Declaring Our Independence Through Education

Just tell me one thing. Will my daughter have a job and not be moving back home after she graduates from your university?

That’s what a dad asked me at a Wesleyan University information session caught on film for the recent higher-education documentary Ivory Tower. Traditionally, a college degree has been a marker of independence as graduates embrace the opportunity to stand upon their own two feet, but today those receiving degrees are often riddled with debt and with doubt. When these graduates wind up back in their parents’ basements, when they feel clueless about how to enter a challenging job market, when they have no idea how to convert their classroom experience into action in the world, they exemplify the failure of the American promise that education makes you free and self-reliant. We in higher education must renew that promise by demonstrating how pragmatic liberal education provides students with greater independence and capacity for productive work well beyond graduation day.

As I show in Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, this promise has been part of our history since the earliest days of the republic. It would be hard to find an American figure more devoted to a broad, liberal education than the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. He argued that the health of a republic depends on the education of its citizens because only an educated citizenry can push back against the tyranny of the powerful. His “frenemy” John Adams maintained that citizens of all walks of life deserve to learn the principles of freedom:

“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people, and must be willing to bear the expenses of it.”

Although our nation’s commitment to education runs deep, we’ve also long been suspicious about what those kids were really learning. Ben Franklin was pretty sure that some of the guys up at Harvard were largely being schooled in cultivated condescension, and populist criticism of higher ed today rightly condemns the amenities arm race through which supposedly rigorous schools pander to the worst instincts for luxury, partying and callousness. Colleges may be selling the full spa experience to wanna-be investment bankers, but families are often borrowing heavily only to discover that the college diploma is no sure ticket to economic self-sufficiency.

Another of America’s great prophets of independence is Ralph Waldo Emerson, who gave his celebrated lectures “The American Scholar” and “Self-Reliance” in the mid-1800s. Emerson saw education as a process through which one learned to absorb more of the world while also acquiring abilities to respond productively to it. Higher education should ignite students’ spirit and intelligence: Colleges only serve us well, he wrote:

“When they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame.”

Setting hearts aflame for Emerson didn’t just mean creating a sense of inner transformation – he was committed to the idea that a liberal education made you more effective beyond the university. Becoming more effective in the work you have chosen was at the core of what he called self-reliance. The opposite of self-reliance for Emerson was conformity, a pervasive force in his time as it is in ours.

Hoping to capitalize on the anxieties of parents and students, many today are calling for a more vocational style of learning. Unfortunately, demands for a more efficient, practical college education are likely to lead to the opposite: men and women who are trained for yesterday’s problems and yesterday’s jobs, men and women who have not reflected on their own lives in ways that allow them to tap into their capacities for innovation and for making meaning out of their experience. Under the guise of “practicality” we are really hearing calls for conformity, calls for conventional thinking that will impoverish our economic, cultural and personal lives.

Some claim that in today’s economy we should track students earlier into specific fields for which they seem to have aptitude. This runs counter to the American tradition of liberal education. From the Revolutionary War through current debates about the worth of college, American thinkers have emphasized the ways that broad, pragmatic learning addresses the whole person, allowing individuals greater freedom and an expanded range of choices. Liberal education in this tradition means developing independence of mind and habits of critical and creative thinking that last a lifetime.

On this July 4 we should dedicate ourselves to recovering the American promise that education should increase our independence. Since the founding of this country, education has been closely tied to self-reliance, to declaring one’s independence through one’s ability to think for oneself and creatively contribute to society. In a quickly shifting economic landscape, it is understandable that some parents and pundits are calling for streamlined learning to train people quickly. But gearing education only to meeting current economic conditions is a ticket to conformity — and also to economic and cultural mediocrity. We need intellectual cross training of the whole person — not nano-degrees in commercial codes and tactics (no matter how digital) sure soon to become obsolete.

