Johnston: Salovey falsely revises ‘liberty’

At last Saturday’s Convocation, Dean Salovey offered a challenge and a promise to freshmen. Entitled “A Contrarian Education,” his speech challenged freshmen to depart, in their academic endeavors, from that which is popular and easy. If they were to accept the challenge—to “‘zag’ when [their] classmates ‘zig’”—a world of opportunities would open to them, and they might find an “intellectual calling” to make their own. One suspects, however, that Salovey was speaking as much to himself as to the freshmen. He will soon become the provost of Yale and depart from his duties as dean, taking on a risky new challenge.

The speech was Salovey’s first major address since the announcement that in October he will succeed Andrew Hamilton as Yale’s provost. Thus it was a poignant moment when, near the end of his speech, Salovey remarked, “there are times when we all – even your dean – must depart from the comfortable path, say ‘good-bye’ to what is familiar, even to what we have grown to love, and leave it for uncharted waters where unknown challenges lurk but fresh opportunities for learning await.”

The moment seemed to confirm the suggestion, attributed to anonymous sources in the administration (“In search for next provost, field appears wide open” 7/16), that Salovey was one of President Levin’s top choices but had little interest in the job. If true, the University has a rare, unassuming man in its next provost.

When Levin steps down in a few years, Salovey must be considered the favorite to succeed. He is a professor of psychology, former chairman of the Psychology Department and former dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Indeed, Levin’s speech accompanying his appointment seemed like a endorsment of Salovey to be Levin’s successor. “Peter is very well situated to understand the variations of the job … and the entire span of the academy.”

That Salovey was initially reluctant to accept a position ripe with the possibility of institutional advancement (Andrew Hamilton leaves the provostship to become the top administrator at Oxford) proves his commitment to undergraduate education over personal ambition. But Salovey’s recent nobility does not bear on the value of a contrarian education because the implied analogy to his own assumption of the provostship fails. The appointment sets Salovey apart, though it does not make him a contrarian. Salovey may “zag,” but there was never a crowd to “zig.” Therefore, the concept of a contrarian education must be evaluated on its own merits.

In his speech, Salovey identified six fields of study that collectively encompass the intellectual endeavors of some sixty percent of Yale undergraduates. He may be right that some of these fields are oversubscribed. But such particular evidence does not prove the general argument that a contrarian disposition is a virtue in education. In order to substantiate such a claim, Salovey would have had to explain why the Crowd is predisposed to pursue inappropriate fields of study. Though he cited studies to show that the Crowd distrusts the Contrarian, he did not demonstrate that the Crowd is inclined to make poor decisions concerning education. Nor did he direct the Contrarian toward any substantive vision of liberal education.

Perhaps such analysis is unfair. Perhaps phrases such as “inappropriate fields of study”, “poor decisions concerning education” and “substantive vision of liberal education,” are the hopelessly outdated colloquialisms of an intolerant past, relics of “a unified political and religious culture.” Indeed, if all subjects of inquiry are equally valuable, intellectual choices, contrarian or otherwise, need not submit to scrutiny. From the point of view of autonomy, all that matters is that the choices be authentic. This is the real meaning of Salovey’s speech.

In a different era, liberal education meant something other than the revisionist definition Salovey proposed. According to Salovey, a curriculum “allowing considerable freedom and choice” is “the hallmark of a liberal education.” On the contrary, a liberal education is one that prepares students for liberty, the inherited political rights and responsibilities unique to Western civilization. What the modern world valorizes as liberal education is in fact the license of untutored freedom.

Peter Johnston is a senior in Saybrook College. Contact him at peter.johnston@yale.edu.

Comments