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President H. Kim Bottomly
Wellesley College
May 9, 2008

Liberal Arts in an Age of Pragmatism: Paradox or Paradigm?

I am greatly honored by the trust the Board of Trustees has placed in me as the new President of Wellesley College. Members of the board, Governor Patrick, Representative Peisch, fellow presidents, distinguished guests, members of the Wellesley community, my friends, and my family: I appreciate your being here today to help celebrate this new page in Wellesley’s long history. Your presence graces the occasion and lifts my heart and spirit.

An inauguration is a beginning, but it is more than that, it is an event with symbolic significance. Symbols and traditions are the tethers that bind all members of the community into a unit. There are those things like this ceremony, and like the passing of the keys, that have little meaning to an outsider but are fraught with meaning to members of the community. This ceremony, for all its pomp, has a direct kinship to other simpler ceremonies like step singing, like hoop rolling, like Flower Sunday. Like those, it is just a symbol, a collective affirmation of our existence as a community, what Emile Durkheim called those collective representations of a group that produce “…a warmth that animates its members.” I feel that warmth of belonging today, and I know you do, too.

This was a wise time to schedule my inauguration. I have been here nine months, and in that period I have learned a great deal about Wellesley College and its inspiring history and accomplishments; and also about the women of Wellesley – that bright and brave sisterhood, a network that spans generations and the globe, making a difference in every corner they are found. The more I learned, the prouder I was to have been chosen to lead this venerable and important institution.

I admit to early trepidation. In the beginning of my presidency, I was immediately challenged by my recollection of what Plato wrote in the Republic: “The beginning is the most important part of the work.” But then I relaxed when I also recalled Proust from Remembrance of Things Past where he assured us that even “great masterpieces do not give us their best in the beginning.” If true, that meant that I didn’t have to begin immediately with several brilliant ideas for institutional transformation. That was a relief, since as a scientist, I know, as all scientists do, that all brilliant ideas have one feature in common: they are usually wrong. T. H Huxley called it, the “… great tragedy of science - the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” In the organizational context, new institutional practices are like hypotheses that consider social, economic and historical context and project into the future, predicting and anticipating a specific outcome.

Like previous presidents, I will have to, to the best of my ability, forecast the future, and to position Wellesley College to thrive in that future. So this inauguration does not signal either a Platonic or a Proustian beginning. It marks, rather, only the beginning of a long, iterative, and collaborative process. A president’s job is to begin this process well and to guide it successfully through the years.

I am struck by how few of us have occupied the position of President of Wellesley College. There have been only 11 presidents between me and Ada Howard, the first president of Wellesley. This institution is what it is, in part, because of the dozen women who preceded me.

I hold in my mind the image of the 13 of us joined hand-to-hand in a line spanning the years, our bodies in very different clothing, our feet in three very different centuries, but our minds as one on the importance of Wellesley College to women. A line of women all sharing Margaret Mead’s belief that “the mind is not sex-typed,” and agreeing with Abigail Adams, “If we mean to have heroes, statesmen and philosophers, we should have learned women.”

I did wonder about being the 13th president. After all, hotels skip the 13th floor, and the 13th president of the United States was Millard Fillmore. But I am comforted by the fact that the 13th American to receive a Nobel Prize for science was Linus Pauling, the 13th president of Yale was Kingman Brewster, and the current 13th president of the University of Michigan is Mary Sue Coleman.

In considering how to present, in a brief format, my vision and hopes for Wellesley, I read the inaugural addresses of the previous presidents. All presidents of Wellesley, at their beginnings, have had to forecast the future using previous history as part of their statement reaffirming what Wellesley is and then adding what they thought it must do to remain that way in the coming years. The strength of Wellesley today is testimony to how very good they were at it. Previous presidents all recognized, as I do, that to remain the same in its most important aspect, Wellesley must adapt. The college has adapted well to changing times over the years. To produce a Wellesley woman in 1875 required different institutional approaches than were required to produce one in 1925, or 1965, or 2005.

I say a Wellesley woman. What is this unchanging aspect that previous presidents have taken such pains to preserve? Wellesley College has remained the same through the years in one most important respect: it has been an intellectual incubator, a scholarly beacon of light for women. A Wellesley woman is always a Wellesley woman and always will be. Being a Wellesley woman is a permanent characteristic of mind and spirit. The details, however, do vary with historical context.

