Bringing a Book to a Bar Fight

The gifts of an academic mind are curiosity and diligence. Wonderful traits, they give us discoveries, innovation, and the ability to see the familiar anew. Unfortunately, their side effect is an inherent difficulty with clarity and concision. Higher education is notoriously bad at explaining itself and a common understandings of shared terms lacking. “And why should there be?” many faculty might rightfully ask.

Beyond the University

In a time when the effectiveness of American higher education is under scrutiny, when the value of college is regularly called into question, higher education needs strong arguments and persuasive leadership. We need scholars who can articulate that which so many of us deeply believe: a well-learned baccalaureate degree from a strong and caring institution can have a dramatically positive effect on a student’s life, and when that happens to scale, a happy and productive populace is the result.

Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, recently jumped into the fray with Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. Roth is an ideal candidate for this kind of work. A first-generation college student, Roth is extraordinarily clever. He has been a tireless champion for the humanities, a prolific scholar, and an educational innovator. He blogs, writes beautifully, and has even taught a MOOC. He is the kind of thinker that one can savor.

Beyond the University has much to recommend. Taking as its leaping off point that a wide-scale swing away from liberal education to vocational education is short-sighted, Roth crafts a philosophical and historical argument about how best to educate. He weaves classical thinkers with American icons, such as Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Jane Addams, and William James. He highlights some less known writers, such as David Walker, an 18th century abolitionist whose impact would have been profound had he lived a longer life. Roth’s greatest affinity, however, is for John Dewey. The book’s underlying call for a useful or relevant education resonates with Dewey’s ideas about pragmatism.

Roth has an impressive mastery of his material. His writing is engaging, his arguments sound, and the scope is impressive. He has done yeoman’s service in providing a clear exposition of the lengthy American tradition of liberal education. And if ever called on to defend the roots of liberal education, I would gladly reach for Beyond the University. Problem is, that’s neither the question nor the issue.

Critics of higher education have focused attention on current costs and future benefits higher education. Their concerns have to be higher education’s concerns as well.  For too many decades, many of us in higher education have defended practice and policy on the basis of tradition, history, and success.  If college education worked for all these wonderfully successful people, it must be effective. That argument simply does not work when total educational debt in the United States is more than one trillion dollars. That is a heck of a lot of money.

A liberal education at an outstanding institution, such as Wesleyan, has tremendous value. It did generations ago and it will for decades in the future. I am confident that future generations of wealthy Americans will gladly send their sons and daughters to like institutions of higher education that are committed the development of the whole student. The challenge is that fewer and fewer Americans can afford it – and there are no viable alternatives on the horizon.

David Potash

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