Office of the President

Education, Freedom and Distinction

Remarks at the Phi Beta Kappa Initiation

Michael S. Roth ’78

President, Wesleyan University

May 24, 2008

Memorial Chapel


I've waited thirty years for this. Thirty years ago I was supposed to be initiated into Phi Beta Kappa here at Wesleyan. I told my parents the Saturday before graduation that I was supposed to be at the initiation ceremony, and they said, "You're already in a fraternity."

I said, "It's not that kind of fraternity." "It's enough with fraternities," they said. "With Phi Beta Kappa you get a key," I explained.  "Oh a key, great, all that tuition and you get a key."

I couldn't be at my Phi Beta Kappa because my cousin Scotty Getz was being bar mitzvahed in Brooklyn. No joke, you're laughing; but it's been traumatic for me. My parents said, "You're going to Brooklyn; you can be back on Sunday for graduation. Who needs a whole weekend to graduate?" And like a schmo, I drove to Brooklyn that Saturday morning, thirty years ago, to the day, and I missed my initiation into Phi Beta Kappa. So I'm really glad that I get to hold you captive now for a little while and participate in this initiation, my first at Wesleyan, as president of the university and as a member of your chapter.

Welcome family and friends. Congratulations to our new initiates.

I'm going to talk to you about liberal education and distinction. I want to try and explain to you how liberal education might be related to freedom of a certain kind, and then talk to you a little bit about distinction. Then I'll set you free to go out to that lovely day.

Education has been connected to freedom in the West—the only tradition I feel comfortable really talking about in front of this distinguished group. Rousseau said that there are three kinds of freedom. The first freedom is freedom of the appetite. When I taught this I named this freedom after my dog, Gorky, who, like our Mathilda today, thought that freedom was to go around the campus and pee anywhere. It's not a great metaphor, but let's call it Mathilda freedom.

The second kind of freedom that Rousseau talked about is civic freedom, which is basically the freedom to have property, to have security, to not live in fear. You don't attack; they don't attack. This is not something to take for granted, and it is something we can still learn about.

But the third kind of freedom is clearly the most grand, and it is tied to education. This is moral freedom. Rousseau's conception of  moral freedom is paradoxical, I suppose; he said that this kind of freedom is obedience to a law you give yourself. This is a foundation of democracy, and I think it is the foundation of the link between education and freedom because only when you know something, when you have understanding, are you able to give a law to yourself, are you able to not just obey because Roth tells you to, or because you're parents tell you to, or because your boss makes you. When you do something that you don't immediately want to do, knowing (through your education) that it is the right thing to do, this is, for Rousseau, moral freedom.

Kant said that enlightenment, liberal education in our terms, was freedom from self-imposed immaturity. I had some of you in my class this spring so you already know this. We keep ourselves as children because that allows us to be like Mathilda and do whatever the heck we want. We may just obey authority out of fear, or not take it seriously whether we should oppose authority despite the cost to our pleasures. But when you have enlightenment according to Kant, you free yourself from just obedience to someone else. You give yourself the capacity through education to obey a law; as Rousseau said, a law you give yourself.

When I was here at Wesleyan I spent far too much time studying Hegel in Russell House, but I had the good fortune to do so with Victor Gorevitch, who is also a great scholar of Rousseau. In studying Hegel, I was thinking about how all of these things were connected to history. Hegel's view was that when you understand this trajectory of freedom, when you understand the progress of freedom, you are more at home in the world. I call this the optimistic view of liberal education, the optimistic view of the Enlightenment. It is this optimistic view that Phi Beta Kappa really represents, which is that if you understand the world and yourself, you will be more free and more at home in the world. I used to say that you would make the world a home, but now I've spent a year at Wesleyan and I've talked to the students at EON enough that I know it's not about making the world at home, it's about being at home in the world. When we try to just make it into a home, it's not always sustainable; it's not always something that we can live with.

So that's the optimistic view of education: it allows you to be more free, makes you more at home in the world. But in the 19th century the students of Hegel and the ancestors of Rousseau turned this on its head, and we at Wesleyan often live more in this second view of education than in the first.

In this second view of education, of understanding—and let me take Karl Marx as its exemplar—when you understand the world you understand the contradictions in it, you understand the things that are screwed up about it, you understand not how you can be more at home through self-consciousness, you understand what's not working. You have a better view of the lies that you are told. You have a sharper understanding of the things in the world that are still irrational, that are still oppressive, that are still to be changed. In Marx's view, it wasn't just understanding, of course, that would bring about change, you had to take action. It wasn't about learning, it wasn't about education; it was about praxis, or politics, or struggle. Enlightenment and liberal education, then, didn't set you free, didn't make you more at home in the world, it made you more aware of what one of my students once told me was the muck we all live in. And more aware, perhaps, at least in Marx's case, of how we could change it.

