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The Nature and Value of a Liberal Education

Education, Essays Comments Off on The Nature and Value of a Liberal Education


A talk for the 50th Year Celebration of the Santa Fe campus of St. Johns College, October 2014

Roger William Gilman

We live in an era where students and their families in our nation have been forced to regard higher education as a consumer good, a personal, private investment in the student’s future life-style — one that pursues an individual view of happiness and well-being as a competition (for a credential) structured by the marketplace.   The alternative, common in our past, was to regard a liberal education as an investment in our neighbors and co-workers  . . . investment in decent and caring partners and parents, and persons with well-cultivated souls.  But now we have privatized almost everything in our lives. And funding of these private investments in ourselves has become a personal responsibility; the debt accrued for advanced education, for instance, is a private not public debt.  This implies that our society currently regards advanced education as a private value, not a public one.

But things might be even worse than this: some pundits claim that a broad and deep education across centuries and hemispheres of … Continue Reading

The Deanship of Roger William Gilman 2005-2013:

Education, Essays Comments Off on The Deanship of Roger William Gilman 2005-2013:

Personal notes on my experience leading Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, Western Washington University


I learned of the open position for dean of Fairhaven College (at Western Washington University) in the fall of 2004 from a friend of mine who was a provost at another university. I was unaware of the opening until he called to say he had noticed the announcement in The Chronicle of Higher Education. He nominated me. I applied and was awarded the job. I began work in 2005. I had the privilege of being a member of the first class of students attending Fairhaven College recruited from outside the university of which Fairhaven is a part, beginning in 1969. The period from 1965 to 1975 was a tumultuous time of many countercultural movements in America, among them a Progressive College Reform Movement during which many new liberal arts colleges were founded with the purpose of offering liberal education in new ways (with new curricula and pedagogies). [See my article: “Fairhaven College and the Progressive Curriculum,” in The College Curriculum: a reader, edited by Joseph DeVitis, Peter Lang, 2013 pp. 143-167. Appendix 1] My experience as a student helping to invent Fairhaven College in its early days led to my lifelong interest in the philosophy of education.

After the “Fairhaven Experience,” my graduate education at the University of Chicago further deepened my interest in interdisciplinary learning. Its committee structure that crossed departmental disciplines offered me the chance to study the history and philosophy of the life sciences, and the relationships among ethical, political and aesthetic value judgments. My research and teaching career continued along this line of development. I wrote philosophy and poetry. Later I recognized how much my habits of learning were due to my early experience at Fairhaven. So I was thrilled with the prospect of returning to lead Fairhaven College — a community of learning that had fostered my development – in order to nurture the community that had nurtured me. [Appendix 2]

At Fairhaven I had been a student activist involved in the debates that would shape the early policies and procedures, if not the mission and goals, of the College. I had kept in touch with some of my college mentors, so I knew of the on-going debates and issues involved in the subsequent development of the college. I knew of some of its problems and opportunities. And my kids had just graduated from high school; it was a good time for a personal transition — to take on new challenges, to stretch my skills, and apply what I’d learned thus far in life.

I brought to the candidacy for dean my experience teaching in three universities, leading as chair of a philosophy department, and administering as associate dean of general education and assessment. I had thought a lot, though written little, about alternative modes of creating opportunities for liberating and empowering learning. My position as dean would offer me the chance to deepen those ideas and to experiment with educational structures and methods that might better foster critical and creative thinking — activities that address the student as a whole person with multiple adults roles to prepare for (as supervisor or employee, as citizen and neighbor, as partner and parent). I welcomed the chance to contribute to the improvement of an already great college in its pursuit of excellence. And so I started work full of excitement and hope.

I soon discovered that the deanship of Fairhaven College is more complex than the usual deanship at a more conventional college (at this time in the history of higher education in North America). Because Fairhaven is intentionally a unique community it unavoidably has a semi- autonomous psychological space in the university which is its host. It has its own culture. In its founding days, Fairhaven’s campus was a significant distance (literally cow-pastures away from the main university campus) not only geographically, but a political and psychological distance as well from Western. Because of this intentionally thin relationship, not only must Fairhaven’s

dean serve as the academic leader and administrative manager, as faculty relationship negotiator,

… Continue Reading

Finding the Law of One’s Own Freedom: Negative and Positive Freedom in the Fairhaven College Community

Finding the Law of One’s Own Freedom: Negative and Positive Freedom in the Fairhaven College Community

FairhavenCollege-mainbuilding_webThis “manifesto” was written in 1970 (?) when I was just home from service in Germany with NATO and had enrolled in Fairhaven College which at the time was just a couple of years old.  Its curriculum, policies and procedures were still under construction.  For those of us who were students this was a chaotic circumstance under which to experience our first real freedom: we had to conduct independent research and design our own majors without any real models yet in place.  During the year, in meeting after meeting, the students, faculty and staff tried to hammer out rules for this emerging learning community. But we seemed to be spinning our wheels.


I typed this “manifesto” on mimeograph paper and wrote it under the pseudonym, Henry Burlingame (because I was currently reading John Barth’s The Sot Weed Factor and intended to become a philosopher and poet just like the protagonist of the novel, Henry Burlingame).  Late at night I slipped copies of the essay into everyone’s mailboxes up on the third floor of “the big house.” … Continue Reading

Come Together, Right Now, Over This

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Here’s something to celebrate, even in these hard times.  Fairhaven College (of Western Washington University) is graduating its 40th class of students this spring, in June.  The college family and all its friends are marking this anniversary May 14th and 15th (2010) on campus.  Alums will gather from all over the continent, even from overseas, to honor this vital and intimate institution that nurtures their values and careers.   Even those who are not graduates of Fairhaven relish its accomplishments and honor its contributions to our community.

Fairhaven graduates, now scattered around the globe, have not only distinguished themselves as doctors and lawyers, scientists and scholars, artists, writers, and musicians, as social workers and activists, teachers, midwives, and farmers; they have also become exemplary neighbors and citizens, life partners and parents.  They have learned not just how to earn a good living, but how to lead a good life. … Continue Reading

What is a Liberal Education?

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In The College Curriculum: a reader, ed. by Joseph DeVitis, 2013, Peter Lang: New York, Berlin, Oxford, pp. 7-13

ISBN 978-1-4331-1789-3

Roger William Gilman, Dean of Fairhaven College                                                    

Western Washington University

In my role as academic dean of a college offering students a ‘liberal education,’ I am often asked by new students what this means.  What is a liberal education?

Our students are not alone; most people asking this question are genuinely puzzled by its meaning; and I find that the few who do have some ideas about the nature and purpose of a liberal education often hold misconceptions.  It’s not just our students who want to know: potential employers of our students, donors to the university, state legislators, trustees, and even colleagues in our colleges sometimes wonder about the nature, purpose, and value of liberal education. … Continue Reading