President Michael Roth’s sixth book, “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters,” will be released on Tuesday, May 6. The book, published by Yale University Press, concludes with the following: “Liberal education matters far beyond the university because it increases our capacity to understand the world, contribute to it, and reshape ourselves. When it works, it never ends.”
That statement broadly underscores the message of the preceding four chapters.
The first part of the book (“From Taking in the World to Transforming the Self”) focuses largely on the legacy of Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In doing research for the book, Roth was surprised to find parallels between those men’s experiences and his own career, especially in terms of criticism from anti-intellectuals who oppose widespread access to liberal education.
“When I started reading Jefferson and Franklin and seeing some of the things they were dealing with [that were] so similar to…what I have to deal with as a president, I thought that was really interesting,” Roth said in an interview with The Argus. “[T]he critics of liberal education…seem to say, ‘Well, now it’s irrelevant.’ And, ‘Maybe it was useful before, but now this kind of education is irrelevant.’ And that’s what people said in the 1810s, and what they said in the 1850s, and what they said in 1900.”
The second part of the book, “Pragmatism: From Autonomy to Recognition,” continues to explore the relevance of liberal education, particularly to oppressed groups such as African Americans. Roth discusses Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois as he moves toward the modern construction of liberal education.
We begin with Washington, who helped found the Tuskegee Institute in 1881. Tuskegee focused on educating blacks in practical trades rather than intellectual pursuits in order to help elevate them to the same economic status as whites—the only way, in Washington’s mind, to bring about equality of any kind.
DuBois, another black scholar, held the opposite view. DuBois had been educated at Fisk University and Harvard, and he dismissed Washington’s skill-based plan in favor of a broad liberal education for blacks. DuBois advocated for scholarship according to ability, because only a “Talented Tenth” of blacks would end up with the opportunity to become intellectual leaders in the world; a classic education, he argued, should help them reach their full potential.
“The elite should participate in the ongoing transmission and creation of knowledge, enabling them to remind others that there is more in life than the almighty Dollar,” Roth writes of DuBois’s rationale.
As money became the object of DuBois’s scorn, new value was placed on the making of the person—the shaping and development of intellect and character that today define liberal learning.
“If we make money the object of man-training, we shall develop money-makers but not necessarily men; if we make technical skill the object of education, we may possess artisans but not, in nature, men,” Roth quotes DuBois as having said. “Men we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools—intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it.”
The push away from vocational training and towards liberal education manifested itself in a new equation of success, one that Roth recognizes in modern terms as eschewing material prestige in favor of purer pursuits.
“DuBois didn’t want his Talented Tenth to pursue the equivalent of what today might be internships at Goldman Sachs or aspire to join the cool folks in the Hamptons or Malibu,” Roth writes.
Liberal education, most often apparent in the growth of its students, relies firmly on strong teachers, who lay the foundation for intellectual development. Roth focuses on William James, a late-19th-century philosopher and champion of liberal education, and his pursuit to free students from the blindness of their own subjective experience. Understanding others’ minds, according to James, would be the ultimate triumph of liberal education.
“Although James notes that there is no recipe for achieving this openness, teachers are in a privileged position to help us recognize the ways in which we all fail to see, pay attention to, and connect with the experiences of others,” Roth writes. “Teachers can help students become more aware of the different levels of meaning that might be found within the same situation when examined from different perspectives.”
Roth points to understanding others’ points of view as the hallmark of not only a liberal education, but also the American way of life.
“Learning to become citizens eager to understand those around us as we understand ourselves is…a cornerstone of American democracy,” he writes. “Although this is not the only kind of understanding that can be produced in the classroom, it is a crucial one in a culture that recognizes the value of engaged diversity—that recognizes that we all get a vote in the evolving constitution of our universe.”
In researching for his book, Roth said he was struck by the connections he found among early proponents of liberal education. Beyond Emerson and James, Roth found allies in people such as Frederick Douglass and Jane Addams, who he was surprised to find wrote on similar issues.
“It seemed to me it wasn’t the usual suspects of education theory or education history, but these were major figures in America thinking,” Roth said.
When he turns to a discussion of criticisms that liberal education faces—namely, its widespread acceptance as necessary for employment, its rising costs, and its contested utility—Roth remarks again on anti-intellectualism.
“I think that the critics of liberal education often, not always, but often are trying to limit access to opportunity, so as to defend their own advantages, and second, promote conformity and promote conventional behavior on the part of citizens because they don’t get to think for themselves,” Roth said.
The danger of relying too much on deconstruction and not enough on deep understanding, according to Roth, will resurface in the world after graduation.
“[Students] wind up contributing to a cultural climate that has little tolerance for finding or making meaning, whose intellectuals and cultural commentators delight in being able to show that somebody else is not to be believed,” he writes.
Despite his apprehension about overly critical thinking, Roth is adamant that liberal education is still crucial and will continue to be crucial for years to come. “Beyond the University” looks into the past to make a case for the future.
“I’m a historian, and it’s a book in some ways about intellectual history,” Roth said. “I get to grapple with these important thinkers, I hope in the service of a contemporary argument that people will find relevant.”