The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can liberal education survive at a scandal-plagued university? A professor explains why it must.

The Michigan State University campus in East Lansing in October 2007. (Kurt Stepnitz/Michigan State University/AP)

Michigan State University has been struggling to deal with an unprecedented scandal — the case of Lawrence Nassar, who was a physician at the school and the USA Gymnastics national team doctor who pleaded guilty to multiple charges of child pornography and sexual assault.

He wasn’t the only man at Michigan State caught up in scandal, with the recent arrest of a former dean on numerous charges, including sexual misconduct. And a recent report by Michigan lawmakers said that the school has fostered a culture that appeared to be less interested in investigating accusations against Nassar than protecting victims.

In the following piece, Stephen L. Esquith, a philosophy professor and dean of the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State, explains why he is concerned about the future of liberal education at his university and others.

At a time when liberal education is under attack by conservative forces that want higher education to be focused on job skills, Esquith writes about the value of the humanities to the future of democracy, and what a liberal education looks like.

By Stephen L. Esquith

Where I live and work in Michigan, the K-12 public school systems have been ravaged by poorly regulated charter schools and new providers of public educational services operating outside the traditional structure of elected school boards and without unionized employees. The impact on young students in cities such as Detroit, Flint and Lansing has been catastrophic.

Something similar has been happening to public higher education, exacerbated no doubt by horrific events such as the serial sexual abuse scandal involving sports doctor Lawrence Nassar.

State funding for public higher education has sunk to new lows. College and university academic governance has become top-down as administrators begin to sound like emergency city managers, chiding faculty and staff to be more accountable to taxpayers. In this environment, many college and university students feel as if they are paying for a certification, not an education, and they want to get it as quickly and conveniently as they can.

The STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering and math — have found a way to weather this storm using more mass online instruction and competency-based education bookkeeping, but liberal education as a whole has not. While the mainstream media acknowledges that liberally educated college graduates are well-represented among the class of top CEOs and that they make more well-rounded physicians, this case for liberal education as an ancillary component of STEM (read: STEAM, the STEM subjects plus the arts) does not go far enough.

The value of liberal education

Other defenders of liberal education say that it teaches a way of thinking that is at once rational, empathetic, honest, fair-minded and courageous (Barry Schwartz, “What ‘Learning How to Think’ Really Means,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 18, 2015). This may be true in some cases, but it, too, should go further.

As the Association of American Colleges and Universities has stressed repeatedly, liberal education matters to democracy — and not just as a preparation for vicarious and episodic citizenship, but also as democratic participation itself.

Liberal education, if it is to redeem this democratic promise, must avoid treating citizenship as an occasional act of voting and a passive allegiance to a particular form of constitutional government designed to limit, not expand, the power of the people. Liberal education must be action-oriented and place-based; it must be a real place where citizens (the demos) generate and retain power (kratia).

This view of liberal education differs radically from the conventional view of liberal education as a humanistic preparation for limiting political power. Indeed, the democratic promise of liberal education is radical because it goes to the very root of democracy: expanding the limits of participation to make the demos more, not less, powerful in a place where they feel they belong.

The role of the arts and humanities

I’ve taught arts and humanities courses at Michigan State University for more than three decades, a challenging task because of our land grant emphasis on applied sciences and agriculture.

But, despite the odds, some very good things have been accomplished by students and faculty in the arts and humanities at MSU. The creation of a new Residential College in the Arts and Humanities (RCAH) 10 years ago was one of them. RCAH embodies the best in the land grant mission: empowerment in place.

As national news has reflected, this last year has been hard for MSU, and power has been at the center of it. On top of the decline in state funding and worrisome demographic trends, MSU is embroiled in a scandalous and troubling affair that has centered on sexual violence and questions of institutional responsibility. The university is now trying to repair some of the damage and create a culture in which sexual violence is not tolerated, but there is still much work that needs to be done that will require time, effort and resources.

Will the university be able to maintain its commitment to liberal education, and the arts and humanities in particular, during this rebuilding? One would hope so, since the arts and humanities will be vital to the creation of a more democratic culture on campus. But there is the danger that the costs will be so high that the university may have to centralize services, narrow its mission and become more like a polytechnic institute.

This kind of planned shrinkage would be very harmful, not just to faculty and staff responsible for liberal education at MSU. It would deny students who cannot afford small liberal arts colleges the chance to attend a program like RCAH at a still relatively affordable price. This is a critical time for MSU.

We must find the will and the way to make the survivors of sexual violence whole, protect current and future students, faculty and staff from similar acts of violence, and maintain those programs like RCAH that are most deeply committed to a democratic vision of belonging and participation that can guide and sustain these positive changes.

A residential college in the arts and humanities

What makes the RCAH story different and important for Michigan State is that through a distinctive interdisciplinary arts and humanities curriculum, we have been able to empower our students and community partners where they live and work, that is, empowerment in place.

