Feed on

Last week in Washington I ran into alumni teaching at American University and nearby schools. I was there to talk about the deep tradition of liberal education in the United States and also about the long history of criticism of this current way of thinking. Our tradition is stronger because of these criticisms. I was encouraged by the faculty’s interest in broad, integrative learning, no matter the discipline in which they were working.

On Monday this week I participated in a panel on similar themes at the New York Public Library with Beverly Tatum ’75 and Anthony Marx (who spent a year at Wesleyan as an undergraduate). There were many Wesleyans in the audience, including current students, trustees and at least one professor emeritus. Bev has been president of Spelman College, a historically black women’s college in Atlanta, and has thought deeply about the psychology of race, prejudice, separation, and inclusion. Tony Marx was a major force for higher education opportunity as president of Amherst, and he has continued to work on behalf of literacy and access to learning at NYPL. It was an honor to share the podium with both.

Anthony Marx, Beverly Daniel Tatum '75 and Michael Roth at the New York Public Library

Anthony Marx, Beverly Daniel Tatum ’75 and Michael Roth at the New York Public Library

I’m now on my way to Miami to participate in a discussion about education with Joel Klein (former Chancellor of New York City Schools) and Mitch Daniels (president of Purdue and former governor of Indiana). We are likely to have very different approaches to education issues, and I look forward to a spirited discussion. When there are differences of opinion, the potential for real learning grows. Vigorous criticism, not echo chambers in which “correct” views are repeated, is essential for improving education.

Before heading back to campus, I’ll visit my mother, my first teacher. She’s become a great Wesleyan supporter, although she’s still ready to offer her son plenty of vigorous (and affectionate) criticism.

And I’ve got to put the finishing touches on the syllabus for The Modern and the Post-Modern. Classes will be starting before I know it!


My Mom shared this picture from my Wesleyan graduation in 1978

Lila and Michael Roth Wesleyan Graduation '78

Lila and Michael Roth Wesleyan Graduation ’78






Freedom of Expression

I am in Washington, D.C. today, where I gave a talk on “why liberal education matters” to the faculty, students and guests of American University. Most of the audience had been in conference sessions all morning while I sat glued to the TV watching events unfold in Paris. I lived in Paris for a few years, and I looked with horror at these familiar streets as they filled with the almost familiar sight of terrorism response teams. At another level, I was anxious for the Wesleyan students (and their families) who’d just arrived for their study abroad semester. A city I love was under siege.

The attacks in Paris remind us that those willing to destroy freedom of expression in the name of their own totalitarian commitments can wreck havoc in a society determined to maintain openness and tolerance within the rule of law. I feel immense sadness for those who were slain by the terrorists, and I also feel admiration for those who have taken to the streets of Paris to express their compassion, solidarity and courage.

I began my talk at American University by acknowledging the victims of these heinous attacks. There can be no liberal education today worthy of the name without freedom of expression, without open-ended inquiry and the potential for aversive thinking. That’s the kind of thinking that will often rub some people the wrong way — it will seem to some people “disrespectful” and “uncivil.” That’s the kind of thinking we must protect — even more, that we must stimulate.

Let us cultivate the spirit of satire and of critique, but also of reverence and of affection, in ways that challenge the conventions of the moment. Let us remember the journalists, police and other brave souls who were killed by those who could not abide difference and challenge without resorting to murder.

Let us be worthy of the freedom of expression that came under attack this week in France.



Je Suis Charlie

We are less than a week into 2015, and terror has already raised its ugly head. The attack on Charlie Hebdo is an assault on freedom of expression, a vicious act aimed to destroy the possibilities for a culture with a place for provocation. Without the spaces cleared by provocative writers and artists, none of us would have the freedom to read, write, view or listen. The killings in Paris today were meant to terrorize those who would challenge the status quo with their drawings and words. Instead, this shameful act should inspire us to cherish freedom of speech and to support the artists and writers courageous enough to challenge us.

As writer Neil Gaiman tweeted today: “How important are free speech and satire? Important enough that people will murder others to silence the kind of speech they don’t like.”

Je Suis Charlie

Je Suis Charlie

Year End Thanks

Dear friends,

As 2014 comes to a close, I want to express my gratitude for all the contributions to our extraordinary university. Students, alumni, their families, staff, and faculty – we all learn from one another, teach one another. There have been more than a few challenges over the last twelve months, and many, many achievements. In a world of tension and acrimony, our community has modeled the aspiration for greater inclusion, equity, creativity and purpose. There is much work to be done, and we will do it together. The boldness, rigor and practical idealism of a Wesleyan education are evident in the talent, dedication and compassion of our students, alumni, faculty, and staff. THIS IS WHY we face the future with such hope and such confidence.

