Novelist Marilynne Robinson warns Stanford audience against utilitarian trends in higher education

In the 2015 Presidential Lecture in the Arts and Humanities, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson argued that if the American higher education system continues to shift priorities towards training instead of educating, students will be ill-equipped to participate as citizens of a democratic society.

Marilynne Robinson is best known for her award-winning fiction. But her expertise is by no means limited to the fictional realm, as became clear when she addressed a Stanford audience last week.

Steve CastilloMarilynne Robinson and Caroline Winterer

Marilynne Robinson, left, responds to a question from the audience after delivering the 2015 annual Presidential Lecture in the Arts and Humanities. Humanities Center director Caroline Winterer moderated the conversation.

All four of her novels have won major literary awards. Her second novel, Gilead, won a Pulitzer in 2005. Her stories are known for their luminous prose and poignant portrayals of ordinary experiences.

But she has also published numerous essays that offer a forcefully argued ethical vision for modern society. From insights on religion in America, environmentalism, and gun control, Robinson harnesses her exceptional command of the written word to challenge conventional wisdom.

In the 2015 annual Presidential Lecture in the Arts and Humanities, which Robinson delivered at Stanford on Oct. 29, she turned her attention to the evolving culture of higher education.

Robinson, who has taught at a number of colleges and universities, including her current position at the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, identified a troubling trend in higher education today.

The original rationale behind an American liberal arts education – to play a vital role in democratizing privilege – "is under attack, or is being forgotten," Robinson said. 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."

Administered by the Stanford Humanities Center, the Presidential Lecture series is sponsored by the Office of the President to "bring the most distinguished scholars, artists and critics of our time to the Stanford University campus."

In opening remarks, Caroline Winterer, the director of the Stanford Humanities Center, introduced Robinson as "one of the most powerful moral voices in the modern literary pantheon." Winterer noted that Robinson's emphasis on education dovetails with Stanford's own Year of Learning initiative, which is fostering a wide-ranging exploration of the future of teaching and learning.

During her visit to Stanford, Robinson was interviewed for an episode of the radio program, "Entitled Opinions." Stanford professor of French and Italian Robert Harrison hosts the literary talk show. The episode with Robinson will air on KZSU at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 4. To listen live, tune in to 90.1 FM. The show will also be available for streaming on the KZSU website or as a podcast on iTunes.

Education as self-discovery

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."

Humanities as social good

Enlarging upon Robinson's support for a liberal arts education, Winterer asked her what she would do if she were the president of a university.

Robinson 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."

One audience member asked Robinson if she were calling for a new faith that could counter the pervasive "money is the sacred" credo.

Robinson replied with a decidedly humanist message, saying that the basis of everything that matters to her is the fact that "people are extraordinary." To "water the desert a little bit and then see what they become," Robinson said, is the "whole project of American education."

A student asked Robinson what the humanities can do for social good.

"Everything," she replied. The humanities, Robinson continued, "make people think about humankind and learn compassion for one another and learn awe relative to what human beings are."

For more information about Robinson's work and career, visit the Stanford University Libraries Presidential Lecture site, which includes excerpts from her writings.