Marilynne Robinson Discusses Higher Education at Stanford

In the 2015 Presidential Lecture in the Arts and Humanities, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson argued that if the American higher education system continues to shift priorities towards training instead of educating, students will be ill-equipped to participate as citizens of a democratic society.

In a November 3, 2015 Stanford Report, Director of Humanities Communication Corrie Goldman described a recent address by Marilynne Robinson:

In the 2015 annual Presidential Lecture in the Arts and Humanities, which Robinson delivered at Stanford on Oct. 29, she turned her attention to the evolving culture of higher education.

Robinson, who has taught at a number of colleges and universities, including her current position at the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, identified a troubling trend in higher education today.

The original rationale behind an American liberal arts education – to play a vital role in democratizing privilege – “is under attack, or is being forgotten,” Robinson said. Now, universities by and large do not attempt to “prepare people for citizenship and democracy.” Instead, they educate them to be members of a “docile, most skilled, working class.”

As Robinson put it, “We have persuaded ourselves that the role of the middle ranks of our population is to be of use to the economy, more precisely to the future economy – of which we know nothing for certain.” …

The title of Robinson’s talk, “The American Scholar Now,” took inspiration from “The American Scholar,” the title of an oration delivered by Ralph Waldo Emerson that urged Americans to free themselves from European models of learning.

Offering a “variety of fields of study and great freedom to choose among them,” Robinson said, American education “has served as a mighty paradigm for the kind of self-discovery Americans have historically valued.”

Our vast educational culture is “unlike anything else in the world” and “emerged from the glorious sense of the possible, and explored and enhanced the possible through the spread of learning. If it seems to be failing now, this is true because we have forgotten what it is for,” she said.

With so much emphasis on a utilitarian education today, Robinson said, “Emerson might be surprised to find us in such a state after generations of great freedom.”

Robinson attributes the current lack of support for seemingly non-utilitarian education to broad changes in political and economic ideals, a shift best characterized by the replacement of “the citizen” with “the taxpayer.”

“While the citizen can entertain aspirations for the society as a whole and take pride in its achievements, the taxpayer, as presently imagined, simply does not want to pay taxes,” Robinson said, noting that this conflict of interest has left many great public universities “like beached vessels of unknown origin … ripe for looting insofar as what they hold would find a market.”

But, Robinson added, “a human community with a history and with a habit of aspirations toward democracy, requiring a capacity in its public for meaningful decisions about its life and direction, exists apart from these [economic] forces and is at odds with them.” …

What universities need, she said, “is morale, a sense of confidence” about the fact that they “have faculty that teach people to love and be fascinated by what the teachers themselves love and are fascinated by” and that this “very humane and very ancient impulse” is “what civilization is about.”

One audience member asked Robinson if she were calling for a new faith that could counter the pervasive “money is the sacred” credo.

Robinson replied with a decidedly humanist message, saying that the basis of everything that matters to her is the fact that “people are extraordinary.” To “water the desert a little bit and then see what they become,” Robinson said, is the “whole project of American education.”

A student asked Robinson what the humanities can do for social good.

“Everything,” she replied. The humanities, Robinson continued, “make people think about humankind and learn compassion for one another and learn awe relative to what human beings are.”

For more information about Robinson’s work and career, visit the Stanford University Libraries Presidential Lecture site, which includes excerpts from her writings.