Jump-starting the liberal arts conversation

How liberal education helps reshape ourselves and society

Read just about any editorial page these days and you’ll see a familiar refrain: “Is a college degree still worth it?” Wesleyan University (Conn.) President Michael Roth argues that not only is it worth it, but that it is more important than ever.

Higher education admittedly faces many challenges over cost and access. Online instruction, certificate courses and skills-based learning offer fixes, but Roth says there is much more to higher education than just getting a job.

In his new book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (Yale University Press 2014), Roth says a well-rounded education breeds the inquisitiveness, creativity and innovation that drive our economy.

“Liberal education matters far beyond the university because it increases our capacity to understand the world, contribute to it and reshape ourselves,” he says. “When it works, it never ends.”

I’m the product a liberal arts university. When did that become a bad thing?

There has always been a tension between the broad contextual education and those folks who want it to be more like training. I’m a historian, so I turned to the subject because I had asked myself that same question—is this a new thing?

I started looking at materials that go back to the very beginning of this country, and I realized that the things people complain about today are very similar to the things that were being discussed in the late 1700s and early 1800s. There has long been a healthy tension between the demand of practicality and the desire for what’s called lifelong learning in American history.

What is different today is that there are people who want to get rid of that tension entirely and say we should just train people in whatever menial task they have to do. Oddly, many people who are saying that are people who, like you and me, had a liberal education, but they don’t think everyone should have one in the future.

My view is that preserving this tension between the practical and the broad and contextual has served the U.S. very well for a long time and we would be foolhardy to throw that legacy away.

After the Civil War, the government saw the value of research institutions and began investing in them. That was 150 years ago, and research institutions and liberal education schools coexisted for much of that time. What changed?

Colleges and universities face a variety of pressures that result in the demand that they become one thing or another—purely research, purely teaching or purely training for the job market. These calls often come up at a time of economic anxiety.

It’s a fear that America is losing its advantage in the world economically and in the world of ideas. Some people retreat to what they think is the quickest solution rather than a long-term investment in a combination of research and teaching in an ecosystem.

You shouldn’t have to choose between these things. The beauty of American higher education for a long time is that we’ve had this commitment to broad contextual education while also having extraordinarily powerful specialists.

We don’t want to dismiss that legacy by just choosing one pole of the tension. I’m critical of the overspecialization of the academy because I think that tension can swing too far in one direction.

In your book, you reference Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, and his claim that most universities today don’t seem capable of articulating what students should learn.

Yes. It’s funny that when that book came out in 1987, I was a young professor and it made my blood boil. I was a man of the left and Bloom seemed to be a man of the right.

But I agree with him that colleges and universities seem to have lost sight of their mission and are incapable of talking about what students should learn. I didn’t want my book to be politically partisan, but to remind people that our investment in higher education should be an investment in giving our young people the capacity for lifelong learning.

I think that’s what Bloom wanted, too. He wanted lifelong learning to be not just about the first job after college but to equip people to think about questions that have been subjects for productive contemplation for centuries, whether they are biblical questions or philosophical questions. I agree with that.

These are the essential questions of life that smart people have pondered for a long time, and we ought to give our students the ability to think with those great thinkers because it will enrich their lives.

As you say, liberal education is not about studying things that have no immediate use, it’s about creating habits of action that grow out of the spirit of broad inquiry. I don’t think higher ed has done a very good job conveying that.

That’s one of the reasons I wrote this book. It’s not aimed at any one discipline, but more at the general reader.

I believe pragmatic liberal education is vitally important as part of our common culture. I don’t think we, as college presidents or faculty members, have been out there enough beating the drum to explain what it’s about.

Yes, we also have to be more creative about keeping the cost down. There are a lot of things we have to answer for in the higher education sector. But I want to articulate a position on lifelong learning and higher education that would be relevant to anyone thinking about college.

I’m trying to jump-start that conversation so we aren’t talking only about student loans or teaching people how to code, but about this intellectual inheritance we have and how to care for it.

You note that today’s critics aren’t concerned with true learning, but instead want an education that simply equips people to play an appropriate role in the economy. To me that sounds like giving up.

Yes, I think you’re right. Richard Vedder, an economist at Ohio University and a critic of higher education, asks why we should have bartenders with chemistry degrees—we’re too overeducated. I don’t think that’s the problem.

We don’t want to just train people for a slot in the economy. That’s anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian, and I think it will make us an economic and cultural backwater if we follow that path. It is giving up.

The ambition of our education system is that anybody can acquire a taste for advanced work in some field, whether it is entrepreneurship or chemistry or classics. You don’t want to slot people in right away—give them an opportunity to find their path to learning. Some people will have modest ambitions, and that’s fine too.

But we have a lot to do to get there. The K12 system doesn’t prepare many of our students to have the kind of college education I describe in the book. Giving students basic tools for literacy and numeracy and critical thinking and creative work—those are things that still have to happen in the K12 system, and a lot of people are asking how to make that system less dysfunctional.

You recently lectured in China, where they are eyeing our liberal education system as something they want to model. What are they looking for?

China, and to some extent Korea and India, has built an education system based very much on memorization and repetition of rule-based activities. But I met a couple of hundred people, young men and women, who were eager to talk about how to create an educational system where you are encouraged to think for yourself and that encourages autonomy and creativity.

Even the Chinese government, which has restrictions on thinking for yourself, realizes that if they don’t do that they will have an economy that is stifled because they won’t have the creativity they need.

So, while some people in the U.S. say that in tough economic times we have to get down to business and focus on skills, in China, they’re saying, no, to have sustainable economic growth you need creativity and innovation. That doesn’t come from just following rules.

Many American businesses do know this, of course. One thing that is constant is change, and the people who can think on their feet and make adjustments creatively and continue to learn, will be the ones who really add value.

Liberal learning in America has always had that pragmatic component. It isn’t just about accumulating knowledge in your head. It’s about learning so you can contribute to the world around you and continue to learn from your interactions with others.

Victor Butterfield, one of my predecessors at Wesleyan, used to tell incoming freshmen, “After you graduate, if you say these were the best four years of your life, we have failed you.” I think that’s a very wise statement. College is not about giving you the best time you’ll ever have. It’s about equipping you to continue learning so that the best years are in front of you.

Tim Goral is senior editor.

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