I wonder what sort of attributes the Yale Corporation is seeking in our next president. Expertise at fundraising? Necessarily. Leadership? Surely. Vision? Well, that is the nub of the question.
Vision rests on values and guides the politics of leadership. It inspires the hard choices about what matters most in the aims of education. And it is unquantifiable, belonging instead to the realm of moral judgment and principled commitment.
Regrettably, we cannot know what members of the Yale Corporation expect concerning our next leader’s vision. For they have not made public their thoughts on this question. Perhaps they should do so, answering the same survey questions sent out to solicit student input. Then we would all have the information necessary to consider the Corporation’s project instead of just wondering. Now, the preferences of the Corporation remain shrouded, its assumptions unstated.
On this elusive question of vision, however, the words of a past Yale president, A. Whitney Griswold, are edifying: “The liberal arts are in retreat before the sciences and vocational studies of all sorts.”
It was 1953. As the Cold War intensified, the country was gripped by anxiety about global rivalries. Yet Griswold resisted the turn to professional and technical education sweeping universities across the country. Writing in The Saturday Review, he pointed to the danger of devaluing the liberal arts and argued for the urgency of humanism.
At stake, he held, lay the very ability to know ourselves: “How may we know ourselves so that we may know our weakness as well as our strength; so that we may understand the relationship between our cultural responsibilities and the political and military objectives to which we are committed; so that we may proclaim the virtues of American life in the universal language of humanity?”
In answer to this fundamental question, Griswold posited that the understanding of the self, cultural responsibility and political power begins with humanistic inquiry as a foundation of democratic citizenship. “The question leads straight to the liberal arts,” he wrote, setting forth his vision of Yale’s civic purpose: “the art or studies becoming to a free man.”
For Griswold, then, the antidote to the perils of the Cold War lay in humanistic education. And in opposition to McCarthyism’s assault on civil liberty, he insisted on academic freedom as well as the moral and political significance of the liberal arts.
Today, as national anxiety mounts about the end of the American Century and the flattening of the globe — and as Yale searches for its next president — Griswold’s reasoning is worth recalling.
One thing it surely leads us to ask is how Yale’s next president envisions the University’s presence abroad. So, too, it sharpens our worries that by venturing into Singapore, Yale has fashioned itself as a brand name ready-made for exportation to developing markets. It makes us wonder whether attaining a foothold — a sphere of influence — in burgeoning economies overrides the University’s commitment to free speech and thought that is the condition for knowing anything, not least for knowledge of ourselves and of our cultural and political responsibilities.
What troubled Griswold was the prospect of the liberal arts retreating before scientific and vocational education; now what should trouble us is the prospect of a new president committed to treating a Yale education as a commodity to be shipped overseas for the sake of revenue and international influence. In other words, Griswold’s point should make us conclude that Yale’s next president should not be driven by the race for globalization. Instead, he or she should have a vision for our university not trained on expansion — especially not into realms where liberty of speech and thought is restricted — or on a doubling down solely on scientific and technical education. Perhaps the call for qualifications should begin: “Humanist Wanted” — someone aiming, as Griswold wrote, “to keep alive the pure flame of liberal learning.”
Such a president would see that Yale’s value is measured not by the number of institutions overseas bearing its name but by the nature of the civic and intellectual life it creates in New Haven. He or she would understand the urgency of challenging Yale students, as Yale College Dean Mary Miler explained at this year’s Freshman Assembly, to “look beyond the obvious … to look into the unknown … to leave the expectations of others behind.” To do so, she argued, is to “discover new worlds.”
That project of discovery is where the vision of Yale’s next president ought to be directed, not at lending Yale’s name to repression abroad.
Isaac Stanley-Becker is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.