Friday, 1 March 2013

More Thoughts Provoked in “A Free and Ordered Space”

I am following my last post in which I introduced my intent to use A Free and Ordered Space, by A. Bartlett Giamatti as a vehicle to explore some current issues in higher education. In this posting I explain why I have choses A Free and Order Space as a resource.

I am following my last post, Thoughts Provoked in “A Free and Ordered Space,” in which I introduced a project. During the coming year I intend to review and engage in the book A Free and Ordered Space by A. Bartlett Giamatti. In the first post I provide some background and the reasoning behind why I have decided to work on the project. Today I will indicate why I have chosen Giamatti as my guide. In short, it is a combination of the contexts under which the addresses were made, the topics addressed, and some of the characteristics of Giamatti himself.


There are all sorts of ways of engaging in personal and professional development and all sorts of resources from which to choose. So why choose a Free and Order Space? Perhaps it was my state of mind that magnified the relevance of the book, but when I started reading it, I recognized the importance of the topics being discussed and the authenticity in which they were being treated. The topics, even those treated in passing, have proven to be enduring. They are easily identified in conferences, professional discussions, appearance in policy, and their treatment in the public media during the past years and months. That is, they are important and persistent. They are themselves the types of problems that universities are designed to pursue.

I believe that the principal reason why the issues discussed by Giamatti and treated in a Free and Ordered Space have continuing relevance is his insistence on applying a value-ladened lens, which framed each topic in terms of enduring principles supporting the purpose of the university. Giamatti's continuous refocusing on principles serves as a reminder that each problem ultimately needs to be addressed in terms of the university, not the corporation, not the swirl recorded and projected in popular media, not the mishigas of political urgency, not the mishmash of popular opinion, not the logic of popular managerial cults, and not the fear and uncertainty these things bring. Given my reaction to Giamatti's writing, it struck me that there would be merit in reviewing each address (chapter), teasing out the themes, relating those themes across addresses, and contextualizing them in terms of what we are facing, in many cases, more than 30 years later.

This is all fine, but why choose a Free and Orders Space? Giamatti approached relevant questions in a principled way; but haven't other authors done so as well? Of course they have, but this book has some qualities that are ideally suited for my purposes. Giamatti was performing in an act of service, as a teacher, from the unique perspective of the President of what many perceive as a truly great university. The topics covered in his addresses and the context in which they were delivered provides a unique an useful platform for review and extension. In each address the combination of chosen topic, audience, context, and the characteristics of the author presents an opportunity for those of us writing at a different time with different experiences to apply enduring principles to challenges that have spanned decades in different forms.


I found that a book published more then 20 years ago that features writing more than 30 years old provided a sense of safety and distance. Giammati was writing with the intent of addressing contemporary issues to students and other stakeholders of the early 1980s. In most of his addresses he was identifying critical issues and was trying purposefully to demystify them. The nature of the topics and the circumstances under which the addresses were made provide us a unique opportunity to reflect on the qualities of the topics under discussion and the degree to which the university and its environment has changed in recent decades. It provides touchstones from which to interpret current events. Some of the topics included in his addresses were,
  • the nature and value of liberal education,
  • the push to utilitarian education,
  • the pressure of federal regulation,
  • the appropriate role of college athletics,
  • the role of transparency, openness, and freedom in the properly functioning university, and
  • the relationships between academic and administrative staff in the university.


As mentioned above, A Free and Ordered Space is a collection of addresses that Giamatti delivered to key constituents including students. Through each presentation he was addressing a set of issues that he felt were timely and relevant, which provides the reader with insights into what the president of Yale felt was of critical importance at the time. That is, each of the book's chapters is somewhat self-contained and manageable, but the collection reflects a set of relationships that together form rich patterns. The organization of a Free and Ordered Space and the purpose of the writings is ideal for a reader interested in topics germane to the nature of the University. The following list of audiences that were addressed in Giamatti's speeches provides some insights into what Giamatti felt were important messages for a range of stakeholders, but perhaps most interestingly, for students entering and leaving Yale College.

The Nature and Purpose of the University
  • 1987 Association of School Administrators
  • 1987 Commencement at Franklin and Marshall College
  • 1978 Inaugural Address, Yale
  • 1981 Conference on Excellence in Education
  • 1883 Senior Class as Baccalaureate Address, Yale
  • 1984 Freshman Address, Yale
  • 1986 Senior Class as Baccalaureate Address, Yale
  • 1981 Senior Class as Baccalaureate Address, Yale

The Earthly Use of a Liberal Education
  • 1981 Freshman Address, Yale
  • 1983 Freshman Address, Yale
  • 1985 Freshman Address, Yale
  • 1983 Association of Yale Alumni “Humanities at Yale”
  • 1977 Conference on the Humanities at Yale
  • 1978 Convention of the Modern Language Association
  • 1979 Freshman Address, Yale
  • 1980 Association of Yale Alumni (April)
  • 1987 Williams College
  • 1980 Phi Beta Kappa Lecture at Yale
  • 1980 Annual Report of the President, Yale

The Private University and the Public Interest
  • 1979 Department of Health, Education, and Welfare
  • 1979 Senior Class as Baccalaureate Address, Yale
  • 1980 Senior Class as Baccalaureate Address, Yale
  • 1982 Convention of American College of Surgeons
  • 1980 Association of Yale Alumni (October)
  • 1982 Graduate and Professional Convocation, Yale
  • 1982 Partners in the Research Enterprise: A National Conference, University of Pennsylvania
  • 1982 Senior Class as Baccalaureate Address, Yale
  • 1985 Senior Class as Baccalaureate Address, Yale
  • 1980 Freshman Address, Yale
  • 1984 Senior Class as Baccalaureate Address, Yale


Dr. Giamatti served as a career academic, as scholar as well as administrator with his last appointment in the academy as president of Yale. It is my feeling that his writing reflects the wisdom and experience of a professional balancing the purpose of the University as a common good with the management of the University as an organization. In doing so, Giamatti frames and harmonizes some of the tensions modern universities are facing. His treatment of these tensions shows an understanding and respect for the those contributing to the purpose of the University with special attention given to the undergraduate student. In short, I believe that Dr. Giamatti was in a privileged position to write holistically about the University, chose to write about authentic challenges to the University, and wrote with principle. As has already been pointed out in a comment by Eric Feinblatt to the last post, Giamatti, like all presidents, made controversial decisions, some of which seem inconstant with fundamental espoused beliefs. These apparent inconsistencies and the contexts in which they grew and exist merit as much consideration as what was included in Giamatti's writings.


Of course anybody reading the book now has a different perspective than did the author who was writing 25 to 35 years ago. In addition, there are differences in the type of formal education we received (liberal/utilitarian), the types of universities that we have served (public/private; elite/non-elite), the principal roles we have served (academic/administrative), and other contexts (US/Overseas). My perspective on the University comes from a vastly different set of experiences than does Dr. Giamatti's. This is likely to be true of many who read his book and it is my feeling that our differences, when well recognized, will add something beneficial to the discussion.


Enough explanations. As mentioned, I plan to move forward through the addresses in the book in the order they are presented. I will not really be working to any schedule. I may take a week or two to post the first one to give a little time to anybody interested enough in reading along to pick up a copy of the book.  Once again, and as always, I welcome involvement.

Giamatti, A. B. (1988). A free and ordered space: The real world of the university. New York: W.W. Norton.

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