Marilynne Robinson is best known for her award-winning fiction. All four of her novels have won major literary awards. Her second novel, Gilead, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005. The New York Review of Books recently published a two-part “conversation” between Robinson and President Barack Obama, a big fan of her work.
In the 2015 annual Presidential Lecture in the Arts and Humanities at Stanford University, which Robinson delivered October 29, she turned her attention to the problems of higher education. Robinson has taught at several colleges and universities and is currently teaching in the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, where charges of “corporatization” are widespread after the appointment by Iowa Regents of J. Bruce Harreld, a businessman with not experience in education, as president.
The original rationale behind an American liberal arts education – to play a vital role in democratizing privilege – “is under attack, or is being forgotten,” said Robinson, according to a report on the Stanford website. 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.”
Caroline Winterer, the director of the Stanford Humanities Center, introduced Robinson and engaged her in conversation. Winterer asked Robinson what she would do if she were the president of a university. She replied, “The first thing I would do is try to make the university conscious of what it is.” What universities do is a “great and continuous gift to the culture” and “there’s nothing elitist or non-utilitarian about what they are and what they do.”
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.”