'There's Nothing Liberal About Specializing in Philosophy'

It doesn't matter what you study—it matters how you study it, says Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan and author of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.

Chris Carlson/AP Photo

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.

A standard defense of a liberal arts education is that it prepares you to succeed in any number of domains because you gain the critical thinking skills to succeed in a range of disciplines. What do you think of this defense of liberal arts?

Well that's key. But you can’t just tell students to go study German literature or philosophy and then figure out how to transfer it once they graduate. That process needs to start earlier. If you're studying German literature, you should be able to explain to someone in computer science what's valuable about it. And the computer scientist should be able to do the same thing to the German literature student. I teach Great Books courses, and if students can't explain why Virginia Woolf or Baudelaire matters in terms relevant to their own lives, I don't think they understand the book. It gets back to that anti-specialization theme. I don't think there's anything “liberal” about specializing in philosophy compared to specializing in business. We don’t want specialists with just technical training. When you have a liberal education, you’re not just a technician. You’re able to move among fields. We don’t want you just to be an academic expert to please a professor. That’s just making believe you’re a mini-professor and you want to grow up to be a big professor.

W.E.B. Dubois thought only the “talented tenth” should receive liberal education. Is only a minority of the population sufficiently gifted to benefit from a liberal education?

It’s a big question. I think the American response since Jefferson and Franklin is that it may be the case that not everyone has the intellectual capacity to benefit from it, but everyone should have access to it because it’s very hard to predict who would benefit from it. It’s very easy to predict that people with power and money will try to restrict access so as to protect their own power and money. Broadening access will create some inefficiency. Some people may not get much out of it and will move toward technical training, but others who you might not have expected to benefit will flourish. Giving people access to a liberal education is really essential for citizenship, and that should start before college. Learning critical thinking so people can’t just pull the wool over your eyes should be part of everyone’s education.

Aristotle suggests in The Politics that every subject can be approached from either a liberal or a vocational standpoint. What matters is why you study something, not what you study. So you could study finance in a liberal spirit, or you could study English literature in a purely vocational one. Would you agree with this?

Absolutely. I have some fights with my colleagues because they want to protect certain disciplines and not others. I come to this from Dewey, but it’s in Aristotle too. It’s not the discipline that makes it part of liberal education, it’s the way you approach it. A liberal arts school is not about having lots of classics professors and no economics professors. It’s about teaching the subject in such a way that it broadens students’ perspectives rather than closing them down into specialization. At Wesleyan, for example, I’ve been trying to bring in engineering as a way of thinking and problem solving. Not just as a trade school. I’ve met with some real resistance, but you can teach engineering as part of a liberal education, just as you can teach it as part of technical training.

Education in past centuries was often influenced by religious and civic ideas of virtue. Schools tried to create better people. Is character formation still a legitimate aspiration for a liberal arts college?

It’s a really important part of the college experience. That’s why, when schools try to appeal to the desire for luxury, it’s an educational failing as well as a moral one. I’ve always worked at small institutions, and you can see characters being formed. You can watch students become selfish, narcissistic, narrow people, or you can try to open them up to service, cooperation, and leadership. When things go wrong, when there are instances of dishonesty or violence within the campus community, these are moments to talk to students about their responsibility for one another. If they take responsibility for making their environment a better place to live, that will become part of their lives after they graduate. It’s also important for students to learn how to fail. Often students at elite schools have never had the experience of failing, and that’s a deprivation. These are things that are hard to learn online.