President Michael S. Roth ’78: Effective Teachers Empower Students to Become Better Citizens

Editorial StaffMay 29, 202310min
Michael S. Roth '78

In his Commencement Address to the Class of 2023, President Michael S. Roth ’78 spoke about the power of education in fostering civic engagement, building community, and beating back the tides of fear and division.

“By exploring the complexities of the world, students and teachers practice making connections that are intellectual and emotional,” Roth said. “And today, when crude parochialism is encouraged under the guise of group solidarity, it is more important than ever for schools like Wesleyan to promote citizenship by helping students increase their powers of aversive thinking, critical feeling, and the sympathetic imagination.”

Roth made the following remarks during Wesleyan’s 191st Commencement Ceremony on May 28:

Members of the Board of Trustees, members of the faculty and staff, distinguished guests, new recipients of graduate degrees, and this Class of 2023, I am honored to present some brief remarks on the occasion of this Commencement.

It is a thrill for me to stand before you among these distinguished educators. I trust they will concur that teaching is no simple vocation these days. Questions of education have only become more urgent in the face of the powerful forces of discrimination and censorship at work in our country.

Of course, teaching has always faced obstacles. Throughout the modern period, theories of education have been hotly debated, and as secular governments assumed responsibility for schooling, educators focused on preparing independent thinkers who could also be free citizens. But it’s a paradox that one can really learn independence from another. Today, many are asking whether schools are truly helping students think for themselves, or only indoctrinating them into the latest campus orthodoxies. Others have noted that while higher education can lead to inventions that benefit society as a whole, it can also create self-serving justifications for the inequalities associated with economic development. Educational thinkers in America have been responding to such questions for a long time. Real students, said Ralph Waldo Emerson when he visited our campus in 1845, are provoked away from conformity. Freedom is tied to learning, for Emerson, and neither is just an intellectual matter. They are bound together by living with an intensity opposed to convention.

W.E.B. Du Bois didn’t need Emerson to tell him that a real education involved intense opposition to convention. As a Black intellectual, Du Bois pursued learning with a steeliness forged by the racist opposition to his talents and ambitions. As a student, Du Bois aimed at freedom through empowerment. Then, as he made his way in the world, he, in turn, used his education to empower others who knew they must change the world around them to have any chance at real opportunity and freedom. His contemporary, Jane Addams, who worked with poor immigrants in the inner city, also recognized that a profound education would be one put in the service of the most vulnerable. She rejected facile and performative critical thinking in favor of what she called the sympathetic imagination—a faculty that led to understanding perspectives and experiences very different from one’s own. This was at the core of her rethinking of what it meant to be a student or a teacher.

Emerson, Du Bois, and Addams remind us that the most effective teachers are preparing students for more than replicating the world as it is. They are empowering people to intervene to protect those who are treated unjustly, and to choose with discernment those who would govern. In other words, teachers are empowering citizens.

Strong students make better teachers, and both create better citizens. I have had the good fortune of working with students whose seriousness and joy, playfulness and purpose have illuminated for me powerful works of literature, history, and film—and I know the faculty across all our disciplines could say similar things. Working with students has also made me more attentive to the concerns of others. By exploring the complexities of the world, students and teachers practice making connections that are intellectual and emotional. And today, when crude parochialism is encouraged under the guise of group solidarity, it is more important than ever for schools like Wesleyan to promote citizenship by helping students increase their powers of aversive thinking, critical feeling, and the sympathetic imagination.

Strong teachers often provoke powerful emotions, and the best teach in ways that eliminate the need for their teaching: “Your educators cannot go beyond being your liberators,” said Nietzsche put it in 1874. To be a good art teacher, said John Baldessari about a century later, means knowing when to get out of the way. The goal of the teacher is to help the student be more than a spectator, more than a consumer of lessons. Teachers can help students get to a place where it is more likely that they’ll find modes of feeling and thinking with which they are at home and which they can share with others. Part of being free, part of political participation and of leaving one’s immaturity behind, is finding that new home on your own. Long after official graduations, many students remain enormously grateful to the gifted educators who opened up possibilities of inquiry and appreciation that they might otherwise have never discovered—teachers who have also recognized that the right time is now to get out of the way. It’s not just that teachers know subjects that the student aspires to understand; it’s also that through their own advanced studies they have developed habits of paying attention, habits of analysis and openness that students want for themselves.

Teachers point students toward experiences and realities that become available through collaborative exploration. Beware of those who are afraid of that exploration; stand up against those who fear fluidity, who ban books, and who are frightened by free expression and creative transformation.

Practicing education is like practicing democracy—both are collaborative, experimental paths of improvement. Through these practices we find a new home—one that is both intellectual and affective. Some of you who graduate today will have felt the power of this already; some will feel it years from now. This graduate, Class of 1978, feels it still.

Over these four years, I have learned from many of you in my classes, in student government, and even in demonstrations. In your courageous company, I am encouraged to believe that we may be able to reject the cynical status quo that mobilizes rage; that we may be able to build a politics and a culture of compassionate solidarity rather than one of fear and divisiveness. As I say each year, we Wesleyans have used our education for the “good of the world,” we have used it to be changemakers lest the future be shaped by those for whom justice and change, generosity and equality, diversity and tolerance, are too threatening. We know that you will find new ways to make connections across cultural borders—new ways to build community. When this happens, you will feel the power and the promise of your education. And we, your Wesleyan family, we will be proud of how you keep education alive by making it effective in the world.

It’s been four years since you unloaded cars with us when you got to campus. It seems like such a short time ago. As you prepare to depart, please remember that no matter how far your journeys take you, you will always have a home at the base of Foss Hill. Wherever your exciting pursuits lead you, please come back to alma mater often to share your news, your memories, and your dreams. Thank you and good luck!