Thinking the Future of Higher Ed

Last week was full of conference talks for me. I’m not really a fan of these sorts of meetings, but I was asked to speak on liberal education at Aspen and Cambridge and thought I’d take the opportunity to wave the flag. Both meetings turned out to be really interesting, full of ideas that might be relevant for Wesleyan in the future.

Aspen meetings
Aspen meetings
Aspen outside the meetings

At Aspen, I was particularly impressed by talks I heard by Donald Berwick on health care and continuous improvement; by Eric Mazur on innovations in the flipped classroom; by Maya Jasanoff on globalization and educational quality; and by Robert Putnam on educational inequality. Don Berwick has run Medicare and was a major figure in the planning and implementation of policies that led to the Affordable Care Act. He gave a powerful talk on how to create a culture of continuous improvement in an organization. This is not done through heroic individuals but through an entire workforce acting as a team to offer better services while holding down costs. He knows it can be done because he has seen it work! I am still thinking about how the analogy might work with higher education.

Eric Mazur is a legend in innovative pedagogy. You can check out his flipped classroom ideas here. At Aspen he reminded the audience that even a great lecturer (he is one) can create a better learning environment through the use of readily available technologies that in the end support peer learning. After giving us a simple physics lesson, Eric had us on the edge of our seats as we debated with one another an answer to a basic question about the heating of hard solids. Really! And project-based learning can work, he suggested, in any discipline.

Maya told us a historical tale of globalization, focusing on shipping. Having herself taken a cargo ship from Hong Kong to Europe, she described the ways in which globalization in the beginning of the 20th century drove down the price of goods but also increased certain basic forms of inequality. Will the same thing happen today with the globalization of education? Will we lose the research and preservation dimensions of the academy, and will we accelerate trends of inequality through which only the elite have access to high-touch, high-quality learning experiences?

OECD Speaker at Goldman Sachs- Harvard Conference on the Future of Education
OECD Speaker at Goldman Sachs-Harvard Conference on the Future of Education

Inequality was the core of Robert Putnam’s very moving talk based on the research from his latest book, Our Kids. He described to this audience of higher ed leaders how his own hometown of Fort Clinton, OH has suffered from de-industrialization and worse. Not everyone has suffered, of course. One of the key determinants for one’s prospects for a decent life? Education. In today’s America, if you don’t have the opportunity to attend college, your chances for basic economic security, health care…even a fulfilling family life, are dramatically reduced. Putnam has strong data on this, but he brought the point home with powerful stories of how many children today, our kids, are being condemned to blighted lives while others are given the support they need to take care of themselves and contribute to their communities.

While on the road, whether I was talking with the Dean of the Humanities at Hong Kong University or an entrepreneur whose company teaches English online (both of whom were on my panel at Harvard), I am continually struck by the relevance of the experiments going on here at Wesleyan. Our faculty, staff and students are rethinking higher education while they are in the middle of it, making innovation a reality on campus. This is practical idealism at its best!

Making our Education Matter: Events and the Classroom

Many years ago I used to teach the introductory course in European history every spring. We began with the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) and worked our way up to the present. Invariably, it seemed, current events would offer powerful reminders that the historical issues such as war and peace, poverty and prosperity, had deep contemporary resonance. When does isolationism become the callous disregard of the suffering of others? When does intervention on behalf of human rights become a new form of oppression? How can war be avoided, and when is military action necessary to create conditions for long term peace and justice? Each year, my students and I would see how the issues from the past weren’t “merely historical.”

This week I had a similar experience in my spring course, “The Modern and the Postmodern.”  I had added an essay by Kimberlé W. Crenshaw to the syllabus this year on the evolution of critical race theory in law schools and the courts. We are currently discussing “postmodern identities,” the issues of performativity, and the complexities of recognizing one another if no one has an essential character to acknowledge. How does race enter in this mix of issues of who we can be and how we can be recognized? How can we pay attention to race without falling into racialist or racist positions? Professor Crenshaw makes the point that contemporary appeals to “color blindness” neglect the ways in which white supremacy is built into our institutions, our educational systems, even our ways of seeing and thinking.

As we began, it seemed obvious that we should talk about the “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations and the problematic efforts to jump to “All Lives Matter” as a universal gesture. But Crenshaw asks how we can talk about performing identities without also talking about the way certain kinds of bodies have been subject to violence for much of American history? What are the constraints on performance, and how are gestures and actions read differently in this country depending on the color of one’s skin?

With the death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of Baltimore police and the ensuing protest against both police violence and the conditions of hopelessness in large portions of Baltimore’s African-American community, we had plenty to talk about. The issues in the theory and history we had been discussing were being activated right before our eyes.