With thanks, I wish you and yours health, peace, and love in 2015.

In conjunction with the publication of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, I’ve been having conversations with groups around the country on the future of higher education. We will continue these conversations with an event in Memorial Chapel at Wesleyan on the evening of February 3.

The assault on education has been brutal in many parts of the world — especially education for girls and women. In our own country, the effort to deny a broad, contextual education to large segments of the population is a symptom of growing economic inequality — not a viable response to it. People are afraid of education when they want to defend the status quo, or so I argued in this brief talk at the Social Good Summit in New York.

Later in the fall semester, Ruth Simmons HON ’10 and I had a public conversation at the Chicago Humanities Festival. Dr. Simmons is the former president of Smith College and Brown University, and she offers a stirring defense of the value of a college education.

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Education makes sense when you believe in empowerment through learning. Education makes sense when you believe that inquiry and communication can lead to positive change in the world.

Now more than ever, liberal education is our cause. THIS IS WHY.

We CAN Fix our Schools!

I was asked to review Joel Klein’s Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools, and the essay appeared this week in The Daily Beast (with a more provocative title). Klein was a controversial Chancellor of the New York City school system, and regardless of what one thinks of his tenure, his book underscores some important issues. For those of us in Higher Ed, the health of the K-12 system is vitally important. We MUST fix our schools, and with thoughtful input, political will, significant resources and a spirit of experimentation, we CAN.


Joel Klein hates monopolies. As a Washington attorney he took on companies that seemed immune to change, even when they were ineffective. When you’re the only game in town, you just don’t have to do things differently – even if you aren’t very good. Klein’s most famous case was against Microsoft, and he took on the tech behemoth because he believed that it was preventing competition (and innovation) by depriving consumers of choice. When companies faced competition, Klein knew, consumers would have options. Competitors would force Microsoft to change, and the public would benefit.

When asked in 2002 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to run the New York City School system, Klein understood that he was being invited to take over one of the great urban monopolies. Sure, there were private schools of various sorts in New York, but given their expense, only a tiny percentage of families could ever hope to make use of them. For everybody else, public schools were the only option – and these institutions often had an abysmal record. But when you’re the only game in town, you just don’t have to change.

Mayor Bloomberg was granted unprecedented power over the school system, and he chose Klein to force schools (and their teachers and principals) to open themselves to competition in order to break a cycle of failure. Klein himself was a product of the New York City public school system, and for him it had been a haven from a harsh familial and social life. Good, caring teachers recognized his talent and challenged him to work hard to compete at the highest levels.

There were still great teachers in the system when Klein took over as Chancellor, but they were treated no differently from mediocre or even inept instructors. The result was a system not open to alternatives from the outside and with no internal incentives for innovation. Lots of people expected failure, and they got lots of it. Nearly half of fourth graders were unable to do the math expected of them, and sixty percent of high school students were dropping out before graduation. It was a mess.

But it was a mess most teachers and student families had grown accustomed to. That’s what monopolistic practices do – they create a reliance on the status quo and a fear of change. Of course some students did manage to learn, and many teachers remained devoted to the project of educating kids from highly diverse backgrounds. But, as Klein puts it, “many of those who survived in this system tended to soldier on in a state of resignation and defensiveness.”

Klein had four basic reform strategies: seize control of the old system; shut down failing schools while establishing charter schools; empower principals; jump-start innovation. Thanks to Bloomberg the first strategy was accomplished early on, and Chancellor Klein quickly took advantage of his new centralized powers. For him, it was crucial to train principals in leadership skills that would enable them to build effective teams in individual schools, or to recognize that a school failing repeatedly had to be shut down.

Closing a school, even one that doesn’t perform, is so hard because schools are key components of neighborhoods – they aren’t just private companies failing to produce what consumers want. That’s why it was so important to Klein to be able to show families that there were viable options: new schools, often charter schools, whose leaders were not beholden to traditional ways of doing things – and who got results.

