Book review: A Free and Ordered Space – A.Bartlett Giamatti

Giamatti Bartlett, WW Norton & Co. New York, 1988
Giamatti Bartlett, WW Norton & Co. New York, 1988

While it is not fashionable to review old books, there can be exceptions. Or rather, there should be exceptions for classics – they should be read, reviewed and discussed- time and again. Giamatti’s “ A free and Ordered Space” is one such book. This book, first published in 1988 is one man’s vision of higher education in the U.S and its role in shaping the future of the country. While certainly very opinionated and seemingly traditional in many respects, he offers us deep insights into lessons he learned as the President of Yale University.

By the term “A free and ordered space,” Giamatti means one where intellectual pursuits, challenges, and collegiality thrives and one finds like-minded people who may aid in the growth of oneself. While he points out that the family can never be replaced, no matter how stellar or dysfunctional, the university does play a key role in being a home away from home- at least intellectually. “You will find, to say it all, that a state of independence is achieved by broadening your connections and affiliations, intellectual, spiritual and human.” By freedom, he means a space for “openness, honesty, intellectual inquiry for the truth and mutual respect. These values foster debate, disagreement, diversity of ideas and opinions; they protect freedom of expression and the open exchange of ideas because that is the essence of a free, independent university in a democracy.”

With the advent of online education, the call to re-evaluate the study of liberal arts, social sciences, Giamatti seemed uncomfortable with the narratives surrounding this field. IN the chapter “Power, politics and a sense of History” he says:” Why thoughtful people have chosen to join the gang on the crowded anti-social science bandwagon is a question I cannot answer.” This anti-intellectual trend seems to be gaining ground in some states and is true today, as when he first wrote this book. He further adds that the idea of power and how a society articulates it is key to forming it amidst ourselves. “How power is conceived in a society has the most to do with determining who is attracted to positions of power.” He points out. His vision of a powerful society is one where power is shared with others and is not concentrated in just a few hands. This is rooted in the need to have stability in society and power becomes a way to articulate that stability and achieve it.

His call is also to move away from narrow-minded dogma and ideology, either of the right or the left. This is becoming increasingly important, as we are witnessing a political landscape, which is increasingly becoming vicious, partisan and one may even argue, anti-intellectual; where simple explanations to complex problems are being demanded, on a regular basis. As Sen. Chuck Hagel said during his confirmation at the Senate “I am not going to give you a yes or no answer on a lot of things today, its far more complicated than that.” The world we live in has many shades of grey and we must learn to be comfortable with this ambiguity and uncertainty.

The sense of purpose that a university and educational system is supposed to impart is clear in his voice. He points out:” Our present-day confusion about our schools and the role of education does not occur, I believe, because we have resolved this tension. It occurs because we have lost the tension. We have lost it by allowing the utilitarian view of school to displace the larger educational perspective. In losing it, we have lost touch with our past, with the fructifying energy that the older tension, fully embraced, could inspire.”  He goes on to point that the civic ideal of preparing citizens who are thoughtful and productive at the same time is lost in the muddle and debates about the utility of our present education system. This, he points out is harmful and indeed is at the heart of many debates, ongoing about the relevance of liberal arts education in states such as North Carolina and Virginia, whose politicians have sought to cut funding for the programs. UNC-Chapel Hill, in particular, has been in news for the same reasons.

Giamatti had a clear vision for Yale and how it can achieve the same:” First, Yale must use its financial and human resources prudently, imaginatively and wisely, to encourage new patterns of teaching and research to emerge. Second, Yale must continue to reaffirm the diversity of America. Finally, Yale must expend every effort to nourish and encourage its young or nontenured faculty,” he points out. The pressure on families is immense and the institution itself is under threat from modern ways of living, the migration of populations and also changing dynamics of the labor force. The sense of displacement, disconnectedness, and loss of cohesiveness in families these days is impacting how the youth relate to a university or any institution; he points out.

He is also a champion of sports and athletics forming a key part of the character-building process. “Athletics is essential but not primary. It contributes to the point, but it is not the point itself.” He says, highlighting that scholarly pursuits should never be subordinated to achievements in sports.

His book is a compassionate call for upholding some of the traditional values of higher education: respect, academic freedom, upholding human dignity and above all – retaining a sense of purpose, which has made the American institution what it is today. His call for nurturing the future leaders is summed up in this para, when he says:” I am concerned, at last, with the next generation of voices. I wish them to be as strong and confident and effective in what they do as those who came before. And they will be if we recall our nature and our purpose and engage each other to fashion our future together.”

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