Wellesley College’s first circular stated that it would provide an education “equivalent to that given to men.” That meant a true liberal arts education. This was a radical notion in 1870, since few could see any reason that women needed a liberal arts education. In addition, many believed then that excessive study would damage the health and reproductive ability of smaller-brained women. So in the 19th century Wellesley had both to provide a high quality education and to prove that women were capable of absorbing a first class education. As Mildred McAfee discussed in her 1936 inaugural address, women’s colleges arose essentially as protest groups and they had to excel in their academic endeavors in order to prove that women could be scholars. For women students and for Wellesley, the 19th century was a century of “protest and proving.”

For most of the 20th century, not all were convinced that the proving was done. Twentieth century women had to be prepared to be the leading edge of a formative new era, one in which women would move into the workforce in massive numbers. This century spanned the transition from a general expectation that women would not work outside the home to the opposite expectation that most women would work outside the home; it spanned the transition from a time of consensus that women were frail and must be protected, to a time when women went to war and commanded space missions, achieved scientific breakthroughs, were judges, Secretaries of State, U.S. Senators, and led major corporations and non-profit organizations. During this century, opportunities for most women began as quite limited in scope. We complain now about glass ceilings, and rightly so, but the point at which cultural expectations changed so that the ceilings at least became transparent glass rather than opaque granite was itself a major landmark. In the 20th century, capable women needed to be educated in a manner that would facilitate their being the leading edge of this great movement. And Wellesley did this well. The 20th century was the century of the female workplace pioneer. And like the original American pioneers, they started as a brave trickle, and turned into a torrent by the 20th century’s end.

That line of 12 previous presidents with whom I link hands today was not just a timeline – it was a battle line, quietly leading the fray, hand-in hand, ever pushing forward the intellectual progress of women, never wavering, making Wellesley a strong redoubt defending the minds of women, a line that blocked incursion and fought against backsliding or retreat. I reach out my hand gladly today; it is a line I am proud to join.

For women, the 19th century was one of protest and proving, the 20th century was one of workplace pioneers. What then of the 21st century? More than 50 percent of college graduates today are women, the occupational structure and career ladders are more open than they ever have been, and women are moving into decision-making positions at an ever-accelerating rate. Unlike previous centuries, the 21st century will represent decision-making by an additional 50 percent of the talent pool – by women. Things that in the past have been largely decided by men – laws and levies, wars and welfare, politics and policy – these are not male prerogatives anymore. In this century, women will have equal voice and equal influence. They will thus bear equal responsibility for the outcomes. Women in this century will need to negotiate and renegotiate cultural norms, to be innovators and arbitrators; to be for the first time a major voice in public affairs.

We 20th century women had to put ourselves on the line, to tear down barriers. We 20th century women did the very hard work of demolishing hindering structures that had existed for millennia; whether we intended to or not, we cleared the site. Twenty-first century women have the even harder work to do of rebuilding the site as a better place.

The 21st century is sure to be a tumultuous one. I believe that historians a hundred years hence will refer to it as “The Century of the Woman.” In a 1977 publication, a sociologist wrote: “For all discrimination against females to end would require [not just economic changes but] major social structural changes.” These structural changes are upon us, and this generation of women must formulate and make them work, in cooperation with their male colleagues. They must be among the designers and architects of a new society, one sited in an almost borderless, technologically interwoven world, a world we could never have known, and could never have even imagined 25 years ago.

What does Wellesley College have to do to continue its mission and to successfully educate these women of the 21st century? I believe that we must continue to offer the best possible liberal arts education, and we must figure out what it means to do this in the 21st century. The historian W.R. Connor has pointed out that the etymology of the word “liberal” in “liberal education” derives from a Greek word for free – a word the Athenians used specifically to distinguish free citizens from slaves. “A liberal education means what a free person ought to know as opposed to what a well-educated and trusted Athenian slave ought to know,” he said. Athenian slaves had to know a trade and how to manage finances and how to run a business – they did most of the rote work of the society.

Free citizens needed different skills. They needed skills that enabled them to participate fully in society. Athens was an emergent democracy, and as such, needed citizens who could research a topic, develop a reasoned argument, analyze counter-arguments, assess the merits of specific proposals, and clearly articulate their views. Connor noted that, “These are not skills, that emerge spontaneously or that can be taken for granted.” Liberal education was thus designed to impart the knowledge necessary to be effective in mass meetings deciding important issues. Liberal education was not private license; not the freedom to study whatever interested one, not an indulgent absence of pragmatic focus. It was instead constructed as a public good, and was designed to be the education truly necessary to ensure wise decisions and thus a good society.