The ability to shape change and seek opportunity has never been more valuable than it is today. If we want to push back against inequality and enhance the vitality of our culture and economy, if we truly want to declare our independence, we need to support greater access to pragmatic liberal education.


cross-posted with HuffingtonPost

2 thoughts on “Declaring Our Independence Through Education

  1. It is interesting to see how President Roth is talking about making a liberal arts education empowering and more than just a “spa” resort for rich students to come when his administration has been responsible for cuts to need blind, not providing enough support for low income students and students of color, and for cutting down academic departments that have been supporting minority students at Wesleyan such as AFAM and Anthropology. It seems pretty hypocritical and insulting that President Roth is taking about restoring the prestige and career advancement opportunities that higher education once offered when his administration has been denying those same opportunities to minority and low income students. President Roth have you ever wondered why there are students at Wesleyan that drop out yet they do relatively well in their courses? Have you though about how your actions, and those of your finance director John Meertz, are impacting Wesleyan in a negative way? At the pace this institution is being run it will become more rich,white, and “spa”like in the near future. If you really care about making Wesleyan affordable and restoring the “liberating power” of college degrees why don’t you cut also the administrative salaries and also cut down on the athletic department so that more money can be put into the AFAM department which has been facing economic problems for so long? Why don’t you help install a progressive tuition system that would allow low income students to come to Wesleyan and not get in any debt while also charging wealthy students, whose parents can clearly afford it, to pay for for full tuition? President Roth you always talk about making sacrifices and listening to others, but you seem to sacrifice those who already don’t have enough and who struggle to stay afloat at Wesleyan rather than yourself and the rich kids you seek to attract to Wesleyan. Likewise it appears that every time people come to you with legitimate demands and needs you condescendingly dismiss them. Well in the end you are running a business and you are seeking to make the best economic decisions that will benefit you, your administration, and the board of trustees. However, I personally think that the decisions that you, and Mr. Meertz, have made will end up hurting Wesleyan in the long run. You are destroying the culture of rebellion, activism, and diversity that has defined Wesleyan over the years. You are making it less affordable for low income and minority students who could benefit, and benefit society in the long run, from having a Wesleyan degree. President Roth and Mr. Meetz I encourage you to re-evaluate your actions if you really care about Wesleyan. If you don’t, which based on your actions it seems to be the case, then you can continue to milk this institution until it is ran down into the ground and it ceases to exist.

    Cesar A. Chavez
    Former Member of the Class of 2015

  2. Dear President Roth,
    You got my attention with your May 29, 2014 blog. I plan to read them all now. I have told you previously that my Fraternity experience at Wesleyan was positive for me. I am
    concerned that the wrestling you have been forced to do with some fraternities has caused you to wish to end the contest by banishing all such entities from Wesleyan. I ask that you reread your July 4 Blog on Independence and the ways in which a Liberal Arts Curriculum actually strengthens individual students. Though the fraternities on Wesleyan’s
    campus have used their traditional presence there to resist necessary change in inexcusably defiant ways, they have the potential to make students more self-reliant individuals and better with teamwork in small groups than many other campus organizations support. I suggest that this Fall is too soon to discredit all fraternities. Some
    of us are ready to answer your call for unrestricted access to our “Houses” for Wesleyan
    Public Safety and any other agencies which they may call for assistance. I predict that our
    undergraduates will vote to completely incorporate all Wesleyan students regardless of gender or sexual orientation. The new entity will make sexual harassment of any sort cause for expulsion from the group. Since self-governance is a basic precept of fraternities, I can not guarantee that the undergraduates will agree with me, but the several with whom I have spoken have told me they support the plans I have outlined.
    I am aware how long we have been dragging our feet, and am deeply saddened that my
    advocacy did not carry the day sooner, but I feel that we are ready to be exemplary advocates for even more rigor in the pursuit of individual responsibility than the average
    Wesleyan student will have encountered in 4 years. Dormitory life and huge Dining Halls
    dilute student responsibility. If Wesleyan holds fraternities strictly responsible, I predict that fraternities will again become synergistic in improving the Wesleyan experience for many Independent and Educated graduates. Thanks for listening.
    Hal Ochsner ’57

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