Online courses and crushing student debt are contemporary phenomena, but the arguments they inspire are often variations on older debates. Attacking and defending a liberal-arts education is an old American tradition, one that dates back to Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. In a new book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan, traces the history of these debates in American culture. We spoke recently about how history can clarify contemporary questions about the future of higher education in America.
If you could drop Thomas Jefferson into today’s educational landscape, what would he think about rising student loan costs and an increasingly vocational approach to higher education?
Jefferson would be appalled by the retreat from public responsibility for higher education. He tried to pass taxes to support people without money receiving an education, and he failed. At the same time, he would probably say it’s predictable. This is how wealthy people protect their advantages: by limiting access to higher education to their own children. This creates what Jefferson called an “unnatural aristocracy,” people who have unearned privileges. He would think it’s very sad that people are going into debt to finance educational exploration. He would worry about the possibility that talented people without financial means would be left out of higher education. In terms of a vocational approach, Jefferson was a great believer in studying things that didn’t seem to be immediately profitable.
Ben Franklin criticized the elitism of higher education. He described Harvard as a finishing school where the rich learn obsolete skills and knowledge. What do you think Ben Franklin would make of the current debates about higher education?
Franklin probably would have had more sympathy for the anti-college groups today saying, “You don’t need colleges. Go off and learn stuff on your own. You want to be a programmer; you can do that on your own. You want to start a company, you can do that in all these other ways.” Someone with a lot of smarts and chutzpah who goes off and educates himself in his own way—Franklin would admire that. But he was also someone who found narrowness appalling. Someone like Peter Thiel, who is asking kids to leave college for a hundred thousand dollar fellowship, is encouraging them to become ever more narrow, so that they can develop an app to order pizza more quickly or access pornography more easily. All this talent driven into narrower and narrower spheres—Franklin would have found it depressing. Increasing specialization makes us less capable citizens and less able to adjust to changes in the marketplace. Many studies show students choose schools based on their selectivity, the prestige factor. And the vanity of prestige, just wanting to be better than someone else, he hated that.
Many kids in the freshman class at elite schools are from families in higher tax brackets. Are we still rewarding unearned privilege rather than merit?
I think this is a huge problem. A lot of the indices we use for admission favor the wealthy, but we are looking at changing that. We’d like not to favor people who have been trained through expensive classes to do well on testing day, but rather to find people with authentic potential. We try to spend a lot of time finding students who might not find us because they think we are too expensive. Often these students could come here for free and graduate with no loans and do just as well as someone who had all the advantages. We’re also trying to expand our reach with [online courses], and with this platform we’ve reached over 600,000 students in just a year and a half. In the previous hundred years we haven’t offered content to that many people.
Why should a student attend a brick-and-mortar school if they can get similar knowledge at a lower cost from online courses and other online resources?
I think it’s to work and live and play beside other people who are also going through a similar process of learning. Being surrounded by other students and professors who are engaged in research is a hothouse environment for expanding your cultural and intellectual horizons. I’m not naive enough to deny that people also like to be on residential campuses because they often have nice amenities. Taken to an extreme, that’s a real problem. Schools that are trying to entice students with swimming pools and rock bands, I hope they lose their customers. What they’re offering students is a taste of luxury before they have to start working. I think in the future more people will get online credit and certification before coming to a place like Wesleyan for a few semesters rather than four years. Multiplying access points is crucial as long as you’re providing access to a broadening rather than a narrowing of the mind.
So many brochures are full of bromides about the power of a liberal-arts education to expand horizons and transform worldviews. How would you define these intangible benefits?
Well, there are so many bromides, and I think that’s because we are trying to describe something that’s not immediately transferable into cash or some other quantitative measure. I like to say to students that I hope that in college they find out what they really love to do. It’s important not only that they discover what they love to do but also that they develop their skills in that area. This should be measurable. You should see your skills grow in ways that matter not only to professors, but also people who are off-campus. I do think there should be some practical payoff to a broad education, and that’s why I call what I’m describing in the book a pragmatic liberal education. I don’t think it’s just about having a wonderful mind that you explore on Sundays by yourself. It’s also important to become more productive at things that other people recognize as valuable.