The Case for Liberal Education

This past weekend I published some op-eds and did an interview on liberal education in conjunction with the appearance of my Beyond The University: Why Liberal Education Matters. There’s even a radio spot Wisconsin Public Radio!

The following op-ed is from the Boston Globe‘s Sunday opinion section.

 

‘Is c” — that’s all I have to type before the search engine jumps to “Is college worth it?” I hit return, and there are more articles on this question than even I, a college president, want to read. Pundit after pundit (most of whom have had the benefit of a liberal education) question whether so many Americans should be going to college. Pulling the ladder up after they’ve already made the climb, they can’t seem to see why future students would want the same opportunities that they’ve had.

When I began my freshman year at Wesleyan University more than 35 years ago, there were no search engines, and I had only a vague notion of what a liberal arts education entailed. My father and my grandfather were furriers, and my mother a big band singer. Giving their children access to a college education was part of their American dream, even if they had little understanding of what happened on campus. Today I head up the same institution where I first stumbled into courses like Intro to Philosophy and Art History 101.

Much has changed in higher education in the past three decades. In the past year, for instance, I’ve taught not only on campus but also more than 150,000 students enrolled through Wesleyan’s partnership with Coursera, a provider of free massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

But students and their expectations have also shifted. Many undergraduates now behave like consumers, intent on building resumes. Parents often want their children’s education to be immediately useful, and with a dramatically shrinking job market, undergrads themselves are often eager to follow a straight and narrow path that they imagine will land them that coveted first job. A broad liberal education, with a significant opportunity to explore oneself and the world, is increasingly seen as a luxury for the entitled and scarcely affordable in a hyper-competitive world.

Throughout most of our history, Americans have aimed to expand the realm of what counts as a liberal education. In recent years, however, in sync with growing inequality, critics have argued that some people just don’t need a broad education because these folks will not be in jobs that will use advanced skills. Richard Vedder, director at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, puts it this way: “Do you really need a chemistry degree to make a good martini?”

The bartender with a chemistry degree is the contemporary version of the Jeffersonian ideal of a farmer who reads the classics with pleasure and insight, or John Dewey’s image of the industrial worker who can quote Shakespeare. For generations of Americans, these have been signs of a healthy republic. But, for many critical of liberal education today, these are examples of a “wasted” — non-monetized — education. Furthermore, if ever more people are encouraged to get a college degree, won’t the degree be worth less — who wants to be a part of a club with that many members? We should beware of critics who cloak their desire to protect privilege (and inequality) in the garb of educational reform.

But employers do recognize the importance of a liberal education. The majority of those hiring agree that what’s important for recent college graduates to achieve long-term career success is having both field-specific skills and a wide range of knowledge. According to a recent survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 80 percent of employers agree that, regardless of the major, every college student should acquire a foundation in the liberal arts and sciences.

Even many of those enrolling in online courses want this broad-based education. The “massive” part of these open courses is the least interesting thing about them. And I don’t treat my students online like a mass. My aim, the same as with my “in-person” classes, is to “ignite the fire of learning” — as a student from Singapore put it — while bringing them into a more thoughtful and productive conversation with the world around them. I am trying to help them develop their critical thinking skills while also inviting them to become absorbed in great achievements in philosophy, history, and literature. And they respond with curiosity and enthusiasm and, most importantly, a desire to continue learning. “Learning makes me feel alive,” an older student in South India related.

The willingness today by some to limit higher education to only certain students or to constrict the college curriculum to a neat, instrumental itinerary is a critical mistake, one that neglects a deep American tradition of humanistic learning. This tradition has been integral to our nation’s success and has enriched the lives of generations of students by enhancing their capacities for shaping themselves and reinventing the world they will inhabit. Since the founding of this country, education has been closely tied to individual freedom, and to the ability to think for oneself and to contribute to society by unleashing one’s creative potential.

The pace of change in American higher education has never been faster, and the ability to shape change and seek opportunity has never been more valuable. Our rapid search engines can only do so much: If we want to push back against inequality and enhance the vitality of our culture and economy, we need pragmatic liberal education.

Welcome Back!

It’s great to see students back on campus despite the bad weather, and I’m looking forward to the start of classes – as I always do! The cold over these next days will doubtless provide an encouragement to stay indoors and get a good start on the kind of highly productive work that distinguishes faculty and students at Wesleyan.  🙂

Over the break the Wes community has surely done some celebrating, but faculty have also been preparing their classes, doing their research, and working on various educational projects. I’d like to extend a special thanks to those faculty who have been spending some time on camera to help us prepare our new Coursera class: How to Change the World.