As a teacher, these are the moments liberal education feels most powerful to me. The issues we read about are very much part of our world, not just parts of books we assign in class. As a citizen, these are the moments when I recognize the urgency to break out of the cycles of institutionalized violence and despair that plague large portions of our country — and that reverberate on our campus. As W.E.B. DuBois emphasized so long ago, we must use the empowerment of our education to change the conditions that reproduce violence, poverty and injustice.

This is what many of us hope for when we study — that broad, contextual learning can make a difference in changing the world for the better.


Just received this email about an event on campus Monday.

  On Monday, May 4th, from 11am- 1pm, the Student of Color community will be participating in #BlackoutUsdan. A movement to takeover and speak out against the injustices and trauma that persist on this campus and in the world. We are standing in solidarity with Baltimore and other marginalized communities to reiterate that Black Lives Matter. Your support and empathy for this blackout is very important to us. We want our stories to be heard, our faces to be seen, and for the Wesleyan community to move beyond “diversity university” and embody a socially conscious, just, and welcoming atmosphere.  

          We can make Wesleyan a better place for marginalized and underrepresented students. We can be the true agents of change through open dialogue and expressions of philos love that combats systematic oppression. You know they say “we are the future”, so let’s embody it for ourselves. 
       We encourage all allies to come, listen to and support  your peers.

There will be follow up conversations about how to implement change on our campus.

Please wear black on Monday! #blackoutUsdan

How to Choose a (Our) University

The happy emails and web links have gone out (replacing those thick envelopes of yesteryear), and all those fortunate enough to have choices about what college to attend will make a big decision: picking the college that is just right for them. They are trying to envision where they will be most likely to thrive. Where will I learn the most, be happiest, and form friendships that will last a lifetime? How to choose? As I do each spring, I thought it might be useful to re-post my thoughts on choosing a college, with a few revisions.

Of course, for many the decision will be made on an economic basis. Which school has given the most generous financial aid package? Wesleyan is one of a small number of schools that meets the full financial need of all admitted students according to a formula developed over several years. There are some schools with larger endowments that can afford to be even more generous than Wes, but there are hundreds (thousands?) of others that are unable even to consider meeting financial need over four years of study. Our school is expensive because it costs a lot to maintain the quality of our programs. But Wesleyan has made a commitment to keep loan levels low and to raise tuition only in sync with inflation in the future. We also offer a three year program that allows families to save about 20% of their total expenses, while still earning the same number of credits.

After answering the question of which schools one can afford, how else does one decide where best to spend one’s college years? Of course, size matters.  Some students are looking for a large university in an urban setting where the city itself plays an important role in one’s education. New York and Boston, for example, have become increasingly popular college destinations, but not, I suspect, for the classroom experience. But if one seeks small classes and strong, personal relationships with faculty, then liberal arts schools, which pride themselves on providing rich cultural and social experiences on a residential campus, are especially compelling. You can be on a campus with a human scale and still have plenty of things to do. Wesleyan is somewhat larger than most liberal arts colleges but much smaller than the urban or land grant universities. We feel that this gives our students the opportunity to choose a broad curriculum and a variety of cultural activities on campus, while still being small enough to encourage regular, sustained relationships among faculty and students.

All the selective small liberal arts schools boast of having a faculty of scholar-teachers, of a commitment to research and interdisciplinarity, and of encouraging community and service. So what sets us apart from one another after taking into account size, location, and financial aid packages? What are students trying to see when they visit Amherst and Wesleyan, or Tufts and Pomona?

Knowing that these schools all provide a high-quality, broad and flexible curriculum with strong teaching, and that the students all have displayed great academic capacity, prospective students are trying to discern the personalities of each school. They are trying to imagine themselves on the campus, among the people they see, to get a feel for the chemistry of the place — to gauge whether they will be happy there. That’s why hundreds of visitors come to Wesleyan each week and why there will be the great surge for WesFest. They go to classes and athletic contests, musical performances and parties. And they ask themselves: Would I be happy at Wesleyan?

I hope our visitors get a sense of the personality of the school that I so admire and enjoy. I hope they feel the exuberance and ambition of our students, the intelligence and care of our faculty, the playful yet demanding qualities of our community. I hope our visitors can sense our commitment to creating a diversity in which difference is embraced and not just tolerated, and to public service that is part of one’s education and approach to life.

Whatever college or university students choose, I hope they get three things out their education: discovering what they love to do; getting better at it; learning to share it with others. I explain a little bit more about that in this talk:

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We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into. But even in the group of highly selective schools, Wes is not for everybody. We aspire to be a community committed to boldness as well as to rigor, to idealism as well as to effectiveness. Whether in the sciences, arts, humanities or social sciences, our faculty and students are dedicated to explorations that invite originality as well as collaboration. The scholar-teacher model is at the heart of our curriculum. Our faculty are committed to teaching and to shaping the fields in which they work. The commitment of our faculty says a lot about who we are, as does the camaraderie around the completion of senior projects that we are seeing right now on campus.  We know how to work hard, but we also know how to enjoy the work we choose to do. That’s been magically appealing to me for more than 30 years. I bet the magic will enchant many of our visitors, too.

