President’s Letter: Enduring Questions, Pressing Issues

It’s very dangerous to think you have discovered the Truth with a capital “T.” This is especially so in higher education. It is, however, very important to generate questions that lead to productive inquiry. How to define “productive?” Everything in this regard will depend on context—on the goals one has established or the problems one is trying to solve. For me the sweet spot is inquiry that allows one to reject ideas that aren’t working and to refine ways of thinking that might help build a more meaningful life. That’s far from definitive, I know, but it’s a start. A start that helps nurture conversations that matter to those who participate in them (and maybe others, too).

Our job as teachers and administrators is to create the conditions for these kinds of conversations, and to help students learn modes of inquiry and discussion that further their explorations of enduring questions and pressing issues. These days, that’s a tall order. We are surrounded by forces that aim to limit academic exploration or shut it down entirely. At Wesleyan, we push back against these forces. Whether it is in epigenetics research, or in performance practice, we encourage risk-taking and experimentation. This adventurous yet exacting spirit is not always evident in academia, but at Wesleyan we have seen it since the 1950s, across many fields. For example, more than 60 years ago, the University began publishing History and Theory, a core academic journal that is best in class in philosophy of history. Richard Vann, Brian Fay, and now Ethan Kleinberg are the most recent leaders of multidisciplinary editorial teams of risk takers who are scrupulous about publishing only work at the highest level. History and Theory presented work that examined positivist methods of evaluating the causal claims of historians, and the journal was also celebrated for providing a platform for Hayden White, whose formal, literary analysis of historical discourse shook up the academic history establishment. White also taught for years at Wesleyan, and as one of his students I can testify to the heady atmosphere he created in print and in the classroom. The journal’s editorial teams have long exemplified the “boldness and rigor” called for in the University’s mission statement.

The combination of risk-taking and open-mindedness is all too rare these days. The political sphere is lousy with actors who want to control what can be said and expressed. As educators, we are not to tell students what to think about politics but to help them formulate their own views while considering the best available information and most thoughtful perspectives. Our job is to keep inquiry and conversation going. This is what inspires my colleagues at Wesleyan, whether they are enhancing internationalization through language study and the encounter with non-Western arts or stimulating new modes of sustainable design and productive innovation. Our new Strategic Plan, Towards Wesleyan’s Bicentennial, calls for more investment in the academic and co-curricular efforts using a variety of tools and creative interdisciplinary practices to tackle problems and create opportunities. None of us expects to arrive at “the Truth,” but we do expect to participate in open-ended explorations that spark friendships, meaning, and discoveries.

A broad, inclusive college education is so valuable because through it we learn to reason and create together. We learn to engage in ongoing conversations with people different from ourselves and whose views we might find objectionable. This is the heart of a liberal education, and it serves the country as a whole by creating habits of open-minded discussion and practiced, free inquiry. It’s hard to think of a time in our history when it’s been more essential.