Who belongs at an institution of higher learning? Do institutions of higher learning tolerate the equality that they preach? Can a liberal education be inclusive? These are the questions Michael Roth, current president of Wesleyan University, a small liberal arts college in Middletown, Conn., asked students at “Why Liberal Education Matters” on Thursday evening as part of the Lowell Humanities Series.
Contentious debates over the benefits and drawbacks of a liberal education are as old as America itself, which is why Roth focuses on historical events to shed light on the current discourse about vocational versus liberal education. The former professor of humanities at Scripps College, associate director of the Getty Research Institute, and president of the California College of the Arts described the project of liberal education in four moments: liberate, animate, cooperate, instigate.
To describe the first moment, liberate, Roth discusses Thomas Jefferson’s belief that nurturing a student’s capacity for lifelong learning was both useful for science and commerce and also essential for democracy.
According to Roth, Jefferson founded the University of Virginia because he believed America needed an alternative to Harvard.
“Jefferson said that the problem with Harvard was that students, when they enrolled, were asked to know what they were going to do when they finished,” Roth said.
Roth said education should surprise you, shock you, unnerve you, and take away your foundations—not affirm you—because you do not know who you are yet and you might become someone. Like Jefferson, Roth believes education sets us free from self-imposed immaturity.
“Our education, especially in the early years, is really a cultivation of neurosis, of psychological disability, because we cultivate independence in such a way that we can’t work with other people.”
To illustrate the second moment, animate, Roth uses Ralph Waldo Emerson because he, like Jefferson, was appalled by Harvard when he visited Cambridge.
“He was appalled by the ways in which education was meant to drill people into having a certain reaction to the events around them—it was meant to train you,” Roth said. “Emerson didn’t want colleges to drill students into performing tasks in a disciplined way, he wanted colleges, as he said, to ‘set souls aflame.’”
Roth claimed we are constantly adjacent to or alongside what is happening in the world, and that education should allow us to make the world more alive for ourselves. According to Roth, Emerson said we make the world alive so we can participate in it.
Jane Addams’s emphasis on the cultivation of empathy and John Dewey’s calls for education as civic engagement were often rejected as impractical by those who aimed to train students for particular economic tasks. Roth explores these arguments as he described the third moment, cooperation, and claimed that something like philosophy recovers itself not by drilling down to the messages of philosophical analysis, but by applying philosophy to human problems – and that the same is true of history, literature, and other disciplines. Roth said cooperation is essential in this endeavor.
“John Dewey said our education, especially in the early years, is really a cultivation of neurosis, of psychological disability, because we cultivate independence in such a way that we can’t work with other people,” Roth said. “You want to be a hero, you want to be a star, and by wanting to stand out, be independent, on your own, self-reliant, you are completely isolated from other people.”
Around the same time, W.E.B. Du Bois made a similar argument about cooperation, not just for practical purposes, but because cooperation and a broad education empowers students for what they are going to do after they leave college.
“Du Bois said there’s such an emphasis on vocational education … that if Socrates came into the room they would say he’s a nut because he’s not practical enough.”
Roth quoted an old professor of his who said, “If [college] turns out to be the best four years of your life, we’ve failed you.”
This idea of empowering lead Roth to close on the last moment—instigation—and encourage students to enact change with the knowledge they have gained while in college.
“Education should no longer be about giving material to people, it should be about facilitating their ability to throw off the traditions they’ve been taught,” Roth said. “That education should not be training, it should be the encouragement of instigation of social change.”
Featured Image courtesy wesleyan.edu