Justifying a Liberal Arts Education in Hard Times
By SARA RIMER
New York Times
February 19, 2003
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Liberal education is under siege. Critics, of whom there are many, call it an overpriced indulgence for the affluent few who do not have to worry about earning a living upon graduation. Fewer and fewer of today's undergraduates are pursuing the liberal arts, with most of them studying practical subjects like finance, marketing, real estate and pharmacy.
But James O. Freedman, 67, the retired president of Dartmouth, remains more committed than ever.
"Liberal education opens our eyes to what life is principally about," he said. "It's about understanding yourself and having some resources to deal with everything life throws at you. It's about developing a moral compass and some understanding of how society works, how democracies work."
At home in Cambridge, with his new book, "Liberal Education and the Public Interest" (University of Iowa Press, 2003), an ode to the value of liberal education, on the coffee table in front of him, Mr. Freedman makes his case with passion. Contrary to what critics might say, when it comes to getting a job in today's economy, Mr. Freedman says a liberal education is an important advantage.
"A liberal education is what teaches people how to write and how to think and makes them much more valuable in the job market over a 40-year career than graduates of a preprofessional program," Mr. Freedman said.
"All the employers will tell you that they're seeking the flexibility of mind that a liberal education imbues."
His book came out in January, as he was battling non-Hodgkin's lymphoma of the central nervous system. The chemotherapy he has been undergoing since September is working.
In the fall, with a tumor pressing against the nerves of his lower back, he was using a wheelchair. Now, he needs only a cane to navigate the stairs of the Victorian home he shares with his wife, Sheba.
This is Mr. Freedman's fourth bout with cancer since 1994, and just as he writes in his book that a liberal education enables us to see life more clearly, so has he looked clearly at his illness. The odds are that it will return again in a year, he says, and while he hopes to watch his three small grandchildren grow up, he says, there is no way of knowing just how many years he has.
He is focusing, as ever, on writing, and speaking out for the liberal values that he has spent his lifetime working for and that he now sees eroding.
"Life is what we are doing now," he writes in his book, reflecting upon the importance of an early commitment to the values of liberal arts, equal education, idealism and public service.
On his desk upstairs are a thousand pages of his fourth book: a memoir that moves from his growing up as the son of a high school English teacher in Manchester, N.H., to his undergraduate days at Harvard, where, he says, he was too timid and conventional to be a brilliant student, and on to Yale Law School, where he blossomed intellectually.
The book ends at age 27, when he was a law clerk for Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court justice, one of his heroes.
Mr. Freedman put his knowledge of the law to use recently, when, as a member of the American Jewish Committee's board of governors, he helped prepare a brief for the United States Supreme Court in support of the University of Michigan's affirmative action program.
"The future of America depends on educating minority men and women," Mr. Freedman said.
In his 11 years as president of Dartmouth, Mr. Freedman devoted himself to making the college welcoming to what he called the creative loners, cellists, poets and mathematicians, as well as athletes.
He also carved out a role as a public intellectual, standing up to a group of right-wing students — and their prominent, adult benefactors — who were ridiculing blacks, homosexuals, women and Jews on campus.
Making their views known through the neoconservative, off-campus Dartmouth Review, the students ran a front page cartoon that showed Mr. Freedman, who is Jewish, dressed like Adolf Hitler. Eventually, tolerance and civility were restored.
Last September, concerned by news reports that Jewish students were being intimidated on campuses amid protests over the Israeli government's treatment of the Palestinians, Mr. Freedman helped collect signatures from 310 college presidents for a statement calling for "intimidation-free" campuses. Some presidents criticized the statement for focusing only on Jewish students.
With heavy snow falling on the streets of Cambridge, Mr. Freedman was relaxing in his living room, with Sheba, his wife of nearly 40 years, across from him. They were surrounded by some of Mr. Freedman's 2,000 favorite books, by T. S. Eliot, Edmund Wilson, Saul Bellow, Faulkner, Joyce.
A lifelong book collector, Mr. Freedman reluctantly parted with 4,000 other favorites when he left Dartmouth — and the library at the president's house — for Cambridge.
Toward evening, the doorbell rang. Howard Gardner, the Harvard educational psychologist who is one of Mr. Freedman's closest friends, came in from the snow.
In retirement, as an elder statesman of academia, Mr. Freedman's advice is sought frequently. Professor Gardner wanted to consult with him about three academics who needed jobs.
Mr. Freedman is "the ultimate search engine," Professor Gardner said, "because he knows so many people, in so many ways, heart, mind, spirit."
Life is unpredictable and full of disappointment, Mr. Freedman writes in his book, the breakup of marriages, death of loved ones, enduring illness. In such a world, he writes, "how ought one to lead a life?"
"That is one of the questions that a liberal education addresses," he writes. "The most effective protection against the contingencies of experience are values that appeal to our very best natures and anchor us most securely in the ocean of fate."
These are the kinds of subjects Dr. Donald Kaufman, one of Mr. Freedman's oncologists, says he enjoys discussing with the former college president.
"I always reserve 30 minutes for his visits," Dr. Kaufman said.
"They go on for 90. This is for my benefit, not his. He's teaching me what it means to be a patient. He's teaching people how to live."