Online courses and crushing student debt are contemporary phenomena, but the arguments they inspire are often variations on older debates. Attacking and defending a liberal-arts education is an old American tradition, one that dates back to Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. In a new book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan, traces the history of these debates in American culture. We spoke recently about how history can clarify contemporary questions about the future of higher education in America.
If you could drop Thomas Jefferson into today’s educational landscape, what would he think about rising student loan costs and an increasingly vocational approach to higher education?
Jefferson would be appalled by the retreat from public responsibility for higher education. He tried to pass taxes to support people without money receiving an education, and he failed. At the same time, he would probably say it’s predictable. This is how wealthy people protect their advantages: by limiting access to higher education to their own children. This creates what Jefferson called an “unnatural aristocracy,” people who have unearned privileges. He would think it’s very sad that people are going into debt to finance educational exploration. He would worry about the possibility that talented people without financial means would be left out of higher education. In terms of a vocational approach, Jefferson was a great believer in studying things that didn’t seem to be immediately profitable.
Ben Franklin criticized the elitism of higher education. He described Harvard as a finishing school where the rich learn obsolete skills and knowledge. What do you think Ben Franklin would make of the current debates about higher education?
Franklin probably would have had more sympathy for the anti-college groups today saying, “You don’t need colleges. Go off and learn stuff on your own. You want to be a programmer; you can do that on your own. You want to start a company, you can do that in all these other ways.” Someone with a lot of smarts and chutzpah who goes off and educates himself in his own way—Franklin would admire that. But he was also someone who found narrowness appalling. Someone like Peter Thiel, who is asking kids to leave college for a hundred thousand dollar fellowship, is encouraging them to become ever more narrow, so that they can develop an app to order pizza more quickly or access pornography more easily. All this talent driven into narrower and narrower spheres—Franklin would have found it depressing. Increasing specialization makes us less capable citizens and less able to adjust to changes in the marketplace. Many studies show students choose schools based on their selectivity, the prestige factor. And the vanity of prestige, just wanting to be better than someone else, he hated that.
MAY 9 2014, 7:53 AM ET
It doesn’t matter what you study—it matters how you study it, says Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan and author of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.