When I began my freshman year at Wesleyan University almost forty years ago, I had only the vaguest notion of what a liberal education was. My father (like his father before him) was a furrier, and my mother sang with a big band before she decided to start a family. Giving their children access to a college education was part of their American dream, even if campuses sometimes seemed to them like foreign countries. Now I serve as president of the same institution at which they first dropped me off, and where I stumbled into courses like Intro to Philosophy and Abnormal Psychology. Much has changed in higher education since my student days. At highly selective schools, many undergraduates now behave like consumers, arriving on campuses with specific demands and detailed plans for their eight semesters. Many are intent on building resumes by choosing to double-major and accumulate credentials to match what they imagine to be an employer’s expectations. Parents check that the facilities of the institution meet their standards of comfort and sophistication and want to be reassured that their student will develop specific skills that will justify the extraordinary financial investment that many private colleges and universities require. At large public institutions, declining state support has led to massive overcrowding, faculty who are underpaid and often part-time, and a creeping culture of pessimism about the quality of undergraduate learning. Students often enter the university system without the preparation to complete college-level classes, and professors are caught between maintaining standards and meeting the needs of undergraduates whose reading and math skills are woefully inadequate. A vast number of students drop out within the first two years, and those who persevere often have trouble completing their degrees because of the limited number of open seats in required classes.
Given this context, a broad education that sets the foundation for a lifetime of learning can seem impossibly idealistic. These days the words “college education” are more likely to be linked to the words “excessive debt” than “liberal learning.” Parents want their children’s education to be immediately useful, and with a dramaticaly shrinking job market, undergrads themselves are often eager to follow a straight and narrow path that they imagine will land them that coveted first job. A broad liberal arts education, with a significant opportunity to explore oneself and the world, is increasingly seen as a luxury for the entitled, one that is scarcely affordable in a hypercompetitive world.
–Michael S. Roth