Wesleyan University President Champions Liberal Education

Thursday, June 19, 2014

College campus College campus (Copyright: Joe Mercier/Shutterstock)

Contentious debates over the benefits—or drawbacks—of a liberal education go back to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Critics have attacked its irrelevance and elitism, supporters believe that nurturing a student’s capacity for lifelong learning is essential for science, commerce, and democracy. Wesleyan University President Michael S. Roth explores America’s long-running argument over vocational vs. liberal education. In Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters he looks at the state of higher education today and argues that since the beginning of the nation, liberal education has cultivated individual freedom, supported civic virtue, and instilled hope for the future.


Michael S. Roth

Comments [11]

Peter Talbot from Harrison, NJ

University liberal arts education has always (from its pre renaissance inception) been a baby sitting service for the second sons of privilege to give them hope of a "sinecure" and income denied them under primogeniture customs as an alternative to fealty service with lance and crossbow. The only difference now is that so many more "middle class" and "working class" sons and daughters consider themselves privileged (in the dying West) that there aren't enough chairs for the new legions of clerics (clerks) we have (re)produced to practice their rhetorical gifts with a cafeteria meal plan. We are all Edmunds now, swearing that we should have been as we are "had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on (our) bastardizing", engaged in our own, psychologically defended divine "thrusting on".

The gnostic dream of superior thought, timocratic political aspirations and the progress of knowledge and wisdom in absolute human(istic) achievement is still being peddled by the best and brightest of our scholars, but the paradigm of progress is gone, and the value of our self-promotions has become more obviously meritricious.

The opposing view: that education leads to joining the ranks of the economically rewarded "mechanic" class (that we used to despise before the gilded age) is just as vacuous, assuming as it does that the general good is as described by the market (productivity), or by the democracy (citizenship). Work in the capitalist world is, in essence, organized piracy of the poor in attempt to attain unsustainable and inequitable ends.

The true worth of any education (whether jgarbuz' championing of Horatio Algerisms or the unctious admonitions of University presidents: crescat sciencia vita excolatur) is only one thing: to give us the opportunity to learn from past errors before we go out and make our own. Unfortunately for the species (in Shavian words), we have learned from experience that man does not learn by experience.

Jun. 25 2014 01:36 PM
WesAlum95 from manhattan

Listening to this , I understand so well how so many of my classmates drifted through their 20's 30's and now are in their 40's panicking that they have no track, no track record, no career. God bless Wesleyan for encouraging the drifting and hard knocks.
Anyone thinking about shelling out $200k to go, should talk with older people about the value of drifting. Wesleyan's anti-working ethos ruined countless lives.

Jun. 24 2014 02:27 PM
jeri from wash hts


LOL! so true!

Jun. 19 2014 01:48 PM

It is difficult for students to develop/show promise when a school board does not distribute funds fairly to the public school children in grades, K - 12. The membership of the East Ramapo School District in Rockland County, NY is primarily composed of people who send their children to private schools. Where do their interests lie? At this time they do not seem to be trying to enrich the lives of the public school students and the people around them. They have drastically cut teachers and programs. Perhaps there was a time in American history that an interested public would be able to be on a school board and distribute funds fairly. Times have changed and self interest is the name of the game today. School boards should be composed of people who send their children to the schools in their districts. And paying taxes to public schools should do what it was meant to do, enrich the lives of the students in the public schools and everyone around them.

Jun. 19 2014 12:41 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

The reality is, anyone who really WANTS an education can get all they want for free on TV and on the internet just by watching documentaries or even watching free online courses. If you want a general liberal arts education you can get it watching TV or on the internet for free. Wasting time and money in college having old people telling you what books to read and to write papers for them is a sheer waste of human and economic resources. Liberal arts is just liberal teachers producing more liberal teachers who in turn will produce more liberal teachers. It's mostly a ponzi scheme.

Jun. 19 2014 12:38 PM
Same from nyc

Did you see South Carolina tried to withhold funds from Universities who decided to have LGBTQ courses, some of the funds have since been restored, but not without compromises.

Jun. 19 2014 12:36 PM
Opal S from Manhattan

Attempting to mix students with diverse opinions, is a high ideal. However often these diversities are emotionally charged and can make for lots of unpleasantness.

