President Martin at Convocation: Colleges “Protect the Free Pursuit of Knowledge for the Good of Society”

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September 7, 2015

The purpose of the liberal arts is to search for truth—no matter where such a quest leads—and it is the role of colleges to provide a safe place for students and faculty to do so, Amherst College President Biddy Martin reminded a standing-room-only crowd of faculty, staff and this year’s 477 new students in her annual Convocation address on Sept. 7.

“We are the institutions … protecting people’s free pursuit of knowledge, not merely for the good of individual scholars, not simply for the good of institutions, but for the good of society,” she said. “Were academic freedom and tenure to disappear from higher education, the entire society would be the poorer for it.”

Martin’s remarks and Opening Convocation itself capped seven days of Orientation activities and officially kicked off the 2015–16 academic year. The first formal gathering of the first-year class, along with 20 newly arrived transfer students, the annual ceremony officially welcomes the new students to Amherst.


Members of the Amherst faculty process into Convocation

The event features many touches of academic tradition—a procession of the Amherst faculty and president (all in their academic regalia), music by the College’s Choral Society and the awarding of master of arts degrees to faculty who have reached the rank of full professor but are not graduates of Amherst. It also features an address from the president.

This year’s talk focused on the freedoms that liberal arts and, by extension, Amherst College protects.

Martin stressed that the term “liberal arts” is from the Latin word liberalis and does not allude to a political leaning. Rather, in higher education, the term references a commitment to freedom, “from ignorance, myth and prejudice.”

After discussing “Only Connect,” an essay by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor William Cronon about 10 qualities of a “liberally educated person,” Martin described what she sees as the College’s charge: “to protect freedom of inquiry [and] freedom of expression and to place the highest priority on those freedoms.” She noted Amherst’s Statement on Respect for Persons and emphasized the Statement on Freedom of Expression and Dissent, which “affirms the right of teachers and students to teach and learn, free from coercive force and intimidation and subject only to the constraints of reasoned discourse and peaceful conduct.”

“Take advantage of your freedom to think, to learn,” she told the students. “You’re in a place that is often seen as a kind of laboratory, one in which you have freedoms you’ve never had before—to think, to discover, take positions [and] develop points of view without fear of reprisal.”

Yet she also urged them to relax and enjoy their time at Amherst.

“Some of the most important things,” Martin said, “occur not because we make them happen, but because we are capable of letting them happen.” She cited Joseph Beuys’ poem “Lass Dich Fallen,” sharing (first in the original German, and then in her translation), several of its bits of advice, including “invite someone dangerous to tea,” “cry at movies” and “refuse to do it out of responsibility; do it for love.”  

“[The] lovely things that we can let happen can be combined with a sense of urgency and with action when it’s needed. In fact, if we can’t let these things be, then political urgency and action can do as much harm as good,” Martin said.

“Let no one persuade you that a liberal arts education is a luxury or that it is anything other than real life,” she concluded. “I wish you fun, joy and the rewards of hard work.”


Psychology professor John-Paul Baird, chemistry professor Anthony Bishop, 
economics professor Christopher Kingston and English professor Marisa Parham
after they received their honorary master's degrees

Prior to speaking to the first-years, Martin conferred honorary master’s degrees on John-Paul Baird, professor of psychology; Christopher Kingston, professor of economics; Anthony Bishop, professor of chemistry; and Marisa Parham, professor of English and director of the Five Colleges Digital Humanities Project. She also recognized two faculty recently promoted to full professor who are already Amherst alumni: Rick Lopez ’93, professor of history and dean of new students, and Jessica Reyes ’94, professor of economics.


Transcript: President Martin’s 2015 Convocation Address

I want you to imagine a world in which narrow specialists excel at specific tasks and functions, but have little or no capacity to put those functions in a larger social or ethical context. Imagine, in that world, that people avoid residential education because human-to-human interactions are inefficient and sometimes difficult. Political leaders see the liberal arts as a luxury, at best a luxury, and at worst a threat, and a waste of taxpayer money in any case. Between the cradle and the grave, there is only continual résumé building and preparation for the next step on the way to a job. Your lives never come. There is no being, or dwelling, or tarrying.

