2paragraphs: In your recent, popular editorial on the value of a liberal education you write that “Liberal learning depends on absorption in compelling work.” That’s great for students, but our increasingly competitive world seems to augur a future in which time for such “absorption”–commendable as it indisputably is–will become regrettably rare outside a university setting. Given modern pressures, can liberal learning still be the lifelong endeavor it once was?
Michael S. Roth: It’s not the case that absorption will become increasingly irrelevant outside a university setting. We need both absorption and inquiry. Many occupations require profound attention, as do various forms of artistic and entrepreneurial practice. But many pundits argue that most folks won’t be required to become deeply involved with their jobs or anything else – so why should they have access to a high quality education? Under the guise of practicality, this is old-fashioned condescension combined with a desire to protect the inequality of the status quo.
The willingness today by some to limit higher education to only certain students or to constrict the college curriculum to a neat, instrumental itinerary is a critical mistake, one that neglects a deep American tradition of humanistic learning. This tradition has been integral to our nation’s success and has enriched the lives of generations of students by enhancing their capacities for shaping themselves and reinventing the world they will inhabit. Since the founding of this country, education has been closely tied to individual freedom, and to the ability to think for oneself and to contribute to society by unleashing one’s creative potential. The pace of change has never been faster, and the ability to shape change and seek opportunity has never been more valuable. If we want to push back against inequality and enhance the vitality of our culture and economy, we need to practice absorption and inquiry within the framework of pragmatic liberal education.
—Michael S. Roth is the president of Wesleyan University and the author of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.