Jun. 19 2014 12:33 PM
wes '79 from nyc

Please ask Michael Roth how economics, which has become the measure of all aspects of American life, can be minimized in places of higher education

Jun. 19 2014 12:29 PM
ben from NY

why do these universities with these endowments charge tuition?

Harvard University $32.334[2]
Yale University $20.780[2]
University of Texas System (system-wide)[12] $20.448[2]
Stanford University $18.668[2]
Princeton University $18.200[2]
Massachusetts Institute of Technology $11.005[2]
Texas A&M University System (system-wide)[12] $8.732[2]
University of Michigan $8.382[2]
Columbia University $8.197[2]
Northwestern University $7.883[2]
University of Pennsylvania $7.741[2]
University of Notre Dame $6.856[2]
University of Chicago $6.668[2]
University of California (system-wide Regents
portions only)[12] $6.337[2]
Duke University $6.040[2]
Emory University $5.816[2]
Washington University in St. Louis $5.651[2]
Cornell University $5.272[2]
University of Virginia $5.116[2]
Rice University $4.836[2]
University of Southern California $3.868[2]
Dartmouth College $3.733[2]
Vanderbilt University $3.673[2]
Ohio State University $3.149[2]
Johns Hopkins University $2.987[2]
University of Pittsburgh $2.975[2]
Pennsylvania State University(system-wide)[12] $2.956[2]
New York University $2.949[2]
University of Minnesota $2.757[2]
Brown University $2.669[2]
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill $2.381[2]
University of Washington $2.346[2]
Purdue University (system-wide)[12] $2.182[2]
University of Richmond $2.023[2]
University of Wisconsin–Madison $2.020[2]
Williams College $1.996[2]
University of Illinois system (system-wide)[12] $1.925[2]
California Institute of Technology $1.849[2]
Pomona College $1.823[2]
Amherst College $1.823[2]
Boston College $1.809[2]
Rockefeller University $1.772[2]
Indiana University (system-wide)[12] $1.735[2]
University of Rochester $1.730[2]
Georgia Institute of Technology $1.714[2]
Case Western Reserve University $1.678[2]
Swarthmore College $1.634[2]
Smith College $1.557[2]
Grinnell College $1.553[2]
Wellesley College $1.550[2]
University of California, Los Angeles
(UCLA Foundation only)
Tufts University $1.440[2]
George Washington University $1.375[2]
Carnegie Mellon University $1.371[2]
Boston University $1.369[2]
Michigan State University $1.367[2]
University of Florida (UF Foundation only) $1.359[2]
Washington and Lee University $1.345[2]
University of Nebraska (system-wide)[12] $1.338[2]
Virginia Commonwealth University $1.327[2]
University of Oklahoma $1.324[2]
Georgetown University $1.286[2]
Southern Methodist University $1.268[2]
University of Missouri (system-wide)[12] $1.259[2]
Texas Christian University $1.256[2]
University of California, Berkeley
(UC Berkeley Foundation only)
University of Kansas (system-wide)[12] $1.228[2]
Yeshiva University $1.183[2]
University of Delaware $1.171[2]
Syracuse University $1.121[2]
Lehigh University $1.103[2]
Wake Forest University $1.061[2]
Tulane University $1.047[2]
Bowdoin College $1.039[2]
Soka University of America $

Jun. 19 2014 12:28 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

People should be produced in factories and manufactured as Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons to do different levels of work, ala "Brave New World." Merely showering people with limited IQs an excessively high level education is a real waste of human resources at each end. The huge debt incurred by so many students who've been brainwashed into believing that they require more education than really can be absorbed into the work force also makes many of them to expect more from work than is realistic in real life. This merely produces consternation and resentment and economic problems for the country as a whole. We have to go back to tracking people more closely towards a more realistic education for their actual capabilities and for real-world needs.

Jun. 19 2014 12:20 PM

I have a relative who just graduated Colgate.

As we passed the historical plaque on the old San Remo, I said, "Look! This is where Kerouac, Ginsberg, and everyone used to recite their works!"

Blank stare.

"Didn't you take ANY courses in American Literature?"

"Yes, but it was 'Native American Literature.'"

Colgate, theoretically, is a Liberal Arts School, but my relative, and a lot of friends, graduated with an arsenal of financial training--and nearly immediately got jobs in that sector in NYC.

And have zero education in the humanities(!)

Jun. 19 2014 12:12 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.