Conner proposes we define liberal arts as “the skills of freedom.” I like this translation because it emphasizes that a liberal arts education began as a public good, and remains one today. It also points to the fact that a liberal education prepares students to manage their world and their lives, and not just their careers. I also like the fact that defining liberal education as “the skills of freedom” makes it clearer that the goal of liberal education is not the acquisition of content but the development of particular broad skills. These skills are not the same as the pragmatic skills needed by an Athenian slave or anyone who would not be fully involved in society.

In the 21st century, in an increasingly complex, globalizing world, every citizen, in my opinion, needs a liberal education. There is a greater need for education in these crucial skills of freedom than there ever has been. The more complicated the society, the more multicultural our nation, the more international our daily interactions, the more difficult it is to make wise decisions, to make choices, to assess the reliability of received knowledge, to determine what further knowledge is needed, to critically evaluate competing arguments. More than ever Wellesley needs to provide a liberal education. More than ever Wellesley needs to grapple with the question of what kind of curriculum will achieve the goals of a liberal education. No one would disagree that the curriculum in ancient Athens would not be appropriate today. Few would disagree that the curriculum of 1920 would not be appropriate today. But many might think that the curriculum of 1990 is still appropriate today. I don’t think that. We must assess our curriculum and make changes wherever necessary, and our faculty must dedicate themselves to this task. It is important, of course, that we do this while firmly keeping in mind the goals and purpose of a liberal education. I have no doubt that we will keep it in mind. This is Wellesley. We will remain true to the central vision because of who we are.

And who are we? In his well-known book about universities, Clark Kerr made reference to Hedgehogs and Foxes, referring to the distinction between foxes, who opportunistically pursue many ends and goals, and hedgehogs, who have an overriding single central vision and relate all their actions to that vision. The original came from the 7th Century B.C. Greek poet, Archilochus, who wrote: “the fox knows many things…..the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Modern universities are foxes; they must be to do what they do well. Wellesley College is a hedgehog. We know one big thing and that is the thing we do so well. We know how to furnish the minds of bright students so that they may live comfortably in them for the rest of their lives.

That the teaching of our one big thing is more important than any specific knowledge imparted is an easy point to make. For example, I asked our Classics department to give me an updated list of graduates over the last decade or so who were Greek or Latin majors. I purposely chose stereotypically non-career-oriented majors. I knew what I would find. I found Classics majors who today are lawyers, physicians, bankers, high-level business executives, government officials, with a scattering of actresses, writers, librarians, NGO heads, publishers, and architects. A liberal arts education is not a specific set of pragmatic skills. It is so much more than that.

And it will need to be so much more than that in the 21st century. In this century, change will be so rapid and all encompassing that specific pragmatic skills learned in college will quickly become obsolete. Many of us here can appreciate that, since many of us possess some obsolete skills. Since arriving here I have met many alumnae and have taken particular notice of the fact that our early 20th century alumnae, those now in their 70s and 80s and yes 90s – those alumnae who grew up in a computerless era of genteel letter writing on fine paper are today happily and comfortably communicating with me by email, with attachments, after having Googled points of interest. Their writing is as elegant as ever, but it is done comfortably in a new medium in a new era. These women were the product of a Wellesley education. For them the world has changed completely, but they are still living comfortably in it. These alumnae are living proof of the long-term benefits of outstanding teaching in a liberal arts college. They are not relying entirely on specific pragmatic skills they learned in the 1930s and 1940s; they are relying instead on how well they learned how to learn. As rapid as change in the 20th century seems, it will be dwarfed by the pace of change in the 21st century. Skill sets will need to be renewed, refurbished every five years instead of every 25. To today’s students, those who must be those architects of the 21st century, a liberal arts education will become even more important.

What must Wellesley do to ensure this? Let me very briefly mention three of the many issues that we must be attentive to, in order to ensure Wellesley is well-positioned in the future.