Oh, you might say we are already in that world, [though] not yet fully. I don’t believe we are there, but residential liberal arts education is seen by far too many people as a holdover from another age. For years we have heard calls for more efficient content delivery and credentialing services. And some of our responses to these calls fail to elevate the discussion, when, for example, we use the tools of our critics to emphasize only the financial return on a degree. This is not the only or the best way to respond to the dismissiveness we encounter. There are financial benefits to a liberal arts education, and you will surely reap them, but there is too much at stake for you, for the wider world and for the planet, for you to spend four years here only preparing for particular careers.  We urgently need people who know how to think and are capable of thinking with others.

The good news is that the liberal arts have been attacked regularly over the course of their existence in this pragmatic culture. I have read many of the convocation and commencement speeches of prior Amherst presidents, and virtually all of them lament the attacks on liberal arts education and worries about its sustainability. Almost 200 years later, we are still here, and the mission has never been more important.

The “liberal” in the “liberal arts” is not a political leaning or designation, of course. It derives from the Latin liberalis and commits us to freedom—freedom from ignorance, myth and prejudice. I purposefully use language that is now considered “old,” because it has greater power in many cases that the more superficial or hedged terms we are encouraged to use today. Many people think about ignorance as not knowing, as though what we know and what we don’t know were only accidents or matters of timing. Ignorance is not a simple matter of not yet knowing, but of being invested in not knowing. If you want a good story about the power of human resistance to truth and the role of social, economic and political forces in shaping our psyches, go see the film Phoenix. It is set in postwar Germany and focuses on ultimate betrayal and a horrifying, seemingly implausible denial of reality, on the one hand, while showing incredible strength, courage and awareness, against all odds, on the other. It is an extreme case of willful not knowing, with financial benefits at stake, but, more fundamentally, deep psychological investment in not seeing what is so obviously true.

No one graduates from the need to question their certainties. A college education will not free you once and for all from the many obstacles to knowing and awareness. But it will teach you how to recognize, in your emotional resistance to ideas, the prejudices that form and limit you.

The purpose of the liberal arts is the pursuit of truth, wherever it leads, in an environment that is conducive to learning and change. It is the job of colleges and universities to ensure that inquiry and exchange are possible. As institutions, we are charged with protecting academic freedom and freedom of expression, not merely for the good of individual scholars and scientists or the good of individual institutions, but for the good of the society as a whole. Colleges and universities are among the only institutions whose mission is defined by that commitment. In a period of uncertainty and fear, disagreement and antagonism, protecting the free exchange of ideas become more difficult, but also more essential. Once we abandon our charge, we are no longer in the business of higher education, and the society is poorer for the loss.

In return for freedom of inquiry, scholars assume responsibility for holding themselves and one another to the highest standards of intellectual and methodological rigor and integrity, while helping you learn to hold yourselves to those high standards as well. I will return to the importance of academic freedom.

For now, I want to extend my focus on the liberal arts. To say that they are devoted to freedom from ignorance, myth and prejudice tells you very little about what a liberal arts education entails in concrete terms. Our faculty is about to take on the task of reviewing Amherst’s curriculum and curricular policies to decide whether they are adequate to advances in knowledge and to a new population of students. Students will be involved in the process. Staff and administrators will support it. In the end, the faculty has to decide what a liberal arts education should be at Amherst at this historical moment.

Because of the open curriculum, you are already making choices about what your education will involve. I thought it might be helpful tonight to share with you one of my favorite essays on what it means to be liberally educated.

It was published in 1998 and written by William Cronon, who is professor of history, geography and environmental studies at UW-Madison. Bill Cronon is a scholar whom I admire as much as any I have ever known. The essay, which you can get on his website, is called “‛Only Connect…’: The Goals of a Liberal Education.”

Cronon observes that we have a tendency to answer the questions about liberal arts education by making lists—“lists of mandatory courses, lists of required readings, lists of essential facts.” These lists are not necessarily problems in themselves, but their presentation in college catalogues, as Cronon points out, hardly “stirs the heart or inspires the soul.”

So he takes a different tack, not by abandoning list making. Rather than listing courses or disciplines, books or skills, he lists “the ten qualities [he] most admire[s] in the people [he] know[s] who seem to embody the values of a liberal education,” and suggests that “we should measure our educational system …  by how well we succeed in training children and young adults to aspire to these ten qualities.” I will continue to quote liberally from his essay.