It wasn't bad enough that I got infected with Hegel at Wesleyan. I also took too much Freud. I took far too much Freud. Even my teachers of the time warned me; in Judd Hall they said Freud-schmeud, do some experiments. I said no, I would rather think and learn. Anyway, that's another story, Freud, like Marx, thought that liberal education, learning about the world, was not going to set you free, but was going to expose contradictions that kept us from living a life that was full. Enlightenment exposed contradictions in our desires that caused us to continue to suffer. Freud thought that when we learned about the world and ourselves, we learned about how screwed up we are, to put it quickly, or how conflicted we are. We learned  in other words, that knowledge didn't set you free, it just helped you change your expectations. Freud famously said that all he wanted to do was to convert hysterical misery to common unhappiness. It's a very central European Jewish view; and its probably connected to why I didn't get to go to my Phi Beta Kappa initiation, but that's another story.

And so you have there what I call a pessimistic view of education. The first one was optimistic: you are bright young people, and you will be more at home in the world, more free and capable. The second view: you are bright young people, and you will realize the crappy world we are in.

Now I submit to you that Wesleyan, like most liberal arts institutions today, really emphasizes the second of those tendencies. And I think that we emphasize the second of those tendencies sometimes because we really want to enable you to change the muck you're in, to give you tools to make the world better. But I submit to you that often we have taught you that the first sign of intelligence, the greatest sign of your smarts, was your ability not to be fooled by possible hope, by the capacity for change. In other words, we may have taught you that liberal education results in a kind of proud pessimism. You're too smart to be happy. You're too smart to believe in progress, you know too much to think that social change is possible.

I think that proud pessimism is a mistake. It's a distortion of the Enlightenment message that freedom comes through learning. But it's a mistake that's grounded in learning, and so it's harder to undo.

When I wrote this part of my talk, I was pretty pleased with myself, having been a proud pessimist, and I thought great, now how do I get out of this? Should I just tell them: "Be smart like me and don't get out of it. Just be a proud pessimist. At least you're smarter than the average guy and gal."  Or is there some other way that we might think about learning and about being at home in the world. And so I turned, as a good American should, to Emerson, the Nietzschiann before Nietzsche, who also was quoted in the Phi Beta Kappa speech I confess I turned to for inspiration this morning. Norman O. Brown, a great figure in Wesleyan history, gave one of he most startling Phi Beta Kappa speeches imaginable at Columbia in 1960, where he called on the initiates to become mad, to save themselves through madness. He turned to Emerson to make his point, but it was the Emerson who told you to stop reading, the Emerson who warned you about being a bookworm. This is the Emerson of ecstasy —not Enlightenment.

I turn to another Emerson, the Emerson of the essay Experience, and I will read you a quote,  and then we'll almost be done.

Emerson said, "We animate what we can and we see only what we animate. Nature and books belong to the eyes that see them. [I love that sentence.] It depends on the mood of the person whether he shall see the sunset or the fine poem.  There are always sunsets and there is always genius. But only a few hours so serene that we can relish nature or criticism."

"We animate what we can," Emerson said, "and we see only what we animate," You have learned to animate. You have learned to bring things to life. That is an enormous gift. You will do it with your friends, you will do it with your families, you will do it in the places you work. Bringing things to life through your intelligence, I submit to you, is so much more important than being able to show somebody why something they thought was alive is really dead. That move will show how smart you are, but it will do no good. When you can use your intelligence to animate, you will harness your education in the service of life, in the service of love, in the service, to call on the spirit of Norman O. Brown, in the service of Eros, and not in the service of being smart.

Emerson said, "Nature and books belong to the eyes that see them.  It depends on the mood of the person whether he shall see the sunset or the fine poem." Have you learned to open your eyes? Have you begun to see and hear the silences and the music? Have you learned to take the sights and sounds of your world to galvanize your imagination and to animate someone else's imagination. If you have done that, if you have learned to see, and to hear, and to animate, as Emerson calls it, I suggest that you have developed the capacities for distinction, you have developed the capacities for seeing possibilities in the world and for relishing, to use the Emersonian word, for relishing the world around you, be it nature or genius. Now I bring this Emersonian teaching to you because it seems to me to get us out of the sterile box of the proudly pessimistic Enlightenment. I bring this thought to you because I hope you have established the moods for seeing sunsets and poems, for feeling genius, and hearing music. I am hopeful that you have expanded your abilities to distinguish genius and make the distinction of great works of learning and art.

The tendency to connect liberal learning and freedom is deep in our educational institutions and traditions. Knowledge should begin to make us more at home in the world. Being an old optimistic Enlightenment guy, I do think that makes us more free. But I think that home is only worth living in if we are capable of acknowledging and honoring the great things, the wondrous events, the beautiful moments that happen in our world, in our home. When we are capable of generous acts of distinction, of acknowledging, and honoring, I believe we are also more free and more at home. This is why it gives me so much pleasure, in my new home, Wesleyan, to recognize, freely, your distinction today.

Thank you, dear initiates, for giving me the opportunity to join with your family, friends, and teachers today to acknowledge and to honor your achievement.