The teachers union looms large in this book, often as an evil force. The union’s function is to protect its members against changes that may negatively affect their working conditions. Most frustratingly for the school Chancellor, this made it all but impossible to fire terrible teachers. In what they call the “dance of the lemons,” bad teachers (the “lemons”) would be passed from school to school, their incompetence protected through exchange. Rather than recognizing and correcting sub-par performance, the union saw its function as protecting every teacher’s employment as long as possible. From Klein’s perspective, this protection came at the expense of student learning.

Klein spends many pages describing his frustration with the teachers union, but he says little about why the organization so ferociously defends the working conditions of its members. The union’s distrust of system administrators and political appointees isn’t exactly irrational. Although Bloomberg and Klein certainly did want to reform a failing school system, for decades politicians and bureaucrats had tried to balance budgets and play politics without all that much regard to the quality of classroom instruction.

Klein’s complaint with the union is not just that it failed to recognize incompetence but also that it failed to recognize achievement. The culture of solidarity for teachers as workers prevented acknowledging some teachers as more accomplished than others. Charter schools, rejecting the tenet of promotion through seniority, promised to do better. Their principals would not only ensure that the poor instructor either improved or was fired, they would reward the talented instructor who proved effective.

“Nothing,” Klein notes, “was more threatening to the education status quo in New York City than our charter school initiative.” This was striking at the heart of the monopoly. Charter schools could offer families choices about where to send their kids, and, as word spread about their successes, “demand for them in high-poverty neighborhoods went through the roof.”

Klein paints a rosy picture of the charter schools, while admitting that not all outperformed traditional public schools. Nationally, fewer than 20% of charter schools outperform their traditional counterparts, but in New York, charters have done significantly better than that. Most importantly, from Klein’s perspective, they opened the system to competition, and competition should in the long run lead to experimentation and innovation.

Innovation is the fourth his reform strategies. In order to know what innovations work, you have to have good information on how effective your practices are. In schools, this meant finding new ways to evaluate students – and hence their teachers. Testing is Klein’s royal road to innovation through accountability, although he insists that there isn’t a choice between testing and teaching. You can, he’s convinced, have both joined in a “positive cycle of competence.” These are buzzwords. You don’t learn to become a better teacher by giving your students more tests. Klein is less interested in discussing how teachers can continue to educate themselves to become better professionals; on this score, Elizabeth Green’s recent Building a Better Teacher is a useful supplement.

“As long as seniority reigns among teachers,” Klein writes, “we will fail.” The culture of promotion through seniority kills creativity and effectiveness. Just look at Congress. We need true accountability. But effective school leaders don’t just punish bad teachers and reward good ones. Effective educational leadership creates opportunities for professional teachers to become more successful by sharing with them practices that work and helping them shed those that don’t. As Klein acknowledges, “making curriculum more demanding without giving teachers the help required for them to deliver it effectively isn’t a winning strategy.” This is why as Chancellor, he opened innovation zones for experimentation: to discover better pedagogical techniques.

Like so many others, Klein has come to believe that it is technology that will bring pedagogical transformation. After finishing his term as Chancellor, he joined Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, where he has been focusing on developing technological tools for teachers to personalize (and track) learning. This is a growing business arena, a market attracting lots of players. How effective the outcomes will be remains to be seen.

Joel Klein hates monopolies, but he really loves the private sector. He is convinced that the most powerful way to combat poverty and promote accomplishment is by opening traditional structures to competition and new ideas. This doesn’t necessarily mean privatization because there will still be ways for communities to retain local input if not control. But it will, in effect, be privatization if the profits of large corporations rather than the needs of neighborhoods determine what gets counted as good teaching and learning.

Lessons of Hope is often a compelling account of how determined leadership can remove obstacles to change, and he offers a strong defense of his work as an effective leader of reform. But it is too early to tell if the changes he helped unleash will prove sustainable, or if they will broadly serve our citizenry. Klein does know that today it surely isn’t enough to “save our schools,” as many chant. We need to “fix our schools,” even while recognizing that our efforts thus far are only works-in-progress. Without spaces for innovation, our students will be stuck without choices and with little hope for change. In the end, Klein underscores that education depends on hope, on the possibility for improving one’s life through learning. That’s a lesson for all of us.


Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools. Harper. $27.99

Why They Attack Schools

I posted this on HuffingtonPost yesterday.


Yesterday’s horrific news came from Pakistan. Taliban militants stormed a school in Peshawar, killing at least 145. Children were gunned down in their classrooms, or as they attempted to flee. Teachers and other staff members were murdered in cold blood.

