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President Hexter's Convocation Address: 'On Freethinkers'

Monday, September 14, 2009

Hampshire College Convocation
September 8, 2009
President's Address by Ralph J. Hexter

On Freethinkers

Convocation marks the conclusion of a very full week of welcoming events at Hampshire. As I said at an event last Thursday, when I reflect on the fact that I'm now starting my fifth year as president, I don't know whether I graduated and am starting a new phase of my presidential education or am just progressing slowly. Let's leave that undecided. What I do know is that no one, including those whose Hampshire memories reach back much longer than mine, can recall a student check-in and orientation than ran more smoothly than this one. I've heard positive comments from new students and family members who were gasping for words of praise for the enthusiastic support everyone offered them. They felt a spirit of friendship and support that was no less sincere for its being well-coordinated. I've already sent many notes of thanks, but I want to express my gratitude and admiration once again for the way everyone pitched in. I have great admiration for the manner in which everyone got together and thought through the process so that we could focus on the essentials. I know that this recent experience of how positive, impactful and energizing thoughtful reengineering and team leadership can be will prove all the more valuable as we plan and consider changes at a time and in an economy that will put a premium on bold and imaginative thinking.

As those of you who were at my welcoming remarks to new students know, I offered a sample of my own vision for Hampshire, a vision I first tried out with Hampshire's trustees last month. I won't repeat it here, but I do encourage you to go to the "office of the president" page on Hampshire's site and check my latest blog posting. I've posted the full version of that vision in the expectation of feedback and dialogue, all the more valuable as we move into strategic planning. I don't want to wear us out with process, but the reason the trustees were eager to know my own vision for our institution and the reason we are all, including the trustees, putting so much emphasis on strategy is that ours is a world that requires every entity to be maximally intentional about how it will fulfill its mission in a changing world. You don't have to be a scholar of Ovid, author of the Metamorphoses, to appreciate that the world is in constant flux - well, maybe it does help a little. In any event, change is a condition of existence, and thinking strategically is just another way of saying we will be as smart and thoughtful as we can as we move into the future.

I will not waste a convocation talk on operational details, but I will observe that all strategic planning begins with an affirmation of values. This may involve in large measure the reaffirmation of values that have long been held. Of course, rarely if ever do all constituencies of an organization talk about their values in the same terms, and in many cases organizations let their values go unstated, assuming they are shared, or decide it's easier to "agree to disagree" than strive for a single voice. Now every higher educational institution, certainly anyone I would claim is worthy of that high name, contains within it a wide range of opinions, and is enriched by such polyphony, sometimes even cacophony. This is particularly challenging for all of us who try to convey to the world, and particularly the universe of prospective students and their families, just what Hampshire is - a task that is all the more important since we proudly advertise our differences from a notional norm by having narrative evaluations in place of grades, interdisciplinary schools instead of departments, and portfolios that are approved in a divisional system rather than credits that are simply accumulated. As our new students now know, we eschew the words "freshman," "registrar," and "major." Given this, we must pay particular attention to how we describe ourselves. By the way, you should check out our ever-evolving website and especially the admissions pages, where you'll see evidence of a lot of great thinking, new pathways to more content, especially featuring student and faculty work, and a more with-it aesthetic. I want to thank all the folks who are working double-time to help us step up our game.

We are not defined by our reputation, but we would be foolish not to be aware of the images that circulate in the world. I've publicly pronounced on the inadequacies of rankings, particularly those that rank-order all institutions according to a single, merely objective-seeming set of parameters, as if it the match between individual student and institution shouldn't be the crucial factor in students' decision. Yet one would also be foolish to imagine that such ratings don't impact students and their families. Even more seriously, we must acknowledge that not a few of the factors that play a role in rankings are ones we care about and want to do better at. Among these, for example, percentage of alumni who support our institution students. We're working on it.

It was in the aftermath of the recent publication of one such ranking that, to my surprise, I experienced a "philological moment," and since these are all too rare for me these days, I will indulge my philological side today. Audiences to previous convocation addresses have had the opportunity to judge whether it was really such a good idea to have a classicist and comparatist become Hampshire's president, and I don't see why you shouldn't also.

Hampshire College had the good fortune -- and, clearly, deserved honor -- to be highlighted as the eighth of "25 Schools that might be right for you." [; Hampshire is under tab number 8.]  I'm not going parse every aspect of the description, but believe me, each word was subjected to interpretive scrutiny by staff and administrators who focus on our recruiting and communications efforts. What I found most interesting was the reaction to the concluding words, a quotation from one of our students now entering his second year. I will not embarrass him by naming him, and I have not talked to him about this - so I apologize in advance if my taking his words as the text for my "sermon" today puts him in an unwanted and unexpected spotlight. As you will see, I admire his perspective and credit him with using words with their proper historical sense. I look forward to hearing more of his thoughts as well as those of others, but as you will see, the words, and one word in particular, set me off on such an intellectual journey that I wanted to share it with you today.

