Michael Roth is the president of Wesleyan University. His book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, has been getting a lot of attention lately. Over at The New Republic, Roth offers some advice for parents and students navigating this year’s college admission season. Here is a taste:
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 it—this 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 person—not 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.
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