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!

 

UPDATE:
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

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(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.

Choosing the Right School, Choosing Wesleyan

This is the season when lots of families are visiting college campuses across the country — looking for the one that feels like the perfect match. Juniors start off slowly, and often with some hesitation. After all, they have plenty of time to play the field, checking out big campuses at which one can get happily lost in the crowd and small ones that promise supportive community. Seniors by now are often in the frantic stage (my daughter Sophie is a senior), trying to determine if they are really sure enough about a school to apply early decision. For parents and students alike, this can feel like a lot of pressure.

I love meeting with prospective students as I walk around campus. Their questions reveal something of their hopes for the future, and I am always interested in learning what they are looking for in a campus. I usually stress that Wesleyan isn’t for everybody, and that this is a place that values individuality, intellectual experimentation and cultural curiosity. Students who are interested in going beyond their comfort zone to meet new people, discover new fields of inquiry and learn from unexpected sources… these are the young people most likely to feel that sense of “match” with Wesleyan.

While Wesleyan has gotten significantly more selective over the last 8 years, the university has also made strong efforts to improve access. We’ve been actively seeking applicants from parts of the country that had not previously sent the university many students, and it includes making sure we meet full need without requiring heavy borrowing. Indeed, last year while significantly increasing our spending on financial aid, we expanded our “no loans” policy to include any student whose household income was under 60,000. Meeting full need with little required loans — those remain key elements of our approach to financial aid.

As students visit Wesleyan, I hope they get a strong sense of how we combine academic rigor with intellectual flexibility. I also hope they get a feel for the extraordinary student culture here: its compassionate solidarity, social engagement, and its supportive, inspiring ambiance.

Choosing the right college can feel overwhelming; its true importance lies in finding a place that will launch one into meaningful work, deep friendships and lifelong learning. When I wrote the following (the conclusion to my recent book Beyond the University), I was thinking of Wesleyan and the transformative education students can find here:

Through doubt, imagination, and hard work, students come to understand that they really can reshape themselves and their societies. Liberal education matters because by challenging the forces of conformity it promises to be relevant to our professional, personal and political lives. That relevance isn’t just about landing one’s first job; it emerges over the course of one’s working life. The free inquiry and experimentation of a reflexive, pragmatic education help us to think for ourselves, take responsibility for our beliefs and actions, and become better acquainted with our own desires, our own hopes. Liberal education matters far beyond the university because it increases our capacity to understand the world, contribute to it, and reshape ourselves. When it works, it never ends.

 

Discussing Liberal Education in Texas

I write this from Dallas, where last night Kari, Ed Heffernan ’84 and I discussed liberal education with about 30 Wesleyans. There were alumni from the last few years, from 60 years ago — and a high school senior who told us that Wes is his “dream school.” Ed is here explaining why his big data company, Alliance Data Systems, looks for well-rounded students who can contribute to his enterprise over the long haul (they just hired a bunch of Wes grads).Wesleyan DallasEarlier in the day I met with a group of high school teachers, administrators and guidance counselors in Dallas. They had great questions about the importance of a liberal education, and I was particularly impressed by the student journalists from the Greenhill School.

On Wednesday I was in Houston, where Michelle Lyn ’84, P’12,’15, Rusty Hardin ’64 and I spoke with a group of dedicated Wes folks about how liberal education has informed our lives. Michelle is a doctor working in pediatric medicine, married to a Wes alum, with two kids who have gone here. She talked about the importance of a broad education for the work she does and for her life in her community. Rusty gave a full-throated defense of a liberal education allowing one to experiment with tolerance and curiosity.

Tolerance and a delight in inquiry and ambiguity — that’s a pretty good prescription for learning. I saw all that when Dan Routman P’16 gave me a tour of the Nasher Sculpture Collection. Here I joined a group of kids trying out the super cool chairs by designer Thomas Heatherwick.

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Liberal Education: Hope vs Fear

This afternoon I had a conversation with the wonderful Faith Middletown on WNPR about the value of liberal education at the college level. Here’s her preview:

What makes an educated person? Is it the desire to learn? The ability to be a critical thinker in any situation? Perhaps.

For me, an educated person has the capacity to be a critical thinker—and an optimist at the same time. An educated person has developed a curious mind, thinks critically, has empathy, and an optimistic view.

On our show we talk with Connecticut’s Wesleyan University President Michael Roth, author of Beyond the University, about why a liberal education matters more than ever. He argues this even in a decade of joblessness and high debt for young people or their parents.

During our conversation Faith said, let’s talk about the fear. She was referring to the fear many students have about being left behind in our very competitive economy. We also talked about the hope that is part of the educational process. Hope that through learning how to learn, we will increase our capacity to find meaning in the world and contribute effectively to the groups and networks of which we are a part. Developing the generosity of spirit and intellect through education taps into our optimism and it has, I’ve argued, real pragmatic value.