  1. They listen and they hear. “I think it’s worth declaring,” he writes, “that educated people know how to pay attention—to others and to the world around them. … They can follow an argument, track logical reasoning, detect illogic, hear the emotions that lie behind both the logic and the illogic, and ultimately empathize with the person who is feeling those emotions.” Too many people treat the activity of listening as a kind of waiting, waiting until their turn to speak and to counter, or as a burden when they find it hard to understand. Listening is a difficult art, but it is a skill worth developing.
  2. They read and they understand. “Educated people,” of the kind Cronon admires, “can appreciate not only the front page of the New York Times, but also the arts section, the sports section, the business section, the science section, and the editorials. … They can enjoy John Milton and John Grisham. … When they [liberally educated people] wander through a forest or a wetland or a desert, they can identify the wildlife and interpret the lay of the land.” Cronon acknowledges that “None of us can possibly master all these forms of ‘reading,’” but suggests that “educated people should be competent in many of them and curious about all of them.”
  3. They can talk with anyone. Cronon shares the advice one of his friends got from his father: “Whenever he had a conversation, his job was ‘to figure out what’s so neat about what the other person does.’” The people Cronon admires participate in conversations because they are genuinely interested in other people, regardless of their vocation, avocation or position.
  4. They can write clearly and persuasively and movingly. “I am talking,” he says, “about writing as a form of touching, akin to the touching that happens in an exhilarating conversation.”
  5. They can solve a wide variety of puzzles and problems. “The ability to solve puzzles,” he writes, “requires many skills, including a basic comfort with numbers, a familiarity with computers, and the recognition that many problems that appear to turn on questions of quality can in fact be reinterpreted as subtle problems of quantity.”
  6. They respect rigor not so much for its own sake but as a way of seeking truth. “The ability to recognize true rigor is one of the most important achievements in any education,” he writes, “but it is worthless, even dangerous if it is not placed in the service of some larger vision that also renders it humane.”
  7. They practice humility, tolerance and self-criticism. “This,” he tells us, “is another way of saying that they can understand the power of other people’s dreams and nightmares as well as their own.”
  8. They understand how to get things done in the world. “Learning how to get things done in the world in order to leave it a better place is surely one of the most practical and important lessons we can take from our education. It is fraught with peril because the power to act in the world can so easily be abused—but we fool ourselves if we think we can avoid acting, avoid exercising power, avoid joining the world’s fight. And so we study power and struggle to use it wisely and well.”
  9. They nurture and empower the people around them. “Liberally educated people understand that they belong to a community whose prosperity and well-being are crucial to their own.”
  10. They follow E.M. Forster’s injunction from Howards End: “Only connect…”

“A liberal education is about gaining the power and the wisdom, the generosity and the freedom to connect.”

I offer Cronon’s list, and also his language, because I find them beautiful, because he emphasizes enduring values, and because they might stimulate you to think about the qualities you most admire in people, and think about your education in ways that go beyond the choice of particular courses and the pressure to succeed in a narrow sense.

But, before I leave Cronon’s essay, I want to emphasize two caveats that he introduces as he reflects on his own list. They are both important.

First, liberal education “is not a state,” but a process. Note that he does not mention a degree anywhere in his essay. Liberal education, he says, “is a way of living in the face of our own ignorance … a way of educating ourselves without any illusion that our educations will ever be complete.”

His second caveat takes aim at individualism. “It is no accident,” he writes, “that an educational philosophy described as ‘liberal’ is almost always articulated in terms of the individuals who are supposed to benefit from its teachings. … [This] is fair enough,” he says, but then adds that “Education for human freedom is also education for human community. The two cannot exist without each other.”

Let me repeat that point: “Education for human freedom is also education for human community. The two cannot exist without each other.” Cronon continues: “In the act of making us free,” he explains, “[education] also binds us to the communities that gave us our freedom in the first place; it makes us responsible to those communities in ways that limit our freedom.”

These last points show how irreducibly complex the concept of freedom actually is. The relationship between freedom and responsibility to community can be especially fraught in colleges and universities because we highly value both. At Amherst, we have in place a statement on Freedom of Expression and Dissent that “affirms the right of teachers and students to teach and learn, free from coercive force and intimidation and subject only to the constraints of reasoned discourse and peaceful conduct.” It is worthy of note that Amherst’s statement makes our freedom subject to the constraints of reasoned discourse. As with many statements of principle, this one, too, raises questions about how it might be applied. Who judges what it means for discourse to be “reasoned”? This obligation falls primarily to the faculty, to scholars, but is also addressed indirectly by other commitments the College has in place. Amherst has an anti-discrimination policy, which I recommend you read, and a Statement of Respect for Persons insisting that “Each member of the community should be free from interference, intimidation or disparagement in the workplace, the classroom and the social, recreational and residential environment.”

