According to Michael Roth, it doesn’t matter what you study in college, but how you study it. In his new book, the Wesleyan University president defends the traditional liberal education, which is falling out of favor as students increasingly pursue coursework they think will make them more attractive to employers. Roth joins us to talk about his new book, “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters,” and to discuss student debt and the rise of online courses.

Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, former president of California College of the Arts and author of "Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters"

  • Cal M

    It’s fine to talk about the values of a good Liberal Arts education, and those values are many. However, in a world in which it costs MORE to get a 4-yr degree at places like Wesleyan than it does to buy a house AND a car, one can hardly blame students who HAVE to pay attention to how they’re going to pay off their loans. More college Presidents are making >$1,000,000/year than ever before, and the ranks of college administrations get more bloated by the year. Why don’t they take a pay cut & help reduce the costs of college so that students have the luxury of pursuing the many benefits that a Liberal Arts education offers?

    • sage

      RIght on brother!

    • alum

      Wesleyan (and schools like it) offers generous need-based financial aid, and the average cost of attendance is, at most, half of the stated tuition. Agreed that administrators are too numerous, though.

  • thucy

    I worry that the debate is too often framed as liberal arts vs. the sciences. From what I see of college-bound kids in the Bay Area, a disproportionate amount of their time and energy has already been squandered trying to make the kid a pro athlete, or good enough for a sports scholarship.
    The result are kids who lack the ability to tackle either the rigors of a true liberal arts education (enjoy learning the labyrinthine complexity of Ancient Greek), or even the sciences.
    At the same time, they’ve missed the opportunity to engage in the true intellectual gain of less structured sports: mind-nourishing “play”.
    Meanwhile, India is still churning out loads of IIT grads who are not only fearsomely competitive in non-liberal arts pursuits, but who have a real appetite for the arts.

    • Lance

      On your point of India and their IT grads. Lets not overlook their poor quality of education(rote memorization is terrible for problem solving skills.), the fact many are just going through diploma mills, and shouldn’t be in IT at all.

      • Robert Thomas

        Boy, is this ever a hobby-horse of mine. It’s not only South Asians, of course. We’re drowning in bad software engineering.

      • thucy

        Let’s not confuse IIT with IT mills. I doubt you’re working with IIT grads.

        • Lance

          One institution doesn’t make India competitive is the point.

    • chrisnfolsom

      YES – I am so tired of hearing about 8 years old children playing soccer and then transition to scholarship potential… Perhaps if these people understood statistics they would get their kid out of competitive sports (into recreational) and make their kids study more.

  • Sara

    The attorney for the teachers union said that bad schools don’t have bad teachers, they simply don’t have the monetary resources to provide modern technologies and materials in the classroom. This is not at all true. While there are some wonderful teachers in bad schools, the majority of good, quality teachers want to be in good schools. If they find themselves in a bad school, they do what they can to get out and into a better district as quickly as possible. Bad schools have far more bad teachers than good schools.

  • Kathryn Jennings

    Higher paid teachers would be fired first.

  • chrisnfolsom

    I have to say though that more basic science needs to be promoted too – perhaps mixing the two as communicating scientific principles is as important as learning them and unfortunately we still like to polarize our students when we really need to mix them up.

  • Barry

    Your guest mentioned it, and I hear it mentioned often as if it’s significant to the labor market: software companies hiring young people away from college and giving them equity in a start-up. Does your guest (or anyone, anywhere) have evidence of how many workers are described by this scenario? It’s talked about as if it’s a significant part of the workforce and economy. Is it really? Is this a real path for the millions of future young workers, all writing code? I don’t think so. As automation systems improve, coding jobs will be culled, obviously. This is already happening.

  • michael

    mr. roth,

    what can you say to the rising cost of liberal arts education, more specifically on the long term effects on students who take out loans to be able to attend universities like Wesleyan?

    You shook my hand in 2008, the culmination of my wonderful education at Wesleyan, studying with Alvin Lucier, Anthony Braxton, Ron Kuivila, Leo Lensing, and Scott Higgins, to name a specific few.

    My time at Wesleyan was incredible, though, with over six figures in depth, i hesitate to ever say ‘invaluable’.

