Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Beijing, and South Carolina

I write from Hong Kong, where I arrived last night (well, this morning to you at the antipodes) from Beijing. I gave two talks at the Beijing Institute of Technology, an enormous engineering school that has ambitions to be a top university in the liberal arts as well. I was surprised when I received the kind invitation from Professor Pang Haishao to learn that "Liberal arts" was even a concept on the mainland. In fact Professor Pang heads an institute for liberal education that unites the interests of faculty at several universities. I am grateful to the Institute for inviting me to speak and am honored to have had the opportunity to meet the Chairman of the Council, Guo Dacheng, and several other senior officials of BIT.

Some of the challenges to liberal education in China are the expected ones and would be familiar to any American academic who has participated in a general education program that cuts across all disciplines. For example there is the competition for curricular time with specialized subjects; students demand to know "what will learning this get me?" I admire Prof. Pang and her colleagues who are pressing the case that liberal education is good for the soul, and actually makes for a more creative educated class.

In my talk I hit hard on the key phrase in Harvard's Gen Ed masthead, of education conducted "in a spirit of free inquiry." I pressed the need for universities to be the places in society where everything can be questioned, where nothing is ever finally settled. I noted the dichotomy in Harvard's statement about the goals of general education, between cultivating traditions and preparing students for a changing world. And I stressed the importance of universities as the places where ethical leaders are educated.

The money quote I used to explain General Education came from an unexpected direction. When some Harvard Hollywood types were up for prizes recently, the Globe ran a story with this piece of wisdom from a colleague in the department of Visual and Environmental Studies:
Alfred Guzzetti, a filmmaker and VES professor, describes that philosophy in straightforward terms. 
“If you want professional training, do it after college,” said Guzzetti. “In college, try to learn about the world.” 
The reaction was very positive, and I got some touching notes from young faculty, some referring to specifically to the Guzzetti quote. I signed about ten copies of Excellence Without a Soul, and that astonished me. These were copies of the second Chinese printing, which I had not seen -- it has a different and cheerier cover than the first. One person told me she had tried to get a copy of the English language original but it was confiscated at customs! I have a vision of a naughty customs official reading it by flashlight in some secluded hideaway.

As I talked to more people about the book, I began to understand that its appeal was only partly due to whatever meager eloquence I might have brought to the argument for liberal education. Professors liked it just as much for what it said about the possibility in America, and in an American university in particular, of defying authority and getting away with it.

So I am glad I hit the issue of free speech very hard, and the inextricable intertwining of academic freedom and freedom of speech. In one slide I posted ex-NYU-President Sexton's avowal that you could have academic freedom without full free speech rights, and said I doubted that was true, so ventures like NYU-Shanghai and Yale-NUS were inauthentic lookalikes of liberal institutions. I observed that America had never had a Lysenko, and that the courts were backing the rights of climate scientists and evolutionary scientists against the appalling political interference to which they were sometimes subjected.

I stumbled in at least one place, where I wish I had explained myself better. I talked about universities having a role in promoting civic engagement, which is the fourth of the listed purposes of Harvard's Gen Ed program. One questioner asked point blank whether that meant that Gen Ed was a vehicle for promoting political correctness. I realized only afterwards where that question was coming from -- the difference between propaganda and promotion of civic virtue is far from obvious when "harmony" is a matter of law. I had already spent some time on the First Amendment and the fact that mistrust of government is itself a fundamental civic ideal in the U.S. The audience seemed to particularly enjoy my images of political cartoons of American presidents, from Jefferson as a cock to his hen Sally Hemmings, to both George W. Bush and Barack Obama as monkeys.

So overall it was an inspiring visit, not only for what it taught me about the aspirations of Chinese academics but for what it reminded me about how lucky I am to be a professor where I am, in a country that puts academic speech out of range of government censors and propagandists.

Then I woke up in Hong Kong and read about the government of South Carolina.
This month the House moved to strip the College of Charleston of $52,000 in the state budget and the University of South Carolina-Upstate of about $17,000, citing concerns that the reading assignments were out of line with taxpayers’ values. 
So there we are. The legislature thinks it is just promoting civic virtue by punishing a university for assigning a couple of books that talk about gay issues. Maybe we don't have so much to be proud of after all, if legislators are so easily confused about the meaning of speech, debate, discussion, and argument. It's like we were back in the McCarthy era, when academics and schoolteachers got punished for having students read The Communist Manifesto.

A word to American academics of all disciplines: There is no possibility that we could talk too much about the importance of free speech. Lose that and we lose everything. Defend that and we give hope to the world.


  1. "So overall it was an inspiring visit, not only for what it taught me about the aspirations of Chinese academics but for what it reminded me about how lucky I am to be a professor where I am, in a country that puts academic speech out of range of government censors and propagandists."

    Professor, thank you. This is why I tell my 12 year old son that there is only one school he needs aspire to.

  2. There's a second "money" quote in this stimulating post:

    "The difference between propaganda and promotion of civic virtue is far from obvious when 'harmony' is a matter of law." --Harry Lewis

    A few of my Yale students from China bowl me over with their thirst, their eagerness, to understand and engage liberal education. I'm forwarding this post to two of them right now.

    But it's a paradox, isn't it, that guest speakers like you, Harry, get to say things in China that, as you rightly suggest, would be much riskier for you or other such speakers to affirm and to act on, if you entered into longer-term arrangements with the hosts, as NYU has done in Shanghai and Yale has done in Singapore. Is there at least a chance that talks like yours last week in Beijing will make things better for the longer-term visitors? Or are presentations like yours "bracketed" somehow in your Beijing listeners' minds? Jim Sleeper

  3. Interesting questions, Jim. I was told that my talk was being video recorded and would be made generally available, but I don't know if that will actually happen. I left copies of my slide deck in several hands, some official and some not. The slides include nice quotes like "Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives" (Madison) and "[The people] have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge; I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers" (Adams), as well as “A healthy society needs truthful voices. And truthful voices come from truthful people. A lot of people say a lot of things, but they don’t believe these things, they are just echoing other people. China is full of noise, but it’s silent. You don’t hear real voices.” (Wang Hui of Tsinghua U.) I explained that inoffensiveness is not a strong value in the US or in American universities--I used as examples John Winthrop touting his theory of earthquakes in lectures at Harvard in 1755, and Scott Brown's condemning as "dangerous thinking" their conference on a one-state solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict, calling on Harvard to cancel the conference -- which of course Harvard did not do.

    I don't think my talk will be bracketed. As I said, I had a very pleasant meeting the next mooring with the top officials in the university, who expressed the hope of possible longer term collaborations.

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