You will inevitably encounter ideas and forms of expression here that you find disturbing, perhaps because they are unfamiliar because they challenge deeply held beliefs, even loyalties to family or communities. The strongest advocates of academic freedom and freedom of speech advise that the best response to what you consider “bad speech” is “good speech,” more carefully reasoned speech, more evidence-based. There are times, however, when the College is asked not only to comment on problematic speech but also to censor or censure it. There will be times when colleges and universities seem, to the broader public, to err by giving priority to free inquiry and expression over reasoned or respectful discourse. That is because of the importance of academic freedom and freedom of speech in an academic setting.

You have two, three or four years here to take advantage of your freedom to think for yourselves. Colleges are often seen as laboratories, in which scholars and students exercise their freedom to explore, discover, take positions and let themselves and their perspectives be challenged and changed. But college is not only a laboratory or just another form of preparation for lives lived elsewhere. It is also the thing itself. Take advantage of its opportunities.

Let me return to Cronon before I conclude. “Liberal education,” he writes at the end of his essay, “nurtures human freedom in the service of human community, which is to say that in the end, it celebrates love.” This is a wonderful move on his part, one that celebrates the close association of knowledge and friendship and makes our respect for others and a larger community an act of love, rather than a matter of compliance with administrative rules or accepted norms. We will always be in the process of sorting out the entailments of freedom and the responsibility it brings with it. And you will be involved in that process while you are here and after you leave.

I hope you will develop the qualities that Cronon admires—the ability to listen and hear, read and understand, talk with anyone, write clearly and persuasively, solve a variety of puzzles, put rigor to good uses, question yourselves as well as others, get things done, empower those around you, and, above all, connect. If you want an example of all these qualities and more—persistence, resilience, wit and generosity of spirit—I recommend you read Justice Sotomayor’s memoir, My Beloved World.

My own list would look a little different from Bill Cronon’s, but for now, let me supplement his with only one observation. We often talk about education in terms of getting, taking and making—getting an education, taking advantage of opportunities, making the grade, getting a degree, making friends. Some of the most important things in life and in learning occur not because we make them happen, but because we are capable of letting them happen. We let things in, in their complexity; we let people in, in their strangeness, to invoke the words of French Algerian poet Hélène Cixous. We let ourselves listen and understand, let ourselves and others be. We allow ourselves to be moved and changed, even to risk and fail. Last week, on your first day, I cited the first line of a poem I read this summer by a German artist and educator Joseph Beuys. “Lass dich fallen”—Let yourself fall; let yourself be; let yourselves fail—a translation that takes a little liberty. Here are a few selected additional lines from Beuys “advice poem” that I thought you’d find useful:

Lass dich fallen. (Let yourself fall.)

Lerne Schlangen beobachten. (Learn to observe snakes.)

Pflanze unmoegliche Gaerten. (Plant impossible gardens.)

Lade jemanden Gefaehrlichen zum Tee ein. (Invite someone dangerous to tea.)…

Werde ein Freund von Freiheit und Unsicherheit. (Become a friend of freedom and uncertainty.)

Freue dich auf Traeume. (Enjoy your dreams.)

Weine bei Kinofilmen. (Cry at movies.)

Schaukle so hoch du kannst mit deiner Schaukel im Mondlicht. (Swing as high as you can with your swing in the moonlight.)

Pflege verschiedene Stimmungen. (Foster a variety of moods.)

Verweigere “verantwortlich zu sein.”

Tue es aus Liebe. (Refuse to be “responsible.” Do it out of love.) ... 

Lies jeden Tag. (Read every day.) …

Spiele mit allem. (Play with everything.)

Unterhalte das Kind in dir. (Entertain the child in you.)

All of these things can be combined with a sense of urgency and with action; indeed, they must be, if we want to avoid a sense of urgency and a compulsion to act that does as much harm as it does good.

Let no one persuade you that education is a luxury or that it is anything less than your actual lives.

I wish you fun, joy and the rewards of hard work.