Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, responds to our recent post, “The Death of the Liberal-Arts Education.”
It is certainly understandable that in these uncertain economic times students and their families are more concerned than ever with the kind of education colleges provide. That’s why it’s so important to understand the deep, contemporary practicality of a liberal education. Patient and persistent critical inquiry has never been more crucial, and the development of this capacity is one of the defining features of a liberal education. One learns that successful inquiry is rigorous and innovative, and that one must be able to re-evaluate one’s own practices and prejudices. Real inquiry is pragmatic, and also reflexive—it includes rigorous self-examination. Given the pace of technological and social change, it no longer makes sense to devote four years of higher education entirely to specific skills. By learning how to learn, one makes one’s education last a lifetime. What could be more practical? Post secondary education, I am fond of telling the undergrads at Wesleyan University, should help students to discover what they love to do, to get better at it, and then to share what they’ve learned to do with others. They should develop the ability to continue learning so that they become agents of change—not victims of it.
One of the strong features of the university and college sector in this country is the variety of paths for achieving a broadly based education. Learning through the liberal arts energizes capacities for innovation and for judgment. Those who can imagine how best to reconfigure existing resources and project future results will be the shapers of our economy and culture. Let’s hope their education includes the ability to think reflexively so as to reexamine continually the direction they’ve chosen and the assumptions they’ve used. Students today must learn how to make sense of extraordinary amounts of information, and they must recognize that they will have to make responsible decisions before they have “finished” their research. Inquiry is never finished, and good judgment skills are always needed. Educators in the liberal arts aim to develop habits of mind that thrive on ambiguity and that foster combinations of focus and flexibility, criticism and courage.
We need to articulate a pragmatic approach to the liberal arts that helps us create what a friend of mine here at Wesleyan calls “intellectual cross-training.” We must educate individuals broadly so they are capable of moving from one problem to another with confidence, capable of moving from one opportunity to another with courage. We must educate citizens broadly so that they understand the value of freedom and the virtue of compassion. When we do so, we will have plenty of defenders (and practitioners) of the liberal arts.