Several months ago we watched in horror as Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds of girls from a school in Nigeria. As a worldwide campaign demanded to “bring our girls home,” the terrorists expanded the diabolical domain of their cruelties. Most of the girls are still far, far from home.

This week we observe the anniversary of the shootings in Newtown Connecticut that killed 27. The revulsion at the time energized some to demand stronger gun control laws, at least universal background checks. And efforts were made to improve mental health services. Most of the work failed to result in legislation as outrage faded to apathy (and worse) among politicians.

Since Newtown there have been somewhere between 75 and 100 shootings at American schools. Many of these were acts of violence not directed at the schools or students per se, but CNN still concluded that 15 of the incidents were similar to Newtown or Oregon — a minor or adult actively shooting inside or near a school. One school shooting every five weeks. CNN breaks down the kinds of shootings here.

Of course, there are shootings at plenty of other locations, and the motivations of the Taliban attacking a military school are very different than those of a mentally ill young man who attacks an elementary school.

But the fact that these murders occur at schools increases their visibility, and intensifies our own revulsion at the destruction of innocent lives.

Why are schools and universities the scenes of such violence? Is it because schools, with all their problems, remain for us places of hope and optimism? Places of education are spaces for people who still believe in possibilities for positive change. We send our children to school because we hope that they will learn about themselves and the world in ways that will enable them to thrive – not just to navigate more effectively but also to flourish.

We look to colleges and universities to empower students to support themselves, to be sure, but also to make meaningful contributions to their communities. We invest so much time, treasure and emotion in our educational institutions because through them we hope to build cultures of learning, of inquiry, of appreciation and engagement. Schools face the future; violence cuts the future off.

Attacks on schools are meant to undermine our core values and our belief in the possibilities for a better future. When we defend education from violence, we reaffirm our faith in the power of learning to combat destruction and to create meaning.

Malala Yousafzai, the teenage Nobel laureate put it this way: “Innocent children in their school have no place for horror such as this.” She went on to say: “I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters — but we will never be defeated.”

Schools represent hope grounded in learning. They represent a culture’s aspiration to enhance individual potential and to build in students a capacity for living fuller, more meaningful lives in concert with others. Attacks at schools are attacks on this aspiration.

May the memory of those killed at schools inspire us to defend our hopes for learning beyond the threat of violence.


During Thanksgiving week The New Republic published this short essay of mine on the “education of the whole person.” Since then, the owner of the magazine opted to create a integrated media company rather than a magazine of ideas. This is a sad event for American journalism and for thoughtful discussions in the public sphere, regardless of what one thinks of the specific positions of the magazine. 


As the college admissions season moves into high gear, I’ve been talking with many stressed-out young people deciding what kinds of schools they should apply to.  As president of a university dedicated to liberal education, I urge them to consider college not just as a chance to acquire particular expertise but as a remarkable opportunity to explore their individual and social lives in connection to the world in which they will live and work.

Contentious debates over the benefitsor drawbacksof broad, integrative learning, liberal learning, are as old as America itself. Several of the founding fathers saw education as the road to independence and liberty. A broad commitment to inquiry was part of their dedication to freedom. But critics of education also have a long tradition. From Benjamin Franklin in the eighteenth-century to today’s Internet pundits, they have attacked its irrelevance and elitismoften calling for more vocational instruction.

Ben Franklin probably would have had some sympathy for the anti-college message: “You don’t need colleges. Go off and learn stuff on your own. You believe you are an innovator? You can prove it without the sheepskin. You want to start a successful company? You don’t need permission from out-of-touch professors.” From Tom Paine to Steve Jobs, stories of people with the smarts and chutzpah to educate themselves in their own ways have long resonated with Americans.

But Franklin was also dismissive of the arrogant display of parochialism. He would be appalled by the current mania for driving young people into narrower and narrower domains in the name of “day one” job preparedness. He would surely recognize that when industrial and civic leaders call for earlier and earlier specialization, they are putting us on a path that will make Americans even less capable citizens and less able to adjust to changes in the world of work.

Citizens able to see through political or bureaucratic doubletalk are also workers who can defend their rights in the face of the rich and powerful. Education protects against mindless tyranny and haughty privilege. Liberal learning in our tradition isn’t only training; it’s an invitation to think for oneself. For generations of Americans, literate and well-rounded citizens were seen as essential to a healthy republic. Broadly educated citizens aren’t just collections of skillsthey are whole people. For today’s critics, often speaking the lingo of Silicon Valley sophistication, however, a broad, contextual education is merely wastednon-monetizedschooling.