Taking Wesleyan to the Bay Area

On March 9, I attended a wonderful Wesleyan event in San Francisco. More than 100 alumni and parents came out to hear about liberal education today, and to discuss the importance of financial aid support. I was joined by Jonathan Schwartz ’87 (shown below, far right), a scholarship kid who went on to do great things in the technology industry and who now runs CareZone, a company he co-founded to help families organize and attend to their health care data.

San Francisco: How to Destroy Higher Education

There were folks at the reception from across the generations, and we had a good conversation about reducing student debt and expanding the curriculum.

San Francisco: How to Destroy Higher Education

San Francisco: How to Destroy Higher Education

San Francisco: How to Destroy Higher Education

San Francisco: How to Destroy Higher Education

In the morning I visited our online partner Coursera to hear about some of their new specializations. I think Wesleyan can expand the quality and quantity of our MOOCs over the next several months.

I had spent the afternoon meeting with alumni and with colleagues at Stanford. I very much enjoyed the d-school’s open spaces and giddily innovative atmosphere. Some kinship with Wes at our best?



The next day, I headed to Menlo Park for a conversation with writer Michael Chabon P ’17 and Bozoma Saint John ’99, head of consumer marketing at iTunes and Beats Music.

Menlo Park: How to Destroy Higher Education

Menlo Park: How to Destroy Higher Education

Menlo Park: How to Destroy Higher Education

Menlo Park: How to Destroy Higher Education

Menlo Park: How to Destroy Higher Education

How to Destroy Higher Education

The title above is the one The Daily Beast gave to an essay I published earlier this year. Over the last several months I’ve been arguing that the increasing focus on narrow, vocational education is a crucial mistake, one that neglects a deep resource of pragmatic liberal learning. I have been talking about liberal education at various venues around the country since the publication of my book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (Yale University Press, 2014). I wrote the book, and several op-eds since, because I believe that the kind of education we offer at Wesleyan is more relevant and compelling than ever before. I have argued that the current push for narrow, utilitarian forms of learning are part of the forces legitimating trends toward inequality in our country. The American tradition of liberal education has been a resource to combat inequality, and it can be again.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, February 3 at 7 p.m. in Memorial Chapel, I will be talking about these issues at Wesleyan. I am particularly delighted that my Wesleyan advisor and mentor Henry Abelove, who retired just a few years ago, will come back to campus to introduce the talk.

We’ll be selling and signing copies of Beyond the University (all my royalties are contributed to financial aid at Wesleyan).

I hope to see many of you tomorrow night.

Taking Liberal Education on the Road

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.



Thoughts on Future of Education as a New Year Begins

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.

College Should Prepare You For Life

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.

Conversations, Education, Awards

At the beginning of the week, Ruth Weissman and I hosted over 90 faculty members for a lunchtime conversation about how best to coordinate residential education with what we do in the classroom. There were great ideas about how to link formal studies with the educative experience we want to happen through residential liberal education. There was general agreement that Wesleyan would be most empowering if we improved the coordination between the academic and co-curricular dimensions of campus learning.

After teaching on Tuesday, I headed to Los Angeles for an alumni event titled “How to Destroy Higher Education.” That was the title The Daily Beast gave one of my op-eds, and in LA I was to address the topic with Matthew Weiner ’87 and Dana Delany ’78. Lots of alumni and parents came out to the new offices of UTA, where we were hosted by Jeremy Zimmer P’12.

Wes Los Angeles Event

Dana spoke about a class on Proust that continues to be important to her decades later, and Matt said that all his work comes out of the cultural immersion championed by the College of Letters. We had a great time.

Talking with Dana and Matt

Alumni and parents from across the decades had a great time reconnecting or meeting for the first time.

Los Angeles Wes Event


(All photos by Maiz Connolly.)

I left LAX before dawn yesterday to head for Toronto, where Dr. Satoshi Omura was being honored with Canada’s prestigious Gairdner Prize. Dr. Omura is a great friend of Wesleyan and one of the world’s leading bioorganic scientists. His dedication to the idea that nature contains the compounds to help us deal with our greatest challenges has led to extraordinary improvements in public health. He discovered and developed the drug ivermectin, which is on track to eradicate onchocerciasis, or River Blindness. Millions of people across the globe have been taking ivermectin, and the results have improved countless lives.

Satoshi Omura

In the program for this prestigious event, Professor Omura is wearing a Wesleyan cap, a wink back to the institution where he studied chemistry with Max Tischler in the early 1970s. I was so pleased to be part of the celebrations for this wonderful scientist!

Now, I’m off to Chicago for another discussion of why liberal education matters!

This is Why.