    I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on this.

  • Robert Thomas

    Having benefited from an education focusing on the sciences and engineering, I nevertheless had literature, history, philosophy, art and language courses which I took seriously.

    On the other hand, I find that there are people who consider themselves “educated” with essentially no mathematics and very little science – NO science at all that requires mathematics at the level of analysis.

    There are people who hold Bachelor of Arts degrees who are ignorant of even a high school level of chemistry. Few have any idea how to judge statistical assertions.

  • catherine L

    Thank you for championing the worth of an education for it’s very own sake. The issues of cost are important, but they are separate issues.

    We are in terrible danger of letting the utilitarian and commodity view of education overtake the real issue: which is how we can make sure that everyone gets the best education for their personal, intellectual, civic and societal participation. Which is not always in science or business… it might be, but it isn’t the same for all minds.

    While many of us are concerned about the cost of student loans, we need to stomp down the red herring about whether an education is “worth it.” It is absolutely worth the time and energy to get an education beyond high school, and we don’t need to choose to NOT have it.

    The US has the money to educate everyone who can come, and we even know with economic data that a more educated region (Bay Area) benefits economically and culturally. We can absolutely afford it as a country and we should stop the damaging meme that an education, especially a liberal arts education, may not be “worth it.”

  • Now, more than ever, creativity is necessary in the market place for science and engineering. Breadth requirements are needed for students to be able to see beyond the concrete world.

  • Elizabeth Finkler

    This is a tangent related to my employment with a bankruptcy attorney. Student loans are generally NOT dischargeable in bankruptcy. And I strongly suspect that’s related to a stunt some students pulled back when I was in college, of taking out student loans and then filing for bankruptcy as soon as they graduated. In other words, as with so many other inconveniences in life, it’s a case of a few dishonest people spoiling things for everything else.

  • Ben Rawner

    The best thing about a liberal arts degree is that one can use it for basically any job. It’s not really what we learn, but really the tools that we gain to actively and effectively interact with our world. For instance, understanding something as simple as + – % error on a statistics chart.

  • Robert Thomas

    It’s funny that Dr Roth mentions James and pragmatism.

    I was recently having a conversation with a young friend of my nephew’s, a bright young man having recently received a B.A. from Harvard, no less.

    When he brought up William James, I made a clumsy quip about Swedenborg that I immediately decided wasn’t very funny. Oops!

    This was short-circuited by the event that he had never heard of Swedenborg.


    • jeffJ1

      I’m shocked, shocked I tell you that someone with an education from a good college had never heard of a relatively obscure 18th century mystic. Evidently your nephew’s friend didn’t major in philosophy. I’m sure there are plenty of Russian authors I’ve never heard of, since I didn’t major in Russian literature, but I hope this doesn’t serve as an indictment of my education.

      Actually, it is a little weird, since right across from William James Hall at Harvard, there is a “Swedenborgian chapel.”

      • Robert Thomas

        “Actually, it is a little weird, since…”

        Uh, yeah!

        Since the young fellow himself brought up transcendentalism and even mentioned O.W. Holmes, Sr. and C.S. Peirce (be still, my heart!), I had thought I was on safe ground. I’m an engineer but I read Emerson, for chrissakes.

        • jeffJ1

          I’m a musician and it stuns me how many people (Harvard grads and all)
          have never heard of three quarters of the great composers, but I just
          have to remind myself that not everyone cares about this like I do –
          even the ones who are music majors don’t know every composer who ever
          lived. Just because this kid knows who Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. is doesn’t mean he is obligated to name every philosopher who ever put pen to paper.

    • olive

      Yes, I too would cut him some slack on a reference to Swedenborg. Too obscure.

  • C T

    Amazed and inspired by the renaissance-like attitude of those like Jefferson and Franklin, when I arrived in college I delved deep into an agenda of becoming informed. Without any career objective I formerly studied philosophy, the sciences, religions, music and music history, writing, literature – you name it, I took a class.

    When all was said and done I ended up with degrees in Biology, Music, Comparative Religious Studies, and a pre-credential teaching degree referred to as Integrated Liberal Studies. I had accumulated well over 200 University Semester units.

