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Christy Wampole Reimagines the University Through Utopian Lens

Last week the Arete Initiative at the Kenan Institute for Ethics invited Professor Christy Wampole of Princeton University to share her thoughts on how utopian experiments in higher education can help reimagine the purpose and future of the American university.  Dr. Wampole is a scholar of modern French philosophy whose research explores concepts of defensive irony and contemplation.

Dr. Wampole began her talk with a quote from noted French philosopher, Simone Weil, who bluntly condemned formal education as having the power to “sever” individuals from the living universe around them.  Launching her own searing critique of American higher education today, Dr. Wampole expressed horror at the “greed-filled transformation of houses of learning (universities) into houses of earning”.  As a “humanities person in an increasingly inhumane world,” she lamented that rote memorization and bureaucratic masterfulness stood in for the holistic training students used to receive. 

In the past, she argued, higher education embraced a spiritual framework, inspired by the university’s monastic origins.  In this model, the acquisition of practical knowledge took a backseat to the “stewardship of the soul”.  Earlier forms of the academy in America challenged students to develop into recipients of rights and bearers of responsibilities; to conceive of an expansive, integrated theory of the world rather than collect bits of atomized knowledge.  Towering intellectuals such as Frederick Douglass, Charles Darwin, and Ralph Waldo Emerson were the products of such an education, Dr. Wampole argued.

Dr. Wampole cited her Princeton colleague, Anthony Appiah, who argues that academia must decide whether to merely be “useful” to society or to transform it by bold utopian experiments in education.  The first model creates students who accumulate disparate bits of knowledge but know little of the practical world, while the second has the potential to produce visionaries skilled at assimilating new knowledge into the general principles of what is already known.

In support of Appiah’s “Utopia U.” model of education, Dr. Wampole cites three examples of utopian experiments in American universities as models for transforming American higher education: Black Mountain College in North Carolina, Deep Springs College in California, and the Waldorf Education.  Each model was inspired by a holistic vision of education for young people.

Dr. Wampole cites three common threads that make the institutions above truly exceptional in the landscape of American higher education: the shift from hierarchal models of education to models of self-governance and cooperative labor; curricular emphasis on moral responsibility, social competence, and empathy instead of accumulating facts; and the formation of graduates who embrace lives dedicated service and leadership, rather than a narrow technocratic view of themselves.

Dr. Wampole closed her talk by encouraging the audience to embrace the utopian models she discussed as “vectors of aspiration” which have the potential to guide future developments in the history of American higher education.