“What is liberal education for?”
Betsy Bradley posed that question over dinner at her house in New Haven last spring. Her guests—a small group of professors and students from diverse backgrounds—offered several answers. “Liberal education teaches us to think critically,” said one. “Liberal education exposes us to a wide variety of subjects.” “Liberal education both satisfies our curiosity, and makes us ever more curious.”
But the answer that seemed to resonate most with everyone was this: “Liberal education allows us to meander.”
To meander? That sounds...dangerously aimless. In fact, nothing could have clearer or stronger aims: to take us to places we’ve never been; to accommodate—indeed, to encourage—serendipity; to make us larger than we were when we started.
A student at that dinner table hit the nail on the head when he said, “It’s the exact opposite of a billboard I saw in Rapid City, South Dakota. On one side, there was the median starting salary of graduates of Harvard. And on the other, the starting salary of graduates of the South Dakota School of Mines—which was a little higher.”
The student didn’t tell this story disparagingly. He came from Rapid City himself and knew that the South Dakota School of Mines provides an excellent education in engineering and science. What he meant was that the shape of that education was a straight line.
In fact, by the time liberal arts graduates reach their peak earning years, they earn higher salaries than people with pre-professional degrees. And why wouldn’t they? Last week, my local paper quoted a mother who complained that her son, who was majoring in computer science, was required to “waste time” on classes outside his major. Because of all that time-wasting, liberal arts graduates can think logically and outside the box and across disciplines. They can speak well and write well. They can read emotional cues. They can disagree, even argue, with other people without casting them as enemies. They are both interesting (the kinds of talkers you’d want to listen to) and interested (the kinds of community members who join school boards and go to museums and volunteer in literacy programs). They can adapt to fickle circumstances, change jobs and even fields if necessary, learn new skills—because, as Mark Van Doren put it, liberal education is not an end in itself but a way to prepare the intellect to keep on searching. Or as James Baldwin put it in a memorable quotation that Peter Salovey sent recently to the Yale community, “The purpose of education is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself. To ask questions of the universe and then learn to live with those questions is the way he achieves his own identity.” Or hers.
Around that dinner table, we all agreed that liberal education has one problem: the word “liberal.” It sounds political! In fact, it’s anything but. The ancient Artes Liberales (the quadrivium, which consisted of music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy; and the trivium—grammar, logic, and rhetoric) meant “free arts”—that is, education for free people. My colleague Fred Strebeigh, who was sitting at the other end of the table, suggested some alternative terms: “Broad education.” “Critical engagement.” “Open exploration.” “Wise citizenship.” All excellent options. I’d like to nominate one more: “Liberating Education.” In other words, education that liberates us from preconceptions. Education that liberates us to serve the world. Thomas Jefferson said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” In other words, education is a pre-requisite for freedom.
And what kind of environment encourages liberating education? You’re sitting in it. Vassar is what you get when you don’t travel in a straight line, looking straight ahead—that is, when you are encouraged to look both inward toward greater self-understanding, and outward toward the world.
As a writer, I’ve long been dazzled by the college that nurtured Edna St. Vincent Millay and Mary McCarthy and Elizabeth Bishop and Mary Oliver, and that also had the moxie to leave Yale at the altar. But I didn’t truly understand what was so liberating about this place until I asked my cousin Maria Fadiman, Vassar Class of ’91, about her experience here. She told me about collecting autumn leaves and mailing them to her family in season-less California, and about cavorting on the Quad in the winter with a friend from India who had never seen snow, and about perching on her windowsill in Josselyn, luring early-morning squirrels with cereal she’d sneaked from ACDC. Natural beauty; serenity; stealable cereal: perfect conditions for looking inward. But Vassar also taught Maria to look outward. She had planned to major in English, but her era’s capricious lottery system failed to place her in the classes she’d hoped for, so she decided to pursue reading and writing anyway—in Spanish. Talk about the benefits of serendipity!
That led her to the professor who sat up with her late at night over hot chocolate, talking about Latin American literature; and to an internship in Costa Rica; and to her senior thesis on the theme of sustainability in Mayan myths; and, ultimately, to her career as an internationally renowned ethnobotanist who specializes in the relationship between indigenous peoples and rainforest plants. Maria is always telling us that she’s about to head down a river in Ecuador by canoe and will be out of contact for several weeks, but not to worry, she’ll be fine–and, of course, she always is.
The route from Poughkeepsie to Ecuador was not a straight line. Maria says, “Vassar gave me the freedom to explore worlds I could not imagine, and the creativity to combine people and the environment. Vassar helped me create that path for myself.”
And that leads me, by a similarly meandering path, to Betsy Bradley.
In a few minutes, Vassar’s eleventh president will be inaugurated. What is it about this woman that makes her ideally equipped to lead this historic, distinguished, beautiful, and gloriously idiosyncratic college?
I’ll answer by mentioning a few Bradley traits.
Betsy Bradley looks outward. Like my cousin Maria’s, her gaze is international. She has led teams that have transformed health-care systems in China, Cambodia, India, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, South Africa, and the U.K. By example, she will teach Vassar’s students to be global citizens.
Betsy Bradley is formidably accomplished. Her CV is 47 pages long.
But Betsy Bradley is not formidable. Perhaps you’ve imagined that when she and her husband John drove from New Haven to Poughkeepsie last summer, they rolled up Raymond Ave. in a fancy limo. Oh, no. It was a baby blue 2005 Prius, creatively dented and dinged by Betsy’s late mother, who was not known for her ability to judge the distance between hood and curb; then passed to their eldest child; then to their middle child; then to their youngest child; and then to them. It’s not every set of parents that inherits a hand-me-down car from their children. You get to do that only if you’re as unpretentious, and as adventurous, as Betsy and John.
Betsy Bradley is brilliant with people. In 2016, before she was wooed by Vassar, I happened to serve on the committee to review her reappointment as head of Branford College, the residential college she had led for five of Yale’s most turbulent years. We interviewed students, faculty, fellows, and staff. We learned that she knew the name of all 500 of Branford’s students. Knew what they were writing their theses on. Gave them career advice. Ate with them in the dining hall. Went to their performances and games. Came to the hospital after their appendectomies.
The review committee started to get a little embarrassed. It looked as if we’d be submitting a report with no teeth whatsoever. Come on, we’d say to our interview subjects. There must be something.
Nope. Pretty much perfect.
The report concluded: “The committee’s principal worry is that Elizabeth Bradley’s one-of-a-kind leadership, acumen, and vision make her very attractive to other institutions who could try to entice her to move away from Yale.”
Our loss is Vassar’s spectacular gain.
Betsy Bradley will be a great president of a great institution of liberating education.
If you are lucky enough to be a student here, her vision will equip you to set out on a purposeful but non-linear path. Think of it as an expedition through breathtakingly beautiful but challenging terrain. Mountains to climb. Glaciers to cross. Rivers to canoe.
Under the leadership of Elizabeth Howe Bradley, Vassar will give you everything you need—carabiners, crampons, paddle—but it will not tell you what route you should follow.
It respects you so much that it will say: That is up to you.