You can listen to our conversation here.

No Sheep Here at Wesleyan

You’ve probably heard the buzz around William Deresiewicz’s polemic against the “miseducation of the American elite.” In the most widely read article in the history of The New Republic, Deresiewicz lambasted Ivy League schools (and others) for attracting students who will do almost anything to build a resume that will get them through the admissions filter, and then wind up without a clue as to either how to pursue an education in college or how they might lead meaningful lives. Our most highly selective schools, he argues, have become “inimical to learning,” training people who aspire to be both technocrats and aristocrats. They may talk about checking their privilege in undergraduate humanities courses, but they have been well trained to pursue paths only for the sake of prestige, power and money. As one of Deresiewicz’s student sources put it: “It’s hard to build your soul when everyone around you is trying to sell theirs.”

Deresiewicz offers a complaint about “those young people today” that many have dismissed as a familiar rant about youth culture by someone no longer part of it. The author evokes Allan Bloom, who provided a similar, if more deeply sourced, critique of education in The Closing of the American Mind (1987). Deresiewicz is surely right to complain about the rat race among ambitious high school students eager to do whatever it takes to get into a school with the most social prestige, without having to pay attention to how they want to learn or to what kind of learning context might be right for them. His comments are chilling on how bright and hardworking students enter the most selective schools with a wide variety of dreams about what they do after graduation only to become more and more homogeneous by the time they graduate. Look down the rows on graduation day at the most elite universities and colleges, Deresiewicz emphasizes, and two of the three seniors are likely to aspire to being bankers (or consultants). They just don’t know what else to do, since they’ve been trained always to go for the biggest prize. They’ve been taught that what matters can be measured; money is easy to measure.

Many students have written to Deresiewicz with tales of similar high achievement/low meaning experiences. His work has certainly struck an important chord in a culture that seems bent on making education only a job-training program — even for the most accomplished students. But there have also been biting critiques of his penchant for cherry picking his facts, preaching to the elite’s choir, and falling into embarrassing clichés. (“Have I mentioned that it isn’t easy? It’s not easy. It’s never easy. Life is tragic, which means, among other things, that you can’t have it all.”)  The New Republic has just published a stinging rejoinder from Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who agrees that elite universities are paying attention to the wrong things in their holistic admissions processes. Pinker claims that less than 10% of the Harvard entering class is chosen for just “academic aptitude,” and he finds this scandalous. But he will have none of Deresiewicz’s talk of a well-rounded, meaningful life. Pinker wants students who excel when tested; he wants students who can perform in the classroom. Not quite saying what academic aptitude is, he is sure Harvard should emphasize it to create a “true meritocracy.” Many perversities would be eliminated, he insists, if we had more faith in standardized tests. Sure, they correlate with wealth, he opines, but perhaps aptitude does as well. If we just focused on academic aptitude, he suggests, the professors would be well served. Would the students? Would the society that supports the university?

William Deresiewicz called his book Excellent Sheep because he thinks we have created a system in which young people are encouraged to conform — not to think. By getting students to become better test takers and resume builders, he argues, we create people less capable of asking themselves questions that challenge the status quo — we create people incapable of thinking against the grain. Pinker seems to think that really smart people will think against the grain because they will pursue information and argument wherever it might take them. Worry about academic aptitude, he suggests, and the soul will take care of itself. Columnist David Brooks sees the debate between Deresiewicz and Pinker at the heart of tensions concerning the role of college education today.

Deresiewicz mentions Wesleyan and other liberal arts colleges as places in which very capable and creative students escape the herd mentality characteristic of the most elite institutions. Teaching hundreds of students over the last few years at Wes, I certainly see young people eager to question their own and other people’s assumptions. I also see faculty and staff willing to engage in the “education of the whole person” and not just training for a specific task. I don’t find many sheep at Wesleyan; I don’t see people only following the herd or people who have already made up their mind about what the rest of their lives will look like. I see people on the staff discovering new talents and finding ways to share them with others. I find faculty learning about their specific, specialized research areas, but also about the wider society and natural world. And I discover students with whom I can learn, and who are eager to find meaning in their lives as well as skills with which to live.

I recently wrote that, “A country that wants to maintain the dream of social mobility requires real colleges and universities that encourage everyone to find what Dewey called “large and human significance” in their lives and work. This requires the opposite of a nano-degree: not just code but context, critique, and cooperation. It requires real colleges and universities—institutions that equip students to reshape themselves and the world around them by learning to think for themselves and continually reinvent what they do.”

People often tell me that students choose Wes because of the culture — “sheep” don’t do well in our ecology. Our culture prizes abilities to thrive in ambiguity, change our minds, and work with exuberance in creative endeavors. We believe we can reshape our world and ourselves, and we are here to continue to learn how.