Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking

Generosity and thoughtfulness are not in abundance right now, and so Kathleen Fitzpatrick‘s important new book, Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University, is wholeheartedly welcome. The generosity Kathleen seeks relates to lost virtues, such as listening to others and deconstructing barriers between groups. As such, Generous Thinking can be helpfully read alongside of Alan Jacobs’s How to Think, as both promote humility and perspective-taking as part of a much-needed, but depressingly difficult, re-socialization. Today’s polarization and social media only make this harder.

Fitzpatrick’s analysis of the university’s self-inflicted wounds is painful to acknowledge for those of us in the academy, but undoubtedly true. Scholars are almost engineered to cast a critical eye on all that passes before them, and few articulate their work well to broader audiences. Administrators are paying less attention than in the past to the communities that surround their campuses. Perhaps worst of all, the incentive structures of universities, such as the tenure process and college rankings, strongly reinforce these issues.

I read Generous Thinking in a draft form last year and thought an appropriate alternate title might be The Permeable University. Many of Fitzpatrick’s prescriptions involve dissolving the membrane of the academy so that it can integrate in a mutually beneficial way with the outside world, on an individual and institutional level. You will be unsurprised to hear that I agree completely with many of her suggestions, such as open access to scholarly resources and the importance of scholars engaging with the public. Like Fitzpatrick, I have had a career path that has alternated between the nonprofit and academic worlds in the pursuit of platforms and initiatives that try to maximize those values.

With universities currently receiving withering criticism from both the right and left, it is critical for all of us in the academy to take Generous Thinking seriously, and to think about other concrete steps we can take to open our doors and serve the wider public. The deep incentive structures will be very hard to change, but we can all take more modest steps such as thinking about how new media like podcasts can play a role in a more publicly approachable and helpful university, or how we might be able to provide services (e.g., archival services) to local communities. Fitzpatrick’s Humanities Commons, a site for scholars to connect not just with each other but with the public, is another venue for making the generosity she seeks a reality.

Much more needs to be done on this front, and so I encourage you to read Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s new book.