Michael Roth: American Scholar

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What is college for? With acceptance into America's top schools more competitive than ever and with the cost of a traditional college education — and student debt — climbing to unheard-of heights, no time like the present to ask the question. Students and parents are asking it in record numbers. Educators too.

One of those educators is William Deresiewicz, who in 2008 wrote an essay for The American Scholar, the journal of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, titled “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” That essay, the author claims, has been viewed online more than a million times.

But Deresiewicz wasn’t finished with the question of college. Nor were readers. In August 2014, Free Press published Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, and an excerpt from that book, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” (subhead: “The nation’s top colleges are turning our kids into zombies”), is reported to be the most read article in the hundred-year history of The New Republic.

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Put aside Deresiewicz’s talent for attention-grabbing headlines and heated rhetoric, though. One thing’s clear: “Deresiewicz believes that colleges and universities should restore the liberal arts to the center of the curriculum, with the humanities at the center of the liberal arts,” writes Mount Holyoke professor Christopher Benfey, who provides the above backstory on Deresiewicz in his excellent review of Excellent Sheep in the October 23rd issue of The New York Review of Books — “restore” because in the minds of some, the usefulness of a liberal arts education is being seriously questioned in favor of more pragmatic coursework. The postmortems aren’t hard to find.

“The division between vocational and liberal arts education … is today tilting further and further in favor of the vocational,” writes Joseph Epstein (former editor of The American Scholar) in “The Death of the Liberal Arts,” a 2012 essay originally published as “Who Killed the Liberal Arts?” in The Weekly Standard and included in Epstein’s A Literary Education (published in June by Axios Press). “Even within the liberal arts,” Epstein continues, “more and more students are, in [Columbia professor Andrew] Delbanco’s words, ‘fleeing from “useless” subjects to “marketable” subjects such as economics,’ in the hope that this will lend them the practical credentials and cachets that might impress prospective employers.”

“Useless subjects”? Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, wants students, parents, and educators to think again. As Roth writes in the introduction to his book Beyond the University (published this past May by Yale University Press):

Beyond the University argues that the demand that we replace broad contextual education meant to lead to lifelong learning with targeted vocational undergraduate instruction is a critical mistake, one that neglects a deep American tradition of humanistic education that has been integral to our success as a nation and that has enriched the lives of generations of students by enhancing their capacities for shaping themselves and reinventing the world they will inhabit.”

Roth writes a few pages later, it’s worth quoting in full:

Michael S. Roth
  • Michael S. Roth
“This book steps back from current debates concerning technology and cost to argue that the calls for a more efficient, practical college education are likely to lead to the opposite: men and women who are trained for yesterday’s problems and yesterday’s jobs [emphases added], men and women who have not reflected on their own lives in ways that allow them to tap into their capacities for innovation and for making meaning out of their experience. Throughout American history calls for practicality have really been calls for conformity — for conventional thinking. If we heed them now it will only impoverish our economic, cultural, and personal lives.”

That is just one reason why, according to Roth, liberal education matters, and “Why Liberal Education Matters” — the subtitle of Beyond the University — will be the subject of Roth’s lecture at Rhodes College on October 23rd. It’s a lecture that will serve as keynote to the “Gateways to the Liberal Arts” conference at Rhodes, which runs Thursday through Saturday.

Needless to say, Ralph Waldo Emerson won’t be at that conference. His spirit very likely will be. It was Emerson, Roth reminds us in Beyond the University, who delivered a lecture called “The American Scholar” at Harvard in 1837. (The occasion: Phi Beta Kappa Day.) And it was Emerson who reminded listeners on that day that “[e]ducation teaches one not to follow the crowd but to discover one’s own way: notice everything yet imitate nothing,” Roth writes. “The independent, educated person is able to ‘resist the vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever to barbarism.’”

“Vulgar prosperity”? Emerson got that right. You read today of unapologetic displays by (and the political influence of) the rich and super-rich. “Barbarism”? Emerson right again. You listen every day to “what passes for discourse in our decidedly uncivil public sphere,” in Roth’s measured assessment.

And it’s a measure of Roth’s skill that he can communicate, despite Beyond the University’s modest length, the whole history of higher education in America — an evolving, often contentious history of intellectual debate as old as the Founding Fathers — in such readable, even entertaining terms.

A liberal arts education: Far from its value in the past, Roth shows it to be especially needed now — inside the classroom and beyond, for the betterment of the individual and for the good of us all. Roth’s closing chapter, “Reshaping Ourselves and Our Societies,” alone should be, as a syllabus might put it, required reading. •

Michael Roth will be lecturing at Rhodes College on Thursday, October 23rd, inside the McCallum Ballroom of the Bryan Campus Life Center at 6 p.m. Reception at 5:30 p.m.; book signing to follow the lecture.

Roth’s talk — free and open to the public — is part of Rhodes’ “Communities in Conversation” series (Facebook.com/Communities.in.Conversation; on Twitter, @Rhodes_CiC). For a discussion of Beyond the University, go to the interview that Jonathan Judaken, the Spence L. Wilson Chair in Humanities at Rhodes, had with Roth on WKNO-FM’s Counterpoint program.

Interested in learning more on the state of the liberal arts? Scott Newstok, associate professor in the English department at Rhodes and past president of the school’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter, has passed along a whole handful of recent links, brought to you by Bookforum.

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