Some students got an early start to the semester with our Winter Session and Winter on Wyllys programs. The interest shown by students augurs well for the future of these programs. And of course many of our athletes have been here competing vigorously.

Great teaching makes Wesleyan the outstanding liberal arts institution that it is, and in that regard I’m so pleased to announce that Quiara Alegría Hudes, a Pulitzer Prize recipient, will be the new Shapiro Distinguished Professor of Writing and Theater for three years beginning in the fall of 2014. Quiara served as a visiting playwright in 2012, and I have no doubt those of you who met her then will share my excitement about the return of this gifted artist. Also, noted New York Times film critic A.O. Scott will be teaching this semester in our brand-new College of Film and the Moving Image, a marvelous opportunity for the students selected for his criticism class.

Last week I joined leaders from 100 universities and 40 nonprofit groups at the White House to discuss improving access to higher education. There is no greater challenge facing higher education because research has shown that far too many highly capable students from lower-income families are not enrolling in selective universities and colleges. It’s essential that we do a better job of finding and enrolling these students if we’re going to make progress in addressing the growing economic divide in this country.

Wesleyan will do its part. We are committed to increasing the number of QuestBridge scholars on campus – low-income and first-generation students who receive full scholarships.

We will work to expand efforts to retain students from under-represented groups in STEM fields, including development of a summer bridge program and more introductory science courses revamped to support retention, as successfully demonstrated by the biology department. We’ve also partnered with the Posse Foundation to enroll 10 military veterans each year, and last week I celebrated with our first “posse” in New York. These students will join the class of 2018 in September, adding to the rich diversity of our student body.

As the new semester begins, Wesleyan renews its commitment to boldness, rigor, and practical idealism.  Welcome back!

Next Wesleyan Coursera Classes

This week two more Wesleyan classes debuted on Coursera. Richie Adelstein is teaching a six-week class called Property and Liability: An Introduction to Law and Economics. Andy Szegedy-Maszak is teaching The Ancient Greeks, a seven-week survey of Greek history from the Bronze Age to the death of Socrates. These are free, online versions of courses given at Wesleyan, and there is still time to enroll. Lisa Dierker’s class, Passion Driven Statistics, is a six-week project-based class that will begin March 25. Lisa’s class just received a great shout-out in Forbes magazine. Scott Plous’s Social Psychology class begins this summer and has already attracted amazing buzz.

Scott Higgins just finished up his class on The Language of Hollywood. Since I was also enrolled I can say that it was a great success. There is a strong demand for film studies classes, and his introduction to sound and color was a hit. One of the discussion threads on his class said that Prof. Higgins “deserved an Oscar,” but I especially enjoyed the hundreds of people who wrote in under the rubric, “Prof. Higgins, We Love You.”

I’m still working my way through my 14-week Modern and Postmodern class on Coursera. Students from around the world are giving me new insights into the material. One writes about thinking of Nietzsche as she watches her son ski into the woods, another about how she carries a copy of Baudelaire with her as she bikes around town. A student from across the globe writes that “learning makes me feel alive.”  I hope I can benefit from these diverse perspectives when I teach the class on campus next spring. Next week, Sigmund Freud and then on to Virginia Woolf!

Tuesday Update: Classes Resume and Why Does the World Exist?

Classes Resume this morning (Tuesday) thanks to the extraordinary efforts of our Physical Plant and Stonehedge crews. I am so grateful to all those who kept us safe and well-fed (thanks Bon Appetit!) during the aftermath of Blizzard Nemo. It’s still messy outside, so please be careful.
 
Several hundred students from the Coursera version of The Modern and the Postmodern have checked out this blog recently.  Welcome!
 
