A Nearsighted Visionary

Rarely have I read a book about higher education that is so varied as Michael Roth’s Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. As I’ll explain, it is by turns intriguing, annoying, and challenging.

Roth is the president of Wesleyan University, a liberal arts school in Connecticut. On his page, Roth declares, “Wesleyan stands for the opportunity to connect serious intellectual and aesthetic work with making a positive difference in the world…. Our open curriculum enables [students] to identify and explore aspects of the world that interest them most, and our superb faculty teach them how to define and strengthen their efforts.”

That certainly sounds good, but things have not been so placid and cerebral on the Wesleyan campus of late. Writing on Minding the Campus, Charlotte Allen points to recent events and concludes that at Wesleyan, it’s “total PC all the time.” The events center around the usual issues involving gender (fraternity houses are now a thing of the past) and free speech (convulsions over an editorial in the campus paper that dared to criticize the Black Lives Matter movement). 

The anti-free speech zealotry of some of the students particularly belies the idea that just because a school encourages serious intellectual and aesthetic work and has a superb faculty, its students will necessarily imbibe the excellent scholarly brew on offer.

That point is pertinent to Roth’s big argument, which is that America needs liberal education more than ever. He writes that the nation must “not abandon the humanistic frameworks of education in favor of narrow, technical forms of teaching intended to give quick, utilitarian results.” He passionately advocates “broadly based, self-critical and yet pragmatic education” that addresses “the whole person” and enables him to “imagine a future worth striving for.”

All of that sounds very good. The problem is that Roth, who seems to be “preaching to members of the church of the liberal arts” (as Peter Wood writes in his review of the book in the fall 2014 issue of Academic Questions), never produces a scintilla of evidence that the sort of education he favors actually produces such wonderful results. That’s the challenging part of the book and I will return to it later.

What is intriguing about Beyond the University is Roth’s personal foray into the realm of online education. 

Many higher education leaders and faculty members have been cool if not adamantly opposed to the move toward Massive Open Online Courses as a way for students to earn college credits. Roth writes, “Although at first skeptical, I have come to believe that we can use this platform to advance liberal education.” He changed his mind after designing and offering a MOOC himself, a “rather traditional humanities class” entitled The Modern and the Postmodern, available on Coursera.

Roth wondered how many students would want to take an online course about literature, history, and philosophy. He also wondered how much students would learn from his recorded lectures.

To his great surprise, the course drew nearly 30,000 students, across the globe. Most of the students who reviewed the course gave it very high marks. Moreover, spontaneous order asserted itself, as study groups rapidly formed. Roth writes, “When I checked the site after dinner, I was astonished at the level of activity. Study groups were forming based on language and geography. There were Spanish and Portuguese groups, study units forming in Bulgaria and Russia and Boston and India.”

Not only were the students geographically diverse, they were also diverse in other respects. Some were retired teachers; others still in high school. Some were holding down full-time jobs. “The Modern and the Postmodern” proved to be very diverse without any effort at making it so.

There’s a lesson in that, but it would probably be lost on most education leaders, who are heavily invested in the idea that “diversity” only occurs if they fret over the percentages of students who are admitted based on their ancestry.

What makes Roth’s book annoying?

It’s annoying because he cannot resist taking nasty shots at some of the people who don’t share his views about higher education. He misrepresents their arguments and impugns their motives.

For example, Roth takes a misguided shot at Ohio University economist Richard Vedder. Vedder, as many readers know, has long argued that we have oversold higher education by luring in great numbers of students who have little interest in studying but still want credentials for employment. Vedder is not opposed to anyone studying the liberal arts, but Roth suggests to readers that he just wants higher education “to produce the equivalent of better farmers today.”

If Roth had bothered to look into Vedder’s work, he’d have discovered that he doesn’t want universities to have “narrowly utilitarian” missions. All he wants is to stop the waste of time and money that comes from the credential mania brought about by government educational subsidies.

Even worse is the way Roth treats the National Association of Scholars (NAS). He acknowledges that NAS is not in the “make college utilitarian” camp, but says, “Rather than promoting the ever-expanding circle of the liberal arts…NAS would have us return to a common core of Western Civilization—by which they seem to mean European and American preindustrial values. They also seem to be very comfortable with the kinds of inequality that were characteristic of those societies.”

That deserves the academic equivalent of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Instead of explaining why his view of liberal education is better than that of NAS, Roth resorts to a quick smear. Liberal education should teach the lesson of being intellectually charitable toward opponents. Apparently he has forgotten it.

That brings me back to the challenging part of the book—Roth’s case for liberal education. 

“A liberal education,” he states, “should help us develop the intellectual and moral capacities to imagine a future that is worth striving for, and enhance our ability to create the tools for its realization.” Sounds wonderful. Shouldn’t we want almost everyone to have such education?

And conversely, shouldn’t we feel bad if we leave students behind with merely occupational training? 

The problem I have with Roth’s claim—and he has a great deal of company here—is that it is only a claim. Nothing in the book demonstrates that his ideal of liberal education or any other actually transforms students from humdrum worker bees into deep, far-seeing thinkers.

I am not saying that liberal education doesn’t work and never has uplifting results, but questioning the assumption that it always or even frequently does. Maybe it’s a conceit of intellectuals that the kind of education they enjoyed must be good across the board—that studying Homer necessarily makes you a much better human being than studying home economics does. 

Roth writes as if it were a settled matter that the kind of “pragmatic” liberal education he favors is superior to both the sort of Western liberal education favored by the NAS, and to college education that’s mostly occupational training. Missing from the book is any reason to believe that. 

Many people whose college degrees are of the occupational sort that Roth looks down upon nevertheless become upstanding citizens who are “lifelong learners.” Quite probably, some of the students who signed up for and liked Roth’s MOOC are such individuals.

Conversely, some who earned degrees at schools with shining liberal education curricula turn into the worst sort of authoritarian planners. The aspect of liberal education that Roth likes so much—imagining a better future—often leads people to believe that their particular imagining should be made obligatory for everyone else. Roth is blind to the possibility that his variety of liberal education might not always be best.

In the end, I agree with Roth that colleges and universities shouldn’t be turned into job training centers, a function they often don’t perform well, at huge cost. But it would be just as bad if they all become like Wesleyan. The only way to find the right mix is for government to step aside and let all the various visions of education compete evenly for students and supporters.