Wesleyan University (Brendan Dolan-Gavitt/Flickr)
Wesleyan University (Brendan Dolan-Gavitt/Flickr)

Parents have worried about their kids getting stereotypically “useless” degrees like philosophy and English for a long time. But as the job market gets more competitive and the price of college skyrockets, the argument for a practical degree like computer science or engineering is even more persuasive to both students and parents. The national preoccupation with specialization has liberal arts colleges defending the value of a well-rounded degree.

“The problem is we have this polarized discourse around education, where people think that somehow a utilitarian, marketplace-oriented education has to take place at the expense of a broad and contextual one,” said Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, on KQED’s Forum program. “I think that’s a big mistake.”

Roth argues that a pragmatic liberal arts education gives students the tools to critically investigate all life’s challenges, no matter what field of work they pursue. “Liberal education is really about learning how to learn,” Roth said.

He doesn’t argue against the value of teaching students skills like programming, but he wants college graduates to be able to place that knowledge within a broader framework.

“Teach [those skills] in such a way so that as citizens, and as thinkers, we can understand them in their social and political context,” Roth said.

The debate about whether education should be utilitarian and accessible to all has been part of the national conversation since the early days of the country. Thomas Jefferson argued that members of the underclass, who seemed the least likely to succeed in university, should be given the opportunity to raise themselves up through education. “Because otherwise wealthy people will protect their wealth and make it harder and harder for anyone else to enter the higher echelons of any society,” Roth said, summarizing Jefferson’s argument.

A similar debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois occurred following the Civil War, when both men sought the best path to improve the economic and social positions of newly freed African-Americans who had lived much of their lives in slavery. Washington favored training people in practical trades, while Du Bois insisted African-Americans deserved the kind of liberal arts education white academics received.

“What Du Bois argued is that we need to have practical skills, but we don’t need to track people into professions or activities that limit their horizons in advance of seeing what they can do and what they can learn,” Roth said. He worries that the current national preoccupation with gaining specific skills will limit students before they have time to explore the many possibilities for their lives.

“I do think it’s our responsibility as leaders of liberal arts institutions and colleges to make sure our students are equipped to compete in the marketplace when they leave our campuses,” Roth said. “But you don’t want to prepare for the worst job you’ll ever have.”

He thinks college should prepare students for their first job — likely their worst job — but also ready them for a lifetime of meaningful work that contributes to making the world a better place. Emphasizing an education that provides a basis for critical thinking and analysis throughout life makes learning a specific programming language, which will likely become outmoded in a few years, seem less valuable.

Roth is well aware that his altruistic view of a college education, which helps form an engaged and active citizenry, is being undermined by the intolerable amount of debt many graduates from elite institutions like Wesleyan now face. Recognizing that fact, some small liberal arts colleges are working to reform their financial aid packages to prevent students from taking on that kind of debt.

Roth agrees that students need to be pragmatic about their education and look ahead to their future while in school, but he’s passionate about the fact that a liberal arts education can provide students both applicable skills and the tools to interpret and impact the world around them.

“It’s very important to recognize these economic challenges,” Roth said. “But the economic challenges are not going to be met by becoming more and more narrow. They’re going to be met by becoming more and more innovative.”

Wesleyan is experimenting with interdisciplinary learning as one way to equip its students with real-world skills. The College of Environmental Studies at Wesleyan requires students to get dual degrees in relevant subject areas, including the sciences and arts.

“These environmental issues, issue of global climate change, are not going to be confined to any specific discipline,” Roth said. “We need the cooperation of people who are engaged in inquiry. We have to give our students the ability to move among these disciplines, to translate from one form of knowledge to another.”

Without the experience of a liberal arts education, where students are asked to make connections between classes and content areas, Roth worries universities aren’t preparing students to face the complex challenges that face them.

  • Raymond Goodman Jr

    Roth is way off base. Apparently he doesn’t think STEM or business teach people to learn or to think…that they’re just given a “bag of tricks.” According to Roth, liberal arts teaches people to learn how to learn so help me understand how learning about any of the liberal arts, in and of itself, teaches people to learn where STEM or business does not.

    • alum

      Many STEM subjects are also liberal arts. The liberal arts are not the same thing as the humanities. The liberal arts do indeed include the humanities (literautre, languages, etc.) and the social sciences (history, economics, etc.), but also the natural sciences (chemistry, physics, mathematics, etc.). The liberal arts do not include business or engineering.

    • crden

      Many STEM subjects are liberal arts. I am a mathematician who graduated from a liberal arts college, and I found my humanities courses very useful in my math studies. Having that breadth of coursework made me more flexible.

  • Raymond Goodman Jr

    He’s just trying to feather his own nest.

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  • Roger N. Kirkman

    My college, UNC, had a very directed general college, insuring a broad base for someone going into a variety of careers, plus the ability to understand those whose careers took them in other directions. Then this curriculum was attacked by students claiming that this denied them the freedom to take difficult courses to satisfy their intellectual curiosities, on grounds that a lower grade in those grades would affect their GPA. They asked for pass-fail. To further satisfy their intellectual curiosities, these students asked for less-structured course requirements, so they could take a broader set of courses. These concerns were instituted in what were called the Merzbacher reforms. 3000 signed a petition to make the reforms retroactive

    The result was that students could avoid courses they didn’t want to take, a menu with many options. Previously, students were required to take two courses each in chemistry, physics, mathematics and five in a foreign language, all of which were made into options with philosophy and other courses, and foreign language requirements decreased to two courses. All of this was to lessen the burden of students being “forced to take certain courses”, as the student body president said.

    Within seven years a new committee was formed, mainly to undo the damage done by the previous reform. One of the previous committee members spoke out in a speech, noting that “the students told us that they were sincere in their belief that they could be more studious and learn more with a less stringent curriculum — and we believed them.” He went on to speak of course enrollments increasing in a variety of survey courses, bitterly complaining about how the same students maxed out on pass-fail courses and searched even more diligently for easy A’s in “slide” courses.

    In my view, there was a value in broadening curriculum, but not at the expense of the learning process. There’s also nothing wrong with deep-focus trade-oriented curricula, but it’s easy to become too detached. This article is a step in the right direction, if it can keep the balance between the two extremes, while using liberal arts to teach and encourage our students how to learn, and not how to “game the system.”

    For my part, I went to the forum when the second committee asked for input. One course was still considered optional in the proposed general college curriculum, Intro to Computer Science. It seems jejune now that I could have proposed it to be made a general college requirement to a stone wall, but it was uneasily received. The objection was that not all students could type. Of course, now it seems to be generally accepted.

    The other proposal I made was to construct a basic Statistics course requirement, but it wasn’t quite that. My thinking was for two texts for that course — the old-fashioned-looking “How to Lie With Statistics” by Darrell Huff and Daniel Boorstin’s “The Image”. There may have been other books more suitable, but what I wanted to get across was that there needed to be a course on “How to Detect B.S.” I’d also found that, in more than one professional/graduate field we had to take courses in statistics — from Business Administration to Epidemiology and Psychology. These fields all need statistical analysis (e.g., of variance) and/or chi-squares for their study, and such a this course as this would have covered both desiderata.

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  • I enjoyed the post very much and value both liberal arts degrees and vocational/technical degrees. They both have value in our society.

    Side note: I am a Wesleyan College graduate (the women’s college featured in your photo that is located in Macon, GA). It is not affiliated with Wesleyan University (the university featured in your article).


Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She's a staff writer for KQED's education blog MindShift.

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