Recently the Washington Post asked me to review Jim Holt’s “Why Does the World Exist?”  This review is cross-posted with Sunday’s newspaper.
WHY DOES THE WORLD EXIST? An Existential Detective Story. By Jim Holt. Liveright. 309 pp. $27.95

Jim Holt likes to pursue questions — big questions. And he does so with a sincerity and light-heartedness that draw his readers along for the ride. He’s written for the New Yorker on tough subjects such as string theory and infinity, but his last book was on the seemingly more accessible topic of jokes. In “Why Does the World Exist?” — a finalist for this year’s National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction — he takes on one of the biggest questions in conversations with philosophers and scientists: What is the origin of everything?By helping readers understand what some very smart people think an answer to this question might look like, he introduces us to advanced mathematics, theology, physics, ontology and epistemology — just to name some subjects he visits. Holt is usually very good about not losing us along the way, even when the math or the logic gets pretty esoteric.“The transition from Nothing to Something seems mysterious,” he writes, “because you never know what you’re going to get.” That might be true if one were asking as a disinterested party, but Holt is anything but that. The “Something” he has in mind is us — how did we and our world come to be? He wants to know how nothingness, a state in which absolutely no things exist, gave rise to a universe that includes all the things around us. “Conceptually,” he writes, “the question Why does the world exist? rhymes with the question Why do I exist?”There are two major kinds of answers to these twinned questions. The first kind emphasizes the “how” — how a specific cause leads to a particular effect. Why am I here? Because my parents had sex. The second kind of answer moves from cause to meaning. Did my parents want a child? Do I have a purpose in life? What am I doing here? Some of the intellectuals with whom Holt talks sound as though they believe that if they thoroughly answer the “how” version of the question (the one that details causes), they will have answered the “why” version of the question (the one that provides meaning). Or perhaps they think that an airtight explanation of the emergence of causality will make the meaning question irrelevant.There are some philosophers, it should be said, who think Holt is just asking the wrong question. Most interesting is philosopher of science Adolf Grunbaum, who cheerfully tries to show our author that his anxious astonishment with the existence of the universe is misplaced. Unexamined religious longing for mystery and a confused sense that we need to figure out why nothingness does not prevail generate a confused question with no rational response: “Go relax and enjoy yourself! Don’t worry about why there’s a world — it’s an ill-conceived question.” But Holt is only briefly deterred, declaring, “There is nothing I dislike more than premature intellectual closure.”Holt travels in England, France and the United States to talk with some very thoughtful men about some very thorny issues. It’s always thoughtful men. Somehow he didn’t find any women to interview about creation, though at the end of the book he movingly describes his mother’s death. She, a believer, did not think she was passing into nothingness. Respectful, Holt has no closure on this, either.How can the “first cause” not have a cause? How can one talk about anything prior to the Big Bang, if this event created time itself? What is the role of consciousness in the universe, and how is that related to simplicity, goodness, beauty? What if our universe is just one of many, many, universes and big bangs are relatively frequent occurrences? These are the kinds of questions that drive Holt back and forth between mathematics and ethics. String theory “builds matter out of pure geometry,” while “Plato thought that the ethical requirement that a good universe exist was itself enough to createthe universe.”So why is there something rather than nothing? “There isn’t,” replies the brilliant and witty philosopher Robert Nozick. “There’s both.” Physicist Ed Tryon, on the other hand, wondered whether the universe was the product of a “quantum fluctuation,” offering “the modest proposal that our universe is simply one of those things which happen from time to time.”

Periodically our despairing guide describes himself as retreating to a cafe for a strong espresso or, even better, a restaurant where he can treat body and spirit with some good food and wine. Lucky readers may find themselves taking breaks to do the same. But it’s worth getting back in the hunt for answers (or just questions) with Holt.

There are many intellectually stirring moments in the book, and I learned more than I would have thought I could about contemporary controversies in quantum mechanics and cosmology. Holt is an excellent translator of complex ideas and issues. But the highlight of his book is his description of rushing home to help his dog Renzo, who was suffering from advanced cancer. Help in this case meant holding the long-haired dachshund for 10 days, and then stroking him while a vet administered a lethal injection. Holt tells us about a mind game he plays with prime numbers to steady himself “in moments of unbearable emotion.” He used the game at the veterinarian’s office. The next day he called a physicist to talk about why the world exists.

When Holt asks why the world exists, he is also asking whether there is any point to our being here. He is struck by the extraordinary contingency of our lives and of our world, and he seeks to address that contingency with theories about the emergence of time, of causality, of something. But contingency is not erased by causal accounts; it is just described in minute detail. Holt recognizes this when the somethings he cares about disappear. His real concern isn’t creation but extinction — why somethings turn into nothings. He knows the causal explanation, but that is not answering his question. Focusing on causes can be a mind game to help us deal with “moments of unbearable emotion.”

Why do we lose those we love? Why do important parts of our world vanish? These are not questions for a detective story, existential or not. But they are the questions to which, in the end, Holt’s wonderfully ambitious book leads us.

