First, to the Class of 2002, I want to say thank you for inviting me to give this talk; it's a tremendous honor for me to be here with you today.
I'd also like to say, to all the parents, family and friends here today, thank you for the Class of 2002. Their contributions made our lives here at Stanford richer, and we're in your debt for sharing them with us.
But let me start out in earnest with a story. It's about my last real fight with my youngest brother, and the fight was about the function and purpose of liberal education. At the time, my brother had recently completed a liberal arts degree, and -- I know you'll be shocked to hear this part -- he was unemployed. Don't get me wrong; he loved his college work, which was in cultural anthropology, and he really wanted to pursue a career applying what he had learned. But his professors were clueless when it came to the job market. Their only suggestion was that he go to grad school and become professor of anthropology like them and that was not at all what he had in mind.
So by the time we talked, he was disgusted with the lot of them, and he sought out his older brother, the aspiring liberal arts teacher, because he wanted to make sure that I, at least, would be better at preparing students for life than his teachers had been. I was a big disappointment for him. I was just as naïve about the job market as his professors -- probably more so -- and, what's worse, I was rather in sympathy with them and their reaction to his predicament, which can be summarized in just three words, "not my job." Needless to say, the conversation did not go well. In short order, I was the butt of a whole year's worth of job search frustration. He vilified me as an unrealistic, ivory-tower, head-in-the-clouds, all-around-useless leech on society, hopelessly unprepared to discharge my one concrete social function -- namely, preparing my students to be useful in life.
Being an older brother, I naturally behaved badly at the time, but later on, that conversation had a big effect on me. Being attacked by my own baby brother -- suddenly so smart and all grown up -- made me think hard about the path I had chosen for my life's work. Because my brother had a point. We should train our students to be useful in life. Indeed, that was the very charge laid on the new faculty by Leland Stanford when he founded this university. He told the new president, David Starr Jordan, "Train the students to be useful in life."
What, then, is so useful about a liberal education? For that matter, what is a liberal education? Paradoxically, part of the question's difficulty arises because "everybody knows" that liberal education is a wonderful thing. That suggests that everyone already knows what one is, too, so we need not trouble ourselves too much figuring it out. Besides, since everyone already loves it, the safest course for a speaker like me is not to rock the boat by getting too specific: Just stick with a few general bromides, and stave off any worry that we don't actually know what we're talking about through a blustering combination of great piety and great vagueness.
I won't try to deviate very far from that safe course today. But in the interest of specificity, I will try to make one small point, based on one small fact. That way, even if most of what I say does turn out to be useless, you'll at least have the one small fact to take home with you -- something besides lunch for the price of admission! For we on the faculty should never let it be said that Stanford University does not give your money's worth!
My factual question is this: What does the "liberal" in "liberal education" mean? When you first arrived at Stanford, maybe you thought that it meant the same as "liberal" in politics, especially since the politicians are always complaining about how liberal all the professors are. But I'm sure you quickly noticed that most of what was goes on here is pretty far removed from real politics. And anyway, campus conservatives are often among the biggest defenders of the traditional liberal education. So that can't be what "liberal" means, at least not here.
In this case, the key to an answer lies in the history of the word. Etymologically, "liberal" means "free," or pertaining to a free person. So what does liberal education have to do with freedom?
There are two stories about this from the lore. One is that the liberal course of study was supposed to be appropriate for a free gentleman, meaning, of course, a person of the nobility, or, more bluntly, someone who doesn't have to work. This usage might be oldest, but I think it's not the important one for our question. Such gentlemen, after all, no longer exist to be our students, and what we teach now is not at all what they taught back in the 17th century when they still had those gentlemen, so if that were the only force of the word "liberal," there would have been no call to retain it.
The other story more plausibly explains why we still call our curriculum "liberal." On this account, liberal study is devoted to pure knowledge, of the sort pursued back in the 17th and 18th centuries within the faculty of philosophy, my department, which, back then, rightly was the center of everything. That faculty was distinguished from three "higher" faculties, viz., theology, law and medicine, where the training was tied to the particular professional requirements of priests, lawyers and doctors. So liberal education is "free study," in that its methods and aims are free from service to the professions.
