Author Interviews
3:52 pm
Sun August 3, 2014

Amid Rising College Costs, A Defense Of The Liberal Arts

Originally published on Mon August 4, 2014 6:18 am

The price of a college education is soaring in America; so is the amount of student loan debt. President Obama has proposed regulations that would cap student