What does a liberal education mean? What are the liberal arts and why are they inherently significant to American education? What place does liberal learning take in an increasingly expensive and job-oriented higher education system? These are questions that Wesleyan University President Michael S. Roth sets out to answer in his most recent book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (Yale University Press). Roth makes a convincing and cohesive argument for the maintenance and the continuity of pragmatic liberal education institutions in America and abroad.
Much of the book focuses on the history of education in the United States, devoting large sections to historical figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Thomas Jefferson, John Dewey, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jane Addams, and many more–each with his or her own influence on the development of liberal education. Roth echoes the sentiments of Emerson’s legendary 1837 Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard College, claiming that college education has led society to idealize a learned individual, a privileged young thinker who is primarily a bookworm, and has disregarded and forgotten the goal of a complete “Man Thinking.” This Man (or woman) that Emerson speaks of is one who remains competent in many skills and active in multiple realms, not one who reclines to his or her study to read and write. Emerson believed that the current education system was training some to become bookworms, and others to become workers with specific skills and little intellectual background on how to think for oneself. Roth, too, believes that society has come to view “a bartender with a chemistry degree” as a failure of the education system, rather than a possible success. Both Roth and Emerson believe in a pragmatic education that trains youth with skills to succeed in a variety of fields and occupations, and if a farmer can recite Cicero and Socrates, that is all the better. Promoting self-reliance and arguing against conformity and imitation, Emerson calls on the “Man Thinking” (or woman) to develop in such a way that one can create clear and original ideas that do not emanate directly from the novels and literature one reads. This message of anti-imitation especially rings true today, as many counterculture movement seem at their core to be a rejuvenation of prior movements.
Roth claims that broad and wide-ranged higher education that develops a person in the whole and provokes their minds with the desire and ambition to learn long after graduation is favorable to the specific and intensively focused vocational education that being increasingly advocated with the yearly tuition hikes and living cost increases of higher education. The latter education appears practical and reliable in contemporary society because of its seemingly surefire economic benefits. A degree in computer science from a strong university is perceived to commonly give students a high start-off salary, in turn allowing students to pay off their massive college debts and find a decent and self-reliant living situation. Roth argues that while this may seem practical and concrete during one’s college years, in reality it is training America’s youth for “yesterday’s jobs,” without providing them with the long term benefits of a broad education that can apply to many fields of the work force. Education has grown almost completely unaffordable to many American families, alienating most what is left of the American Middle Class from higher education. While higher education was once known as a tool for social mobility and class ascension, we now inhabit a society with parallels to that of the era of the founding of American colleges, with pervasive elitism and rampant privilege. While tuition costs are a primary criticism for a liberal arts degree, the argument does not directly undermine the inherent significance of such an education. It is, however, a pressing issue that must be addressed by policy makers and college governing bodies. Roth himself (and Professor Kari Weil) recently made a six figure donation to the endowment for financial aid at Wesleyan, and Roth committed to giving royalties from the sale of Beyond the University to the endowment. While attempting to combat the tuition issue at his own university, Roth maintains his argument for liberal education.
The title Beyond the University signifies that the meaning of college education is not to fill one’s mind with as much knowledge as possible over the course of four years, but rather to set one up for lifelong learning. Roth claims that many of those who are arguing that liberal education is irrelevant and unfeasible in today’s society, actually received liberal educations themselves; they just do not feel everyone should be offered the education they received. Roth and the historical figures in the book believe in a society with an educated workforce–one with developed critical thinking skills and the ability to question societal norms and fight against blind conformity.
A pragmatic liberal education allows graduates to challenge the systems and dogmas of society, rather than obey society’s demands and become confined to a specific field of work. When the purpose of college is diminished from “the pursuit of happiness” to “the pursuit of dollars” the meaning of higher education in itself disintegrates. A pragmatic education teaches youth to get involved with the culture and community around them, and to analyse how their education applies to society through contextualization. Beyond the University makes a strong and clear argument for liberal education, and shows that liberal education has and should forever remain a key pillar of American society and human development.