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Odds and Ends: Liberal Arts Lion
Odds and Ends: Liberal Arts Lion

Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, dismisses disruption

Rick Tulka

In his latest book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, Wesleyan University President Michael S. Roth tackles the current criticism of the American educational tradition by digging into its history. A first-generation college student who now leads his Connecticut alma mater, Roth has a palpable passion for the pedagogical method: "I believe we should teach engineering in a liberal education framework, just like we teach music," he says. "If you attend to its context, the concepts that make it possible, and you find ways to promote cooperative learning while doing that work, I think you could teach anything within liberal education." That goes for MOOCs too, he says, based on his experience teaching for Coursera. "As the courses and technology get better, and as we get better at teaching online, I can see some classes migrating there. There's nothing incompatible with online courses and liberal learning."

What surprised you most while researching the book?

Concerns about the preparation of students for life after college are echoed throughout American history, way back to the founding of the country. Although a lot of the discussion today is about technology and the new economy, the issues and rhetoric are akin to those that arose in the wake of the Civil War or around World War I and the waves of immigrants that entered the country. The trajectory of these discussions has been more repetitious than I realized.

Is there something different about the debate today?

What's more troubling about it this time is you have people who've had the benefit of a college education arguing strenuously that other people shouldn't have one. Peter Thiel, [the PayPal co-founder whose foundation funds two-year fellowships that enable recipients to drop out of college to focus on other work], doesn't say, "I wish I didn't go to Stanford." That kind of pulling up the ladder after climbing it seems new. Past dismissals of higher education often came from people who either wanted to improve it or who didn't have much education and were suspicious of those who knew too much.

How can liberal arts institutions better make their case?

Colleges and universities have to better articulate how intellectual cross-training works and the flexibility of mind and independence of thought our graduates have. The people calling for a more vocational or narrower form of learning are calling for conformity. My least favorite form of this is the nanodegree: Just learn one thing really well because that's what we need right now at company X. You should give people skills, but they should be within a context, because in the long run our workforce will be more creative and have greater capacity. Without that we'll just become somewhere for other creative places to outsource their work.

When you became president, did you do anything that you always wanted to do as an undergrad?

No, but when I was being offered the job, the trustees said something like: "I don't know if you remember the president's office, but it's quite grand." I said, "Remember it? I slept in it!" We occupied it [in the 1970s to press the university to divest from apartheid South Africa]. Now students say to me: "Why are you trying to keep us from protesting, man?" And I say: "If I don't, then you can't protest."

Is there an education buzzword that bugs you?

Disruption. All these people glom on to this term that we're going to be disrupted like newspapers or record companies. It's based in fear, and it has paved the way for some "entrepreneurs," a kind of old-fashioned hucksterism parading itself as entrepreneurism, to create institutions that have no educational value. What we want is thoughtful, sometimes radical, change at colleges and universities that make them more pragmatic and more effective in the world. —Interview by Theresa Walker




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