"Light the Danger Up": Reflections of AAC&U's New President

Friday, July 1, 2016

The week I had the honor of being selected as the fourteenth president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), I also had the privilege of introducing Harvard historian Jill Lepore at an awards ceremony in Washington, DC. Lepore was being celebrated for her national leadership in advancing the cause of liberal education, and I was absolutely thrilled to be meeting the author about whom I had come to know so much. Among the stories I enjoyed the most was one involving how Lepore’s life was changed by a “once in a lifetime teacher.” As a fourteen-year-old, she was given an English assignment by this teacher to write a letter to her nineteen-year-old self. When the correspondence arrived in the mail five years later, it stopped Lepore in her tracks and subsequently shaped the direction of her career.

In learning about Lepore’s trajectory, I couldn’t help but think about the dramatic changes in my own life during that same short span of time between the ages of fourteen and nineteen—my transfer from a fledgling community college to a residential liberal arts college for women; my growing understanding, as a recipient of Pell grants and Comprehensive Employment and Training Act funds, of the impact that access to excellence in higher education can have for those at the lowest socioeconomic rungs; my burgeoning commitment to the civic mission of colleges and universities, inspired by my engagement in community-based learning; and my introduction to the study of philosophy, resulting in a lifelong passion for the discipline and its practice. Each of these transitions, like Lepore’s, foregrounds the transformative power of education. 

Lepore’s transformation came in the form of her emergence, in a relatively short period of time, as one of our nation’s most prolific proponents of microhistory—a field she describes as founded on the assumption that “however singular a person’s life may be, the value of examining it lies not in its uniqueness, but in its exemplariness, in how that individual’s life serves as an allegory for broader issues affecting the culture as a whole.”1 My acquaintance with microhistory through Lepore’s work happened to coincide with a colleague of mine pointing me to a letter written by Emily Dickinson to her cousins in May of 1863. Reading it, my mind immediately turned to the idea of examining a life in its exemplariness.

Enmeshed in the Civil War, Dickinson told her relatives “I must keep ‘gas’ burning to light the danger up, so I could distinguish it.”2 The poet’s words reflect her unflinching pursuit of the truth, sprung from a humanistic sense that enables individuals to discern the patterns dominating their lives and move them beyond their narrow points of view to bridge multiple modes of understanding. Dickinson wanted to “light the danger up”—not turn away from it. She sought to look boldly at what others either could not or did not want to see. In the midst of national dissension and uncertainty, she strove to use every ounce of her being in the process of discovery—perhaps understanding that deliberative democracy, especially in times of crisis, relies on the creation of a critical public culture that foments reasoned debate and independent thought.

Dickinson was well aware that one cannot cope with complexity through fragmented consciousness and discourse, or thrive on an entire diet of bread and circuses—a lesson even more salient in today’s globally interdependent world, in which rapidly changing technology can mean rapid obsolescence. Yet much of the current political discourse posits the illumination of consciousness achieved through literature, philosophy, science, music, and the arts as a luxury, discounting the genuine value of that which allows us to flourish fully as human beings, while simultaneously offering tools for grappling with the most fundamental questions of human existence.

From assertions that we need more welders and fewer philosophers to proposals that students at “non-elite” institutions should not receive federal student loans for majoring in the humanities, critics suggest that a liberal education is not only frivolous, but downright un-American. By supplanting the notion of college as a public good with the idea that earning power is the only legitimate reason for pursing a degree, such rhetoric threatens to drastically undermine our nation’s historic commitment to educating citizens for democracy. Indeed, the prevailing discourse perpetuates a growing economic segregation in higher education through its treatment of college as a private commodity, contravening the concept that all students are entitled to the full promise of American higher education—an ideal that lies at the core of AAC&U’s mission-level commitment to inclusive excellence.

If we hope to redress this trend, those of us within the academy must be willing to engage in an honest and radical reckoning with the extent to which we have failed to take seriously the concerns of those who are raising questions about the worthiness of public and private investments in higher education, concomitantly reinforcing a false dichotomy between a pragmatic education and a liberal education. In response, we must enlarge the national conversation about access to embrace the many ways in which liberal learning and inclusive excellence enrich us all. To do so, faculty and administrators in higher education must partner with K–12 educators, leaders of business and industry, government officials at the state and national levels, and citizens from all walks of life to explore and enact new, innovative approaches demonstrating the true value of liberal education and the importance of eradicating social inequities in order to make excellence inclusive. 

We must restore public trust in higher education, and in doing so, we must begin at home. Campus protests across the country have heightened consciousness with respect to a broad range of urgent and compelling issues: the limits of academic freedom, especially in relation to developing inclusive curricula; the legitimacy of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” in an environment founded on the free exchange of ideas; the implications of campus carry laws for students, faculty, and staff; the meaning of shared governance in the context of widespread accusations of the corporatization of higher education; the scope of our commitments to access in relation to undocumented students and prisoners; faculty rights and responsibilities in determining reasonable accommodations for increasing numbers of students with learning differences and mental health disorders; and questions surrounding who gets to decide what constitutes offense concerning microaggressions and more overt racist, sexist, ableist, or heteronormative behavior. Addressing these challenges is critical, not only to avoid campus upheaval, but because, as the philosopher Paul Feyerabend reminds us, a hegemony of one tradition over others enforces an unenlightened conformity, thwarting the variety of opinion “necessary for objective knowledge.”3

As the Association of American Colleges and Universities builds upon Carol Geary Schneider’s extraordinary legacy and its many signature programs through the development of our next strategic plan, we invite and count on your collaboration. One of AAC&U’s most significant strengths is the diversity of our member institutions and the people working at these institutions—from community colleges to research universities, from independent liberal arts colleges and large comprehensives to private nonprofit agencies. What unites us across this diversity is our shared commitment to AAC&U’s mission of making liberal education and inclusive excellence the foundation for institutional purpose and educational practice. In championing these values, we must, like Dickinson, be willing to “light the danger up,” knowing that together we can fulfill the promise of American higher education by preparing all students with the skills necessary to meet the social and economic challenges of the future, grounded in civic learning and democratic engagement.

Lynn Pasquerella

1. Jill Lepore, “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography,” Journal of American History 88, no. 1 (2001): 133.

2. Emily Dickinson to Louise and Frances Norcross, late May 1863, in Emily Dickinson Selected Letters, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), 183.

3. Paul Feyerabend, Against Method, 3rd ed. (New York: Verso, 2002), 32.