A “Break” for Getting Work Done

Every year around this time I hear comments from parents and students about the length of winter break. Like most of our peer institutions, Wesleyan begins classes for the second semester around the time of Martin Luther King Day. This year, we start up on the Thursday following the holiday weekend. By that time, many students will be eager to be back on campus, and their parents will be more than ready to help them pack.

But for those on campus, there is anything but a “January break.” As I mentioned in a previous post, Wes athletes are already in stiff competition. On Monday, for example, swimmers were battling Hamilton in the water while the rest of us were side-stepping the melting snow outside. Over the next weeks, staff in Middletown are meeting to plan the rest of the year: developing ideas for new programs, for enhancements to the campus, and for greater efficiencies. It’s a time to make repairs and to dream big. This morning, I met with the whole crew for a second semester “kick-off,” and tomorrow I head out to maintain our fundraising momentum to support our highest priorities: financial aid and academic program endowment. It’s a privilege to ask for support knowing the dedication of the staff and faculty to providing the very best liberal arts education.

I see faculty members in the library, studios, labs and departmental offices busily trying to finish some of their research and their class preparation. Many of our professors have been at professional meetings sharing their scholarship, visiting archives, or just writing one more paper. Others are going over their syllabi to ensure that their students next semester will have access to the best work concerning whatever topic is at hand. Scott Higgins and I are scrambling to finish our Coursera classes, which launch on February 4. We are the first out of the gate in this new venture for Wesleyan. You can check out all the Wes offerings here.

So, there isn’t much of a “break” for faculty and staff at this time of year, and yet we are thinking now about new January programs that would be compelling for students. We’ll be consulting with student groups, faculty and others to figure out how to make future Januaries at Wesleyan even more lively!

 

update:

CONGRATULATIONS TO Benh Zeitlin ’04 AND THE TEAM FOR THE FOUR OSCAR NOMINATIONS FOR BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD!!

Wesleyan Joins Coursera Partnership

Earlier today Coursera announced that Wesleyan is joining its partnership of schools offering MOOCs — massive, open, online classes that often enroll tens of thousands of people. MOOCs are not uncontroversial. Some see them as triggering watershed changes in higher ed, while others see  basic contradictions in how they work. Founded by two computer science professors at Stanford, Coursera envisions reaching millions. Co-founder Daphne Koller’s TedTalk provides a good sense of the organization’s mission.  It was launched with classes offered by professors from Stanford, Michigan, Princeton and Penn; and this summer a number of fine schools joined the partnership, among them Duke, UVA, Johns Hopkins and CalTech. This week another dozen are signing on, including Wesleyan, and we will be the first liberal arts institution to join that has an undergraduate focus.

The idea that Wesleyan will be offering free, massive online classes will strike some as paradoxical. We are a small university at which almost three quarters of the courses are taught in an interactive, seminar style. How is that related to online learning? In important respects the classes offered through Coursera are very different from the ones we teach here in Middletown. Although MOOCs start off with huge numbers of enrolled participants, a small percentage do the assignments, and an even smaller percentage finish. The retention rate at Wes, by any measure, is very high. Our residential liberal arts education depends on the ongoing interaction of students with one another and with faculty. MOOCs encourage interaction of a different sort:  through social media and chat rooms. Nonetheless, we want to understand better how students learn in these contexts, precisely because they are so different from our own. And we think it is simply a good thing to share versions of our classes with the wider world. The Wes educational experience does not scale up — but we can make available online adaptations of our classes so that those with a desire to learn have access to some of what we have to teach.

Our work with Coursera will be an experiment with online education from which we are sure to learn. The courses we are developing now are not for Wesleyan credit — they are vehicles for teaching subjects we care about to a (very) wide audience. Professors don’t grade in MOOCs, but we do create assignments that are either machine graded or peer evaluated. We’re starting off with classes in classics, economics, film, and statistics. I’m working on an online version of my interdisciplinary humanities course, The Modern and the Postmodern. Even though I’ve been teaching this class for many years, I really don’t know how this will translate to the MOOC context. That’s why it’s an experiment.

Will online teaching have an impact on our education here on campus? It already has, with several professors using either a “flipped classroom” or a “blended” approach. Of course, our students and faculty use technology every day for research and teaching, and they are connected with others around the world who share their interests and from whom they learn.

Wesleyan has long been a champion of educational innovation, and this partnership with Coursera is just the latest step in that tradition. I think it’s an exciting one. Stay tuned (or should I say, “stay connected?”).