I don't mean to hold you in suspense. What is this word? Let me just set up the context. The authors of the squib on Hampshire I think do a good job in emphasizing the serious nature of academic work at Hampshire, describing economically the study areas of three students. Following a statement that this particular student is researching wildlife in a neighboring state, he is quoted as describing Hampshire as an ideal place, even the ultimate place for "freethinkers."

Now I thought this was entirely great. I was astonished to hear from a couple of my staff that on the contrary they found this to be very bad. I pressed them as to why. What, I asked, was wrong with freethinkers? I have to say I am still not clear on exactly what the objection is - perhaps I was too aggressive in my questioning. I didn't mean to come on like the grand inquisitor. I was just utterly unprepared for their reaction. Gradually I inferred their fear that whatever "freethinker" means according to its dictionary definition and has meant historically, given the somewhat wild and woolly reputation Hampshire acquired over its first forty years, "freethinker" would only reinforce aspects of Hampshire that might discourage some students and their families from thinking of the college as a place for serious academic work.  

I had and have all sorts of reactions to this. As in the case of rankings, I guess it is naïve not to acknowledge and study misunderstandings of vocabulary; once students get here, I reasoned, they can learn that their first impression of a word or phrase needs to be tested and perhaps revised. But, as I said, I want to indulge my philological side, so I will just focus on "freethinkers" and try to interpret it as best I can. By "philological," etymologically "pertaining to the love of words," I mean the study of words in the context of their historical usage.

I started with what seemed to me a conundrum. How could persons connected with an educational institution possibly think that "freethinker" or "free thought" could have negative connotations? Is "thought" not good? Is "free" not also good? ("Free," that is, as in "freedom," not "no charge": no question, we need those tuition dollars!) Or was it the compound with "free-" that invited the slippage, so that echoes of "free love" or "free spirit" bled through. That could possibly explain their queasiness I hypothesized.

If so, how very sad, how depressing. I was pretty sure the term came into use in the early modern period, in the later phases of the great European religious controversies first between Catholics and Protestants and then among multiple Christian sects. Freethinkers were those who claimed to follow reason as opposed to authority in general and in particular religious orthodoxy and its dogmas. Freethought was aligned with enlightenment and religious tolerance. A quick review of a few sources confirmed that my general sense was correct, and for a week, I also ran around asking likely and unlikely people what they understood by "freethinkers." I can hardly count a member of my gym as a random citizen, as he's a professor of intellectual history at U Mass, but his first response nailed it precisely. I also did the translation test. What are corresponding phrases in other languages? Fixed in my memory is a key moment in Friedrich Schiller's play Don Carlos (written between 1783 and 1787), in which the eighteenth-century poet anachronistically puts enlightenment words into the mouth of a sixteenth-century nobleman daring to speak his mind to the Spanish monarch Philip II. In this great confrontation, Philip asks what Posa seeks for the Low Countries, then under strict Habsburg and thus Catholic rule: "Sire, geben Sie Gedankenfreiheit" - "Sire, give [them] freedom of thought." This is one of the clarion calls of the enlightenment. For me, the phrase "freethinker" resonates with this and comparable expositions of the case for rationalism and religious tolerance.

Very little excites me as much as such explorations, which one might think of as a kind of cultural archaeology pursued without getting one's hands dirty. At most a bit dusty, if the books are crumbling. And it was to books I turned. Even in the midst of the whirl of events that precede college opening, I found treasure on the shelves of the Hampshire College library. I ordered books from other libraries in the Five College consortium via our common on-line catalogue - which, by the way, you should all know works perfectly. Sometimes you don't even have to wait until the next day for them to show up; one book from Mount Holyoke showed up within 8 hours of my ordering it, although, admittedly, I had got up very early that morning.

I learned a lot. I read about the history of freethought and freethinkers especially in America, from the colonial and revolutionary periods into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If Hampshire was ideal for "freethinkers," we'd have as students many of the framers of the constitution and some early U.S. presidents - Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison among others. Tom Paine would have I think felt particularly at home, but to be sure, Tom Paine's freethinking went way too far for some. Even as respected a man as Jefferson had his critics for his freethinking ways.

There are of course always critics, and the more established establishments seek to become, the less comfortable they are with free thought even if it was free thought that established them. Susan Jacoby gives her valuable history of Freethinkers the subtitle "A History of American Secularism" (2004), and it is hard to say, when one surveys the political landscape of the U.S.A. in 2009, whether we are still a republic that cleaves to the ideals of freethought or whether its opponents are not ascendant. Jacoby contends that pious, usually conservative accounts of American history have systematically obscured the anti-establishment voices heard in past debates and in particular the role of pro-secular, even anti-religious arguments that were key in advancing such causes as abolition and women's suffrage.

I let my quick survey take me back to the ancient world and run through the Middle Ages, but one exchange I stumbled upon seemed particularly relevant for the present moment, rather oddly, since it occurred almost 300 years ago. In 1713, the British lawyer and sometime philosopher Anthony Collins published a treatise entitled A Discourse of Free-Thinking Occasion'd by the Rise and Growth of a Sect call'd Free-Thinkers (London, 1713). I find it worth quoting Collins' definition of "free-thinking": "The Use of Understanding, in endeavouring to find out the Meaning of any Proposition whatsoever, in considering the nature of the Evidence for or against it, and in judging of it according to the seeming Force or Weakness of the Evidence" (p. 5).