Now we have something concrete -- something that can lend content to our vague, initial conception of liberal study. Liberal study is the pure, autonomous search for truth, without regard to practical application.
Not to put too fine a point on it, then, liberal education is "free" in the specific sense of being useless. That, of course, is just what became clear -- all too clear -- to my brother. But notice -- this is the really cool part to me -- from the new point of view I've just sketched, he no longer has any complaint against me! After all, the uselessness of what he was learning was advertised right up front, in the word "liberal"; he pursued a free education, and got exactly what he paid for!
Now, the Stanford students among you at least, being well trained in critical thought, will recognize this last argument against my brother is a crude sophistry. And indeed, the power of critical thought is one of the many definite, positive things you have obtained from your college training -- and my brother got this too, which was why he was able to mount such good arguments against me in that fight. The fact that you all gained this asset is not surprising; after all, "learning how to think" always gets prominent mention among the platitudes offered in favor of liberal education.
But you also will have guessed by now that I think something more is at stake in this enterprise of free study, at which you have been spending your lives these past four years.
Liberal education is about freedom in a deeper sense -- not just a negative freedom from the professions, or from anything else, but a positive freedom, a freedom which allows the person to do something, to be something, to become a certain kind of person -- a positive freedom that W. E. B. Du Bois called the soul's "freedom for expansion and self-development."
It is no accident that I quote Du Bois in this context: As an African American born of the 19th century, the century of emancipation, the value of freedom was among his central concerns, and at the same time, I, at least, count him as the most ardent and eloquent defender of the tradition of free study and of the liberal arts university in the whole history of American letters. Why, you ask, would the liberal arts be so important to a civil rights leader like Du Bois? Well, I think precisely because they provide the keys to true freedom.
Around the turn of the past century, Du Bois had a long-running debate with Booker T. Washington about the appropriate character of higher education for African Americans. Washington had founded the Tuskegee Institute, in order to train the Freedmen's children for the jobs they could actually get, in the state of things then prevailing. Better, at least, so Washington thought, that people should be able to earn an honest living as well-trained farmers, or bricklayers, or funeral directors, and thereby gradually pull themselves up by the bootstraps, than that they know French, or physics, or philosophy, and have only their resentments to live on. Du Bois, then a professor at the Atlanta University, insisted instead on liberal education, and his arguments cut to the deepest philosophical grounds of the university.
Now, in the course of this debate, Du Bois did make some telling points of an obviously practical nature, like the need for teachers: After all, Tuskegee itself would have been impossible had there been no black liberal arts universities to train its professors. But that was never the deep point. The deep point is that liberal training is not about learning a trade; it's about learning how to live in the first place. And here I quote Du Bois:
"The function of the university is not simply to teach breadwinning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be a centre of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization. ... [The university gives our society] that broad knowledge of what the world knows and knew of human living and doing, which [it] may apply to the thousand problems of real life to-day confronting [it]. ... [What it offers is] nothing new, no time-saving devices, simply old, time-glorified methods of delving for Truth, and searching out the hidden beauties of life, and learning the good of living. The riddle of existence is the college curriculum that was laid before the Pharaohs, that was taught in the groves by Plato, that formed the trivium and quadrivium, and is to-day laid before the Freedmen's sons by Atlanta University. And this course of study will not change; its methods will grow more deft and effectual, its content richer by toil of scholar and sight of seer; but the true college will ever have but one goal -- not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes."
What the Freedmen's children needed most, then, was not the skill to earn a living, but, just like their parents, still freedom -- and not just the freedom from the bondage that had shackled their parents and grandparents, but the positive freedom to work out a way of life for themselves: "Freedom, too, the long sought, we still seek -- the freedom of life and limb, the freedom to work and think, the freedom to love and aspire." In order truly to attain that kind of freedom, the Freedmen's children needed knowledge of the ends and aims of life itself -- not meat, but an understanding of what the life that meat sustains is for.
As Du Bois points out, not just the students, but the whole of society needs this. It is only because we have broadly educated people, people who understand something about what life is for, and about what our social life with each other might someday become, only when we have people educated like that do we have a chance of living up to the promise of the American experiment and negotiating what Du Bois called that "fine adjustment" of the problems of communal living.
