This is an excellent essay by Marilynne Robinson in the most recent Harper’s, based on a lecture given at Amherst last year, on the spread of the liberal arts in America through the founding of small colleges throughout the midwest. A few excerpts are included below for discussion, but you really should read the whole thing.

There were other hints at participation in the great issues of an earlier America, but their real significance did not strike me until I went into the Middle West and found any number of Amhersts, so to speak, scattered over the landscape. These colleges are younger by two or three decades but strikingly similar architecturally and in scale, and no wonder, because they also were built in the first instance by people whose determination was their primary resource. They were founded as stations on the underground railway, and as centers for humane learning of a kind that would make their graduates and those influenced by them resistant to the spread of slavery.

Their faculties seem to have been composed largely of graduates of divinity schools in New England and New York, which sent bands out into the West to advance the cause of liberal education and the reforms it was meant to promote, including the abolition of slavery and the advancement of women. Many of these colleges were racially integrated and integrated by gender also before the Civil War. Progressive philanthropists funded these schools because the reformist innovations undertaken by them were not tolerated in the East. These schools were radical despite the fact that an intense, if to us rather mysterious, piety was cultivated by them… The movement as a whole was inspired or stimulated by the Second Great Awakening, and its leaders were often referred to as revivalists… It would be interesting to trace the transformation in American society that broke the link between popular religion and high intellectual achievement, between religious enthusiasm and generous and transformative change. In my experience, many of the schools in the old abolitionist archipelago are entirely forgetful of their history or are embarrassed by the little they know about it, in most cases because they are very progressive and enlightened and therefore do not wish to trace their paternity to a clutch of fiery preachers, and in some cases because they are piously conservative and do not enjoy association with a clutch of New England radicals.

A very generous hope was abroad in America which undertook to realize itself in the wide diffusion of a kind of education historically associated with privilege.


But recently legislatures have been finding it difficult to justify the cost of liberal education. What is it for, after all? Does it produce better workers? Does it attract investment? Does it prepare graduates for the kind of employment they will need to pay off the cost of their education as legislatures continue to back away from the obligation to maintain the universities and the universities increasingly make up the difference by raising tuition? (These are rhetorical questions – the answer yes is not welcome, even or especially if a good case can be made for it.)


We have not learned what we should have learned from the best experiments in democracy that have taken place among us. If I had not gone from Western Massachusetts to Iowa, and if I had not been struck by the anomalous presence of what might be New England schools surrounded by what might be New England villages, and if I had not wondered why these college should be the oldest things on the landscape and why there should be so many of them, I would never have learned that aspirations for American democracy had once been so generous and the same time so high…

Now we speak of the great mass of people as workers who must be conditioned and pressed toward always greater efficiency, toward accepting lives they do not define or control, lived in service to some supposed greater good that is never in any humane or democratic sense their own good or their children’s good.

Those who are ignorant of the past are condemned to repeat it, and society does indeed seem to be reverting to a dismal past, which, in our ignorance, we call an inevitable future. But this is true too: Those who are ignorant of history deprive themselves of the hope that they might learn from what is best in it. Generous hope is embedded in this landscape and in the national landscape, waiting to be remembered.

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