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Why Liberal Education Matters

by Michael S. Roth

Pub Date: May 6th, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-300-17551-6
Publisher: Yale Univ.

An academic’s defense of the liberal arts, as he surveys the tensions in higher education throughout American history.

During times of increased specialization, economic downturn and staggering student loans, the argument rages once again as to whether higher education is a worthy investment or if colleges should function more like trade schools, preparing students for specific jobs that would justify the tuition costs. Wesleyan University president Roth (Memory, Trauma, and History: Essays on Living with the Past, 2011, etc.) argues differently, countering that “the demand that we replace broad contextual education meant to lead to lifelong learning with targeted vocational undergraduate instruction is a critical mistake.” Furthermore, in “an age of seismic technological change and instantaneous information dissemination, it is more crucial than ever that we not abandon the humanistic frameworks of education in favor of narrow, technical forms of teaching intended to give quick, utilitarian results.” Such a conclusion is not surprising and not likely to convince skeptics, but what’s more illuminating is the context provided. The charge that higher education is elitist, out of touch and disconnected from the working world is one that Benjamin Franklin made centuries ago, and debates have continued ever since about what higher education is for and who should receive it. While underscoring the democratic spirit of a liberal arts education, one designed to produce “active citizens rather than passive subjects,” Roth traces how even the Founding Fathers of the republic restricted that education to patrician white males, excluding women, slaves and others—and that the question of whether farmers need to be able to read Shakespeare has long sparked debate. Between pragmatism and idealism, the author strikes a moderate, balanced approach.

The result is more like a primer on the history of higher education than a manifesto.