Michael Roth discusses the value of a liberal arts education at the Ath

Michael S. Roth has served as President of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut since 2007. But he can remember humbler beginnings long before that. From 1983-1995 he was a history professor in Claremont which included a two-year stint at CMC teaching European history from 1648 to the present.

“CMC was short a European historian and I was short of money,” he said generating a big laugh from the Marion Miner Cook Athenaeum audience during a presentation he made last week.

Well-known as a historian, curator and author, President Roth was previously Hartley Burr Alexander Professor of Humanities at Scripps College, associate director of the Getty Research Institute, and president of the California College of the Arts.

He’s also the author of six books. His most recent book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, encompassed the thesis of his presentation at the Ath which was co-sponsored by the Salvatori Center.

Increasingly, critics of higher education have attacked liberal education for its perceived irrelevance and elitism—often calling for more vocational instruction. In his presentation, Roth cited seminal thinkers (Thomas Jefferson, Jane Addams and John Dewey) in this long-running argument as he defended the supreme importance of a “pragmatic liberal education.”

“You’ve heard from other speakers about the fate of liberal education; that the whole shebang (a technical term I learned at Scripps) is about to fall apart,” Roth said. “You’ve heard people talk about ‘the end of college’; The disintermediation of college; the unbundling of all the services you get here – like how many resources are being diverted to playing spike ball on the quad and how much is going to classes. This is a mistake. It comes from ignoring the great American tradition of liberal education.”

According to Roth, the big difference between traditional American and European educational models is that the American model is shot-through with pragmatism. “And it has the ability to make an enormous difference in the lives of students today, perhaps even more than in any previous generation,” he said.

Roth explained that the story of a pragmatic, liberal education in the U.S. can be told in four chapters: liberation, animation, cooperation and instigation.

In explaining the liberating concept of a liberal education, Roth used Thomas Jefferson as the shining example of a “man of the Enlightenment” who fervently believed that education was the path to freedom, and that without education, freedom would be meaningless or degraded because people would not have the ability to think and reason for themselves.

“Jefferson was committed to the Immanuel Kant maxim: ‘Enlightment is freedom from self-imposed immaturity’,” Roth said. “Education would increase your capacity for that kind of freedom and liberation.

Roth said that education, if it’s free inquiry, would lead not to a reaffirmation of basic principles that you knew when you started learning; instead, it would lead one to question those principles in such a way as to open up possibilities of thinking that weren’t available before – the opposite of dogma.

“If you didn’t have inquiry, the people with privilege would defend those privileges with power,” Roth said. “They would convince you that they deserved their status. And you would have to accept their explanations because you wouldn’t have the intellectual tools to critique them.”

Jefferson wanted liberation through education because that would allow citizens to stand up to their government – revolutionary thinking from a revolutionary

Jefferson’s ideas of education as liberation get taken up by the Civil Rights struggle in the 19th century and espoused by thinkers and activists like Frederick Douglass. “Indeed,” Roth said, “Jefferson’s rhetoric is much greater than his racism or it can be when put to good use.”

In speaking about the “second chapter” of what makes a liberal education so precious – animation – Roth invoked Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, in effect, that the task of college is not to drill you and make sure you memorize your problem sets; the task of education is to animate you so that you can animate the world.

“Learn to make the world alive in ways that you didn’t know it was alive before,” Roth said. “Be more distracted not more focused.”

On the subject of cooperation, Roth spoke about Jane Addams, a member of the pragmatist school of thought, founder of Hull House and the first American woman Nobel Laureate.

#3 Cooperation.  It’s not just about the individual, as evidenced by Jane Addams who founded Hull House.

“Addams wanted to create conditions for people to free themselves together through practice, through action,” he said. “She was a pragmatist. She worked to help us overcome ways in which we are blind to each other’s suffering and potential. John Dewey, an ally of Addams thought that American society had a streak of individualism that he considered to be a pathology. He thought schools encouraged people to do things on their own. Which he believed cultivated narcissism at best and a kind of sick isolationism at worst.”

Finally, regarding Roth’s fourth chapter; instigation, he said is what we hope happens through a liberal education.

Roth quoted a mentor of his, the American philosopher Richard Rorty who said the task of education for the first 12 years is to inculcate in students the values of the culture – to try to find commonality. “But once you get to college, you are instigated to reject those values,” Roth said. “What should happen with undergraduates who are worth their salt is that they should reject the terms on which the education was offered to them. They should begin their college life not knowing where they’re going to end up.”

He added that most don’t think protest is anathema to education. “Without protest, without instigating change, education is a wasted series of drills,” Roth said. In order to know if your education is leading to liberation you need to be instigating to step outside the values that we oldsters have been given. That’s a pragmatic thing to do. Not the cultivation of coddled lines or narcissistic millennials or lazy young people.

In Roth’s view, without these pragmatic tenets of a liberal education, we’re in deep trouble.

“We need to embrace this pragmatic education tradition of the U.S. to instigate change in the service of liberation through cooperation with one another. We will become more animated and alive if we do that. Because that’s the only way this country will thrive and face some of the most important challenges ahead of us.”