Recently I participated in two interesting public discussions about the value of a liberal arts education in America today. The first came through an invitation from CNN to talk about the importance of science education in the context of a broadly based college experience. CNN was responding to increasing concern about “America’s math and science lag,” and my essay tried to make the case for science as a crucial part of a robust liberal arts education. The urge to take a shortcut to technological proficiency is short-sighted as public policy, I argued, because that sort of science education isn’t as rich, and also because we need a citizenry capable of understanding this sector in context. My CNN opinion piece can be found here.
At the end of last week a producer from PBS called to ask if I’d go on the News Hour to speak to why a college education is still worth the investment. This was prompted, in part, by a Peter Thiel’s recent awarding of grants of 100k to young inventors who would prefer to pursue their ideas outside school. Of course, Mr. Thiel is right to point out that some people can thrive outside a university environment, though he himself graduated with a philosophy degree from Stanford. I’m guessing it was at Stanford that he developed his deep admiration for René Girard, a philosopher/literary critic who also made a strong impression on me when he visited Wesleyan’s Center for the Humanities in the 1970s.
We in higher education need to be clearer about what we think students are learning during their four years in college. American higher education at its best provides multiple access points for different kinds of students who become more literate, more capable of acting as citizens, and more able to work with others while thinking for themselves. Universities must encourage free inquiry and cultivate the kind of risk-taking, work ethic and planning that are crucial to entrepreneurship (and scholarship, and civic engagement). The issues facing families looking at higher education are daunting. Alas, our PBS interview seemed to be over just as it was getting started. You can find a clip of the broadcast here.
At Wesleyan we are always on the lookout for the best ways to fulfill the promise of higher education. Our scholar-teachers, in dialogue with students and staff, continually strive to improve a learning experience that becomes a lifelong resource. We’ll be reporting on some new ideas in this regard in the fall.