    I left college and made a lot of money in sales but hated it. I went into teaching and soon found out that although kids are great, the adults of the world are mostly uneducated, opinionated, and willfully ignorant – a bad combo. I found the situation very unsatisfying.

    My love of knowledge has at times become a somewhat isolating thing over the years as I find it hard to have meaningful discussions with the majority of people I run into on social occasions as they are for the most part very opinionated while at the same time willfully ignorant. The traditional philosophical “argument” has been replaced with the “right to an opinion” no matter how uniformed or based on erroneous so-called “facts”.

    Forget becoming a thinking member of your democracy. Run with the pack. Get that degree that results in monetary accumulation and then by show of wealth you can lay down your claims of knowledge and wisdom proven by the Mercedes in your driveway.

    • MattCA12

      You have to pursue knowledge for its own sake, for yourself. I’ve come to realize nobody else cares what I know: as you say they are too busy discussing the price of real estate. Delight in the blank stares you get by quoting Kipling, or when you use the word “mitochondria” in a sentence, or when you ask someone if they meant to leave that Oxford comma in. When you see that nobody else in the room except you understands the significance of the Missouri Compromise, it makes that isolation seem like a warm blanket.

  • K.A.AM

    Like Sam from San Francisco, I also graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science. I then went on to get a Master degree in Urban and Regional Planning. I volunteered, did a 11-month unpaid internship. Still jobless.

  • Bob

    What about technology in this discussion? Should we update our current liberal arts education system to keep students updated with the technologies to better compete with the job market. I received a liberal arts education and one of my shortcomings was having the education in digital medias

  • Fay Nissenbaum

    My best lesson from the founding fathers is that one or more viewed knowledge of only one discipline as being strange and inadequate. Discuss

    • Robert Thomas

      I think by the time I was four or five, I got the same lesson from my founding father and founding mother. Also from my co-founded sisters. Lucky!

      Recently, I read an article about James Madison’s study of and work translating Hebrew. What a monumental piece of good luck it was for this nation to have run into that ninety-nine pounds of intellectual behemoth.

  • mplstransplant

    Liberal arts educations are crucial for teaching critical thinking, writing, persuasive arguments, problem solving, creativity and flexible thinking because they expose students to a variety of ways of viewing the world. Computer programmers, Engineers, Nurses, Business Leaders and STEM majors benefit from a strong liberal arts foundation as they grapple with issues of ethics (is this experiment ethical?), equality (who has access to the technology we create), rhetoric (the messaging of their work), persuasive writing and delicate use of language (what argument will persuade this client? how should it be written?) etc.

    Even in the STEM majors, some are part of the liberal arts tradition and benefit from it.
    As the American economy evolves, the skills needed to succeed will evolve. Individuals with flexible skills and the ability to learn more skills–which many math and physics majors have but business students do not–will succeed.

    As we push students towards professional undergraduate degrees (business, engineering, nursing etc), we must not forget to encourage them to explore courses outside of their major so they can develop a well rounded skill set.

  • kerpeep

    There’s a blind spot in a lot of thinking about liberal education: something I might call “liberal engineering”. Look at the human animal. A huge part of what makes us human is that we have hands with opposable digits and build tools (and with those tools, build other tools). To be fully human, what matters is “mens et manus” (MIT’s motto) and I think the rise of maker culture is a popular recognition of this. Engineering education is often derrided by elites as being narrowly technical, but it can also be taught in a liberal way that empowers students to learn, think creatively, and invent and build throughout their lives, embracing technological change, rather than fearing it.

  • Commnt8r

    I was so glad to hear Michael Roth say what I’ve been thinking. I nodded my head often as I listened – I agree that a liberal arts education is valuable, no matter how you decide to make a living. It’s not even a question of abilities and I was glad to hear him say it wasn’t even just about critical thinking. A life of the mind enables you to live in a larger, richer world.

  • Ben Rawner

    Could the Tea party put a president out there during the 2016 presidential election, which could have the same effect as Ross Perot in the 1992 election.

  • menloman

    Lots of self-serving hand waving by two bloviating professors comforable in their ivory towers. In the era of the internet there is little need to spend thousands of dollars to sit in a classroom to learn what is freely available online.

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