And, of course, the issues demanding "fine adjustment" are not all social in their scope and nature. As you go forward from this graduation to pursue the task of living well and honorably, you will meet a hundred daily problems that require your intelligence and sensitivity -- all the way from the grave matters of state that concern our leaders (and future leaders) through the challenges of active and demanding work lives, right down to personal questions of central and consuming concern to single individuals and their families. What you have done here at the university, if you spent your time well, is to cultivate the intelligence and sensitivity you will need to meet those challenges, and thus to make life better and fuller and richer across a wide spectrum -- both for yourselves and for those whose lives you will touch and shape and improve. That is the true freedom, the positive freedom to achieve things, to build a life that can pretend to happiness.
And that is the real answer to my brother, as well. What was for sale at the university was never bread, nor breadwinning, but only freedom, and the possibility of happiness.
I like to think that Stanford's first president, David Starr Jordan, was thinking something like that when he chose our university's motto: Die Luft der Freiheit weht; "The wind of freedom blows." Like some of you, probably, I learned about our motto from our recent past president, Gerhard Casper, who, being German himself, loved to quote it, though in a much better accent than I have! As President Casper used to remind us, Jordan himself quoted the motto from Ulrich von Hutten, a 16th-century humanist and reformer, who spent his life moving from university to university pursuing free, liberal study and defending freedom of thought against the orthodoxy of the Inquisition and the unreformed Church. Jordan admired Hutten precisely because, he said, Hutten "dared to think and act for himself, when thought and act were costly." In choosing the motto, then, Jordan was offering to his new colleagues at Stanford -- and to us, their followers -- both a challenge and a promise.
First, the challenge: As Hutten's example showed, freedom of thought can come at a cost for the thinker. Building your life for yourself, finding your own way around the intellectual world that liberal education has now opened up to you, is not the most comfortable way, whatever its other rewards. To put the point in terms of Jordan's motto, the winds of freedom can be harsh. Jordan himself must have felt that acutely, freshly come as he was out to the western edge of his world in the attempt to found a completely new university, cut from whole cloth.
Surely for us, Stanford does not seem so far away, as it must have for Jordan and the other Stanford "pioneers." But nonetheless, the winds of freedom can be no less harsh for us today. In many ways, of course, Stanford provided you a nurturing environment, protected from the so-called "real world." But the motivation for that protection was to give you a comfort zone so that you could take other risks -- the risks of the spirit. In your time here, you have been brought out to the edge of knowledge, where trying hard does not suffice, because what counts is not merely a good effort but actually getting to the truth -- and where the right answer, sad to say, could not be simply learned and repeated on the test, for the simple reason that no one knows it yet. You have been introduced to the life of the mind as it really is, full of rewards, but also full of frustrations. Remember both, the rewards and the frustrations; they, and the intelligence you trained here, are the tools you have to fall back on in carrying out your experiments in living.
But spiritual freedom is not all about challenge; it contains a promise too -- the same promise with which Jordan back then wooed the best and brightest to come out and take a part in his new experiment, here on the Pacific coast, where, as he wrote, the moon seems to shine "bigger than [it does back] in the disillusioned East." I submit to you today that in fact the promise of freedom Jordan indicated in the motto is even greater than that Western harvest moon rising over the Stanford Quad, for as I have been suggesting, the winds of freedom carry also the possibility of happiness.
With that reminder, I am going to close. What was for sale here, what you (and your families and the banks you borrowed from) bought with all that money -- and even more, with all your time and sweat and tears and effort -- was the possibility of happiness; not happiness itself, mind you -- that you have to build on your own -- so not happiness itself, but its possibility. In whatever place life sends you, you have developed a basis to fall back on, the reserves of intelligence and creativity to make your setbacks into challenges rather than mere disasters. What you got from liberal study, then, was a chance -- the chance to redeem the accidents of your life by turning them into lessons, lessons that add to our human understanding of the ends and aims of the life that meat sustains. I bid you, Class of 2002, go forth, and use your new freedom. Congratulations!
Stanford Report, June 19, 2002