Throughout most of the treatise, Collins animadverts on the Christian religious tradition, "priests" in particular and "superstition" in general. The philosophical assault on "superstition" runs back to the great Roman Epicurean, Lucretius, one of the heroes in the free-thinking pantheon. For all that, Collins is no atheist but rather a deist. While the various shades and flavors of these classifications may seem quaint to us today, they were issues of desperate significance, even matters of life-and-death in the early modern period. The full enfranchisement of all regardless of religious affiliation is more recent in Europe and North America than you likely imagine, though there were precursors here and there around the world, for example, Asoka in India in the third century B.C.E. [Bury 1952 72]. It might be worth remembering that Congress added the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance only in 1954, at the height of the "red scare."

The world of early modern pamphleteering did not take a backseat to talk radio or today's ideologically-sorted cable TV channels when it came to the intensity and ferocity of critique. Jonathan Swift was, like not a few satirists, no opponent of the establishment. Indeed, he was a dean of the Church of Ireland, and he sent up Collins and the freethinkers by putting out what pretended to be a simplified and popularizing version of Collins' treatise. It is of course a parody; by simple-minded exaggeration Swift reduces Collins' arguments to the absurd. Think Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin. It's always easy to send up populists, and in eighteenth-century England, freethinkers seemed dangerously populist, not elitist, to the establishment.

Also in the same year (1713) Collins' treatise received a much more serious critique by one of the greatest of all Classical scholars, Richard Bentley, who published his riposte under what then would have been the fairly transparent pseudonym "Phileleutherus Lipsiensis" - "the freedom-lover from Leipzig." Bentley punched holes in Collins' scholarship and pointed out gaps in his logic and absurdities in the phrasing of some of his arguments, but as a diligent and accomplished scholar, he put his finger on precisely the aspect of "free" that, I think, is the ultimate source of the queasiness some of my colleagues felt when they reacted against the term "freethinkers." 


[A] modern Free-thinker is an Universalist in Speculation; any Proposition whatsoever he's ready to decide; … Self Assurance supplies all want of Abilities; he'l interpret … the Prophets and Solomon without Hebrew, Plutarch and Zosimus without Greek, and Cicero and Lucan without Latin (p. 11).

Bentley continues:

The Characteristic of this Sect does not lie at all in the Definition of Thinking, but in stating the true meaning of their adjective FREE. Which in fact will be found to carry much the same Notion, as Bold, Rash, Arrogant, Presumptious, together with a strong Propension to the Paradox and the Perverse. For Free with them has no relation at all to outward Impediment or Inhibition … but means an inward Promptness and Forwardness to decide about Matters beyond the reach of their Studies, in opposition to the rest of Mankind. (ibid.)

I would be irresponsible were I to claim to be an authority on the topic; indeed, I may here be exemplifying precisely what Bentley is attacking freethinkers for! But with that caveat registered, let me say that as far as my crash course in "freethinking" permits me to say, this particular scruple on Dr. Bentley's part does not seem to have played a major role in subsequent debates about free thought and freethinkers. Religious, political, and "moral" issues of a given time and place were usually the tails that wagged the epistemological dog.

Bentley's charge, however, is a serious one that still needs answering today and certainly right here at Hampshire, since we are, it has been claimed, the ideal college for "freethinkers." I remain strongly in favor of "freethinkers" and "free thought" just as I am unrepentant in my support of the cognate "freedom of thought." I hope all are.

I do think it's fair to insist that whatever is "free" about the "thinking" not vitiate the rigor of the thinking itself. Hampshire's motto is non satis scire - "to know is not enough" - which implies, clearly, that we start with knowing. And it is a fundamental premise of free thought that knowledge emerges from thinking and not from dogma and orthodoxies of any sort.

There is a lengthy discourse, of course, about freedom itself. The question often posed runs: "Where does freedom end and license begin?" This is a much harder question. I mistrust the assumption that the boundary is at all clear. I think we will be prepared to agree that freedom involves some risks, but that the risks are worth taking.

But why don't I leave that for you to resolve for yourselves and in dialogue we can all engage in? That's why you are here, my dear free thinkers.  Welcome to Hampshire.


Suggested reading:

Bentley, Richard (1713). Remarks. In Wellek 1978.

Bury, J.B. (1952). A History of Freedom of Thought, 2nd edition, with epilogue. J.J. Blackham. [First edition = 1913.] London: Oxford University Press.

Collins, Anthony (1713). A Discourse of Free-Thinking. In Wellek 1978.

Collins, Anthony (1717). A Philosophical Inquiry. In Wellek 1978.

Jacoby, Susan (2004). Freethinkers. A History of American Secularism. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Levine, Alan (1999), ed. Early Modern Skepticism and the Origins of Toleration. Lanham, MD and elsewhere: Lexington Books.

Wellek, René (1978), ed. Anthony Collins. A Discourse of Free-Thinking, 1713. etc. New York and London: Garland Publishing.


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