Gray. What Moore saw for the first time was the number of people on the street in the middle of the morning with no jobs, nowhere to go, no way out. He realized that Gray’s whole life in that neighborhood had been leading to that moment, and that his fate could have been that of any one of the people there. Without looking at the macro issues, protesting the injustice of Gray’s death is futile. In the same way, we will never make real progress in advancing women’s leadership until we address the macro issues in our society that keep us from shattering the increasingly thick glass ceiling or, in the case of women of color, breaking through what is often referred to as the concrete ceiling. 

As you celebrate the 125th anniversary of Hood College, I know you will take stock of the many ways in which this remarkable college has empowered you to find a voice and transform the world in small and large ways on a daily basis. One of the most gratifying aspects of participating in the women’s marches in 2017, of watching the leaders of the teachers’ unions who are mobilizing change, of witnessing the passion and promise of young people seeking to safeguard their communities from gun violence, is the sense of optimism and empowerment that comes from joining together in community with those who have shared objectives and values. AAC&U has that same sense of optimism and empowerment in working together with Hood College in leading the way for transformative change, and we are truly grateful for your many contributions.