Marilynne Robinson on Midwestern liberal arts colleges

Harper’s has recently reprinted an excerpt from a commencement speech given by novelist Marilynne Robinson at Amherst last year. The full text of an essay based on the speech is available via the Amherst website, and is likely to be of particular interest to those of you who are Knox or Grinnell alums. (Thanks to Maud Newton for the link.)

In the essay, Robinson discusses the radical roots of Knox, Grinnell, Oberlin, and other small Midwestern liberal arts schools, and contrasts their original progressivism, egalitarianism, and commitment to a broad-based learning with today’s general trend toward strictly pragmatic and utilitarian education. Robinson writes that the founders of those schools would be “tearing their beards” to learn of the present-day pressure on colleges and universities to focus on producing good workers and immediately obvious economic value, rather than well-rounded, liberally educated thinkers and scholars. Of the colleges’ founders, Robinson writes:

They would have known from their own experience what kind of world results from the subordination of all other considerations to a utilitarian economics. They were not prudent, but profligate—pouring out the best treasures of learning in swamps and mudholes (their language) in a general project of liberation from which we all would have benefited more if we had simply been generous enough to remember it.

Robinson is moved by the idea of 19th-century Yale Divinity School graduates leaving the comforts of the East in order to offer a liberal education to whoever might want it in the unsettled West. And she’s also impressed by the Midwestern colleges’ early record of achievement: she cites the fact that some of them admitted blacks and women on an equal basis with white men well before the Civil War, and offers the Lincoln-Douglas debate held at Knox as exemplary of the spirit of serious and egalitarian inquiry fostered by progressive liberal arts education at its best. But she also clearly fears that this spirit is all but lost in contemporary America, a casualty of history and narrowly pragmatic mindsets.

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