In the residence hall

The fact that RCAH is a residential college is significant. This is not just a matter of being able to eat, sleep, study, go to class and socialize all under one roof. What makes the residential college experience empowering is the way that students, faculty and staff take responsibility for the space to make it hospitable in both senses. It is their space, and they shape it around their interests — both in the classroom and in other informal learning spaces — from the art gallery, the language and media center, the theater, the dining hall, to the many small niches and temporary gathering spaces inside and outside the building. They have made it their own.

It is also hospitable in the sense of being inviting to others. For example, when RCAH students worked with retired autoworkers in Lansing on a photovoice project documenting their lives in the industry, the students and workers hosted a reception in the RCAH art gallery. As one retired worker said, before this he had not felt welcomed on campus. Now, exhibiting his art work in the RCAH gallery, he felt as if he also belonged here. For the first time he felt empowered in this place.

In the fields

Since its inception in 2007, RCAH has been partnering with a set of schools, nongovernmental organizations and rural communities in Costa Rica to create sustainable development projects in areas of the country that have not benefited from tourism and trade. These areas on the Caribbean coast face problems of pollution, climate change and land scarcity. RCAH students, faculty and friends have developed local sustainable development projects in agriculture, education and eco-tourism in collaboration with villagers to meet these problems. The projects are many, but the relationship is what keeps going; it is designed to be sustainable itself. RCAH is there for the long haul, and Costa Rican partners have come back to Michigan to help RCAH’s local partners think through similar challenges here.

In the halls of justice

Another project that began far from home and has had reciprocal benefits for RCAH students, faculty and local partners is the Mali Peace Game. After the coup d’état in Mali in 2012-2013, RCAH faculty and students began an intensive three-pronged project in partnership with the Ciwara School, a community school in Kati, Mali. The picture books, political simulations and local dialogue forums created there inspired RCAH students and faculty to build similar peace and reconciliation projects in the Lansing area with refugee youth and youth in the criminal justice system. The result has been a kind of cross-fertilization that would not have occurred had not the RCAH students been studying languages, religion, justice and the history of immigration in their classes, and then putting them to work with these community partners in unfamiliar places.

On the factory floor

A third project is both local and global in a different sense. Working with employees with mental and physical disabilities in a large, local nonprofit textile manufacturing firm in Lansing, RCAH students and faculty came to learn about their journeys to Michigan. The RCAH students and Peckham employees, many of whom are refugees, embarked upon a five-year, massive 40-foot-by-200-foot collage of large individual drawings and paintings in the main work room in the factory. It chronicles not only the journeys of the workers, but also the relationships between the RCAH students and faculty and the Peckham workers. Some of the images are memories of the world the workers have left behind. Places they remember fondly. Many express their hopes for the future in their new home. And still others show them working with RCAH students and faculty to create these images together in the Peckham art studio. Here, too, the community engagement work is informed by classroom research, studio practice, and cooperation across ages, genders, races, and religion. What better way to learn firsthand about diversity, equity, and inclusion?

“On the thronged and common road”

In RCAH, we say that learning occurs at three levels: through classroom study, through hands-on practice, and through collaboration and cooperation. These are not just three ways of knowing and thinking. They are ways of acting in the world, making a more hospitable world for more people to share. They are ways of generating a more inclusive public space.

When asked who are the inspirations for this conception of liberal education, I don’t hesitate for a moment. For me, they are Myles Horton, Jane Addams and Paulo Freire. “By mixing on the thronged and common road,” as Jane Addams once said, we will be able to generate the power we need to create a more hospitable world. Unlike the malls and secure compounds that have replaced democratic gathering spaces today, the arts and humanities are open democratic spaces where survivors of violence and their allies may now be able to enter as well.

In response to the Nassar scandal at Michigan State, RCAH prompted the creation of a university-wide teach-in/learn-in where these voices could be heard, feel empowered and take their place in a more inclusive community. More than 500 students, faculty, staff and community members attended this day-long event.

No Founders, No Holy Writ

I’m confident that if you asked any other RCAH students, faculty or staff member about their inspirations for this democratic conception of liberal education, you’d get a different and equally diverse set of names. You’d get poets and novelists, artists and musicians, elders and youngsters. RCAH does not have Founding Fathers. Our students are not trained to be acolytes or disciples. There are no sacred texts and no loyalty oaths. Students learn to think together while thinking for themselves.

Perhaps that is why for the past five years since we began graduating students who have been with us for four full years, our placement rate has been 100 percent. When we held our 10th-anniversary reunion last fall, out of the potential 400 graduates who could have come, 300 people attended. When we asked people to give back to RCAH, our total exceeded the goal the university set for us by 400 percent — the highest percentage of any college on campus relative to their goals.

At a time when liberal education is becoming an endangered species and the arts and humanities are most vulnerable, we should take to heart this democratic promise. If we do, we may be able to see more clearly the burdens that others carry, share it with them and work with them to do something about it.