As heated debate about the appropriate role and aims of the university continues today, both within the academy and in the political sphere, former Yale University president A. Bartlett Giamatti’s book of essays represents an eloquent call to consider once more the role of a liberal education in facilitating the development of critical thinking and communication capabilities and in assuring a civil citizenry. A Free and Ordered Space is a collection of essays written by Giamatti (1938-1989), while serving as Yale’s president in the late 1970s and early 1980s concerning the nature and purposes of the American university. These essays, originating as most did, as formal opportunities at which the Yale President (1978-1986) spoke during the course of the academic year, provided an opportunity for Giamatti to reflect on the nature and purposes of higher education, and especially of liberal education and learning in an increasingly marketized and careerist oriented society.
In the various addresses and speeches anthologized here, Giamatti outlined his vision of the challenges confronting the American university as an institution and provided a clear and cogent set of arguments on behalf of the continued vitality and indispensability of “liberal education,” which he argued represented an education for freedom, a freedom of the mind to make itself new. Given this orientation, Giamatti calls for renewed appreciation of the university’s long-time role in cultivating the intellectual reach, imagination and equanimity of its students. The essays also critique the long-term trend toward the corporatization of the university, calling such a move a usurpation of the rightful role and centrality of its professoriate to its most profound mission of ensuring individual and social inquiry and learning.
And perhaps ahead of his time, Giamatti called for the development of interdisciplinary curricula to prepare students to address more effectively the nation’s increasingly complex challenges: “In the face of all these forces, it will be more important than ever that Yale affirm its character as a place that fosters the fluidity of passage of ideas, people and programs, that continues to encourage programs, joint degrees, joint appointments – all the forms of interconnectedness that resist fragmentation into academic baronies or bunkers that emphasize as a conscious statement of this University’s peculiar character, its interdependent nature” (pg. 283).
By dubbing the university a “Free and Ordered Space,” Giamatti sought to describe these special institutions as intellectual spaces where learning occurs for its own sake and to consider them places, that “for those who live there and for the country at large [represent] a source and symbol of what we can be and can do at our best” (pg.287). Giamatti saw the university as a space in which students could grow intellectually and emotionally as deeply as their capacities, proclivity and discipline might take them. That space does not exist to embrace this or that ideology or faddish claim of the moment, but to allow and encourage students to develop and refine their interests and capabilities both deeply and broadly. As he put it in an address to his colleagues at Yale University, “ I urge you to affirm the connection [among individuals, learning and a vital and democratic social order] and not to sway to the music of fragmentation. I urge us never to be complacent about what can be achieved for others, never to be smug in our own stations or status, never to be mired in a fictional past that never really existed or welded to some grand, overarching abstraction that never touches human beings much as it may claim to save humanity” (pg.280) Full engagement with the possibilities offered by the free and ordered space of the university both humbles those so privileged and reminds them of their common bonds with all of humanity: “Be mindful of what we share and must share, not the least of which is that each of our hopes for a full and decent life depends upon others hoping the same and all of us sustaining each other’s hopes” (p.281). Giamatti’s vision for Yale and for other American institutions of higher education was one that allowed students to develop a disciplined awareness of the power and responsibility of intellectual freedom and possibility and of its persisting capacity to transform the lives of those who are privileged to partake of it.
Sabith Khan is a first year PhD student in Planning, Governance and Globalization. His research focuses on community based philanthropy among American Muslims. He has a passion for the Middle East and South Asia and issues related to US foreign policy, Philanthropy, Religion. When he isn’t working, he can be found trying out a new recipe or planning a new adventure. He also volunteers as the Executive Director of MENASA, an NGO engaged in citizens diplomacy that he co-founded in 2011.