I am writing this message, with more than a little trepidation, exactly one month before the presidential inauguration. Predicting the twists and turns the next month will bring is hard, but I will make an educated guess that it is filled with lots of shouting and arrogance and very little listening and learning on all sides of the political spectrum. With that in mind, I encourage you to read (or re-read) William Cronon’s 1998 essay “Only Connect: The Goals of a Liberal Education.” I mean it. Read the essay (published in the American Scholar). It is among the most important pieces written about American higher education in the last 20 years or more.
In a country whose citizenry seems increasingly disconnected from each other and on a college campus with too little understanding of the meaning of the most recent election, Cronon provides a few guiding principles to which we should pay more than a little attention. Here is a short cheat-sheet.
The essence of this essay is how we should think about structuring a college experience whose aspiration is to “nurture the growth of human talent in the service of human freedom.” I wish I had written that. Cronon asks how we would know if someone has successfully embraced and internalized a liberal education. He offers a list of 10 potentially observable qualities or behaviors.
First and foremost is, “They listen and they hear … They work hard to hear what other people say.” This is a really big deal and casual evidence suggests it is getting increasingly rare.
We need to get far better at working hard to hear what other people are saying, Beloit College included. Indeed, more optimistically, I think places like Beloit College offer the potential for tiny little toeholds where authentic listening to others might actually be possible, even welcome. But getting there is not a slam dunk. It will take more trust across the campus than we probably currently have, and it will take a pretty hefty dose of courage and humility. And, we will need to be intentional. Working hard to hear what other people say? We can do a lot better. We should do a lot better.
The 10th and last item on Cronon’s list is this: “More than anything else, being an educated person means being able to see connections that allow one to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways.” In an increasingly disconnected nation within an increasingly disconnected world, aspiring to get far better at finding connections through a liberal education seems wonderfully substantive, hopeful, and refreshing.
Importantly, Cronon argues that an education leading you towards greater individual freedom requires the responsibility to connect—through understanding and action—to the world around you. The first sentence of Beloit’s mission statement reads: Beloit College engages the intelligence, imagination, and curiosity of its students, empowering them to lead fulfilling lives marked by high achievement, personal responsibility, and public contribution in a diverse society. This can never be fully achieved without (1) working hard to listen to what others say; and (2) understanding how the freedom that your Beloit education has helped to provide connects to the world around you.
Over the last year this country has looked and acted like a spectacularly un-liberally educated place. It is the responsibility of this college to be a place where differences of ways of knowing, of experiences, of opinions, get turned into transformational learning and development.
At an October meeting, the Beloit College board of trustees took up a proposal for a program that would promote opportunities to practice Cronon’s principles—to practice “civil discourse” around complicated and potentially contentious topics. The board not only endorsed the concept but also unanimously and enthusiastically provided generous funding for its first two years with equal contributions coming from all members. The details of this campus program are being worked out, but it seems to me that this is an important step in better realizing our mission as a college devoted to the power of a liberal education. I applaud our board for their vision and wisdom. Realizing a more Crononesque outcome will not be easy, but it is a worthy goal.
From here at Chapin’s desk with a New Year’s resolution to listen far better this year,
—President Scott Bierman