The broad contextual education that Wesleyan and peer institutions offer is frequently critiqued, sometimes excoriated, by those who accuse it of not preparing graduates for success in today’s world. But that accusation, says President Michael S. Roth in his sixth and latest book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (Yale University Press, 2014), is as old as liberal education itself – and never less convincing than now.
A historian whose previous scholarship has focused on making sense of the past, Roth charts the development of pragmatic liberal education through a succession of important American thinkers. Liberal education has deep roots in American culture and society, he says, as does the tension between liberal education and vocational education.
“The commitment to liberal learning that Jefferson described has been attacked for its potential elitism and irrelevance for more than two hundred years,” he writes. Jefferson saw education as both a key preparation for citizenship, essential for the health of the republic, and a means for fighting abuses of wealth and privilege. As the founder of the University of Virginia, he stressed that students would have the freedom there to pursue study that they found meaningful, not prescribed coursework.
“In the last few years,” Roth continues, “commentators (who usually themselves have had a liberal education) have again questioned whether we should encourage so many people to have the opportunity to make this discovery.
“If higher education is conceived only as a job-placement program for positions with which we are already familiar, then liberal learning does not make much sense. But if higher education is to be an intellectual and experiential adventure and not a bureaucratic assignment of skill capacity, if it is to prize free inquiry rather than training for ‘the specific vocations to which [students] are destined,’ then we must resist the call to limit access to it or to diminish its scope.”