The first issue, and one of our major challenges in being a liberal arts college in this century, is to continue to make sure that we have outstanding faculty, despite increasing competition for the best. Liberal arts education is not a specific body of knowledge. It is rather a mode of instruction. It is a way of thinking. It is an approach to education. This means that the success of a liberal arts education rests largely on the skills and interests of the faculty. They are the core of a liberal education, the sine qua non. There is nowhere other than a liberal arts college that students and professors can interact in such a dynamic give-and-take on a regular basis. This can’t be reproduced in a large classroom, can’t be reproduced electronically, can’t be reproduced in an institution where teaching is not the primary focus and can’t be reproduced in an institution where outstanding teaching is not the norm and expectation.

It also is the faculty who must innovatively manage the paradigm shift that will prevent liberal arts education from becoming a paradoxical anachronism in the 21st century. It is the faculty who must devise a means for countering the recent decline in popularity, even within liberal arts colleges, of the arts and humanities. The arts and humanities are a crucial part of any liberal education and the entire faculty must attend to their reintegration as a major part of our curriculum.

A second issue is the fact that there is a declining public awareness of the value of a liberal education. Many critics point to the continued presence of liberal arts colleges as a paradox in this pragmatic and specialized age. We are well into an age of consumer-driven, career-oriented, pragmatic education. Parents and students who demand supposed relevance in education are not the villains. They are reacting to a world that is far more competitive than the world most of us here today entered into. But the answer does not lie in offering more pragmatic skills-oriented courses. The answer lies, as it always has, in developing the appropriate skills, the skills of freedom. It is important that Wellesley remain a true liberal arts college in its principles and its curriculum, but there will be strong pressure to do otherwise

The third issue for liberal arts colleges of the 21st century will be for a specific subset of liberal arts colleges. It might be reasonably asked, “Should Wellesley College continue as a women’s college in this new era?” In this post-feminist age, many are asking this question, and to some it may seem a reasonable question. I submit this to you: it might have seemed a reasonable question in 1915 when eugenists called “separate colleges for women… historic blunder” that needed correction; it seemed a reasonable question in 1936 when Mildred McAfee was asked if the fact that many colleges were now co-ed removed the need for a women’s college; it seemed a reasonable question when asked by many in the 1969 to 1972 period when Princeton, Yale, Harvard, and Dartmouth all became coed; it seemed a reasonable question in 1976 when Elaine Kendall, in her history of the Seven Sisters asked “Can a single sex institution be justified and for how much longer?”

It is, as you can see, a perennial question, but it was not then nor is it now a reasonable question. Of course there is a need for Wellesley and there will always be such a need. We do a remarkable job of educating women. Why would we ever stop? And certainly there is a most pressing need now, for this is the 21st century, and this is the Century of the Woman, the century in which Wellesley graduates are sorely needed.

What is it that Wellesley provides for its women? It provides a superior liberal arts education; we are regarded as one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the world. But Wellesley provides more than that. It offers an educational experience filled with role models and models of gender cooperation and collaboration (58 percent of our outstanding professors are women and 42 percent are men). It offers an education and learning experience in which women invariably leave with far more confidence in their knowledge and ability than they arrived with – a confidence that serves them well when they leave this single-sex microcosm – you have only to look at our graduates to see the results of that confidence made manifest year after year. It also provides a powerful organizational network structure that supports women graduates. Women leave here with strong bonds to what will become life-long female friends, and are tightly enmeshed in a world-wide network of accomplished women. These valuable structures and attachments for women would not emerge in a coed institution.

Those are a few of the many challenges facing us in the next century. I have no doubt that we will meet all of these challenges, and will emerge stronger and better than ever. We at Wellesley recognize that the old world with its rigidly-held attitudes and gendered structures is disappearing. We know also that the new world that will replace it has not yet been invented. We are currently educating the architects of the new world. To do that properly, we must come together and act together with a common goal, driven by our hedgehog vision. Inspired by our history, we must work together to be what we have always been, we must focus on that “one big thing,” but we must see it with new eyes. Students going into the 21st century must work together to reinvent and rebuild our society and restructure its value system. Faculty must dedicate themselves to preserving the best of the liberal arts tradition, and must take the lead in adapting that part that cannot make the transition.

I have faith in our wonderful faculty, and in our remarkable students. It all will happen. I will do my best to help it happen. I am currently at the end of that proud line of sister presidents, but when the 22nd century arrives, I will be holding hands in the middle of that line, and Wellesley College will still be what it has been since its inception, a unique and glorious institution that makes a difference for women, who make a difference in the world.

 Wellesley College Office of Public Affairs
 Created: March 6, 2008
 Last Modified: March 10, 2008
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