It’s no wonder that in a society characterized by radical income inequality, anxiety about getting that first job will lead many to aim for the immediate needs of the marketplace right now. The high cost of college and the ruinous debt that many take on only add to this anxiety. In this context, some assert that education should simply prepare people to be consumers, or, if they are talented enough, “innovators.” But when the needs of the market change, as they surely will, the folks with that narrow training will be out of luck. Their bosses, those responsible for defining market trends, will be just fine because they were probably never confined to an ultra-specialized way of doing things. Beware of critics of education who cloak their desire to protect privilege (and inequality) in the garb of educational reform.

“If we make money the object of man-training,” W.E.B. Dubois wrote at the beginning of the twentieth-century, “we shall develop money makers but not necessarily men.” He went on to describe how “intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and the relation of men to itthis is the curriculum of that Higher Education which must underlie true life.” A good pragmatist, DuBois knew that through education one developed modes of thinking that turned into patterns of action. As William James taught, the point of learning is not to arrive at truths that somehow match up with reality. The point of learning is to acquire better ways of coping with the world, better ways of acting.

Pragmatic liberal education in America aims to empower students with potent ways of dealing with the issues they will face at work and in life. That’s why it must be broad and contextual, inspiring habits of attention and critique that will be resources for students years after graduation. In order to develop this resource, teachers must address the student as a whole personnot just as a tool kit that can be improved. We do need tools, to be sure, but American college education has long invited students to learn to learn, creating habits of independent critical and creative thinking that last a lifetime.

In the nineteenth century, Emerson urged students to “resist the vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever to barbarism.” He emphasized that a true education would help one find one’s own way by expanding one’s world, not narrowing it: notice everything but imitate nothing, he urged. The goal of this cultivated attentiveness is not to discover some ultimate Truth, but neither is it just to prepare for the worst job one is likely to ever have, one’s first job after graduation.

Instead, the goal of liberal education is, in John Dewey’s words, “to free experience from routine and caprice.” This goal will make one more effective in the world, and it will help one continue to grow as a whole person beyond the university. This project, like learning itself, should never end.

We are preparing for finals, writing exams, grading them…. These are important things. But all around the country people are speaking out against the outrageous injustices that people of color face on a regular basis. We must acknowledge these issues. The time to speak out is now.

The following notice appeared on the faculty list-serve tonight.

On Monday, December 8th, at 3 pm, students of Wesleyan University will be marching in response to the police brutality and systemic racism that led to the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and countless other people of color in recent times. The state must be held accountable for the prejudicial treatment of these individuals. Our movement must start from the ground-up. I am emailing you to ask for your support and solidarity, and invite you to march alongside us students for this cause. We will be gathering at Exley Science Center at 265 Church St.

At Wesleyan we affirm that we are an institution that values boldness, rigor and practical idealism. One doesn’t have to be an idealist to recognize that change is necessary, and that we must demand it.

Join us. This is Why.


On this last day of classes, the campus is really singing. Tonight the Wesleyan Spirits will hold their annual Fall Jam in Memorial Chapel. The concert begins at 8 p.m.  Rumor has it that some alumni spirits may float in…

If a cappella isn’t your thing, but you like to move your feet, you may want to check out Contra Dance in Beckham Hall — also at 8 p.m. And if you like to watch other people move their feet, there’s the Dance Department’s Winter Concert in the CFA Theater (also at 8).

At 9 p.m. in the World Music Hall, students of David Behrman, visiting assistant professor of music, will be performing their new compositions. Professor Behrman has been making experimental musical for more than 40 years, and he has inspired students throughout that time.

Finally, tonight (9-12 p.m.) is the last Late Night Music of the Week for the Semester! Featuring….Thread Count  Here’s what the organizers say:

ThreadCount is Wesleyan’s premier R&B Fusion Band. Comprised of your favorite jammers on campus, ThreadCount has everything you need for a fun and funkadelic night. Come out and enjoy the vibes as we perform originals and covers spanning Rock&Roll, Rap, R&B, Soul and Jazzy influences. You don’t want to miss this!

Tonight, Friday December 5! 9 p.m. – midnight West Dining Bay, Usdan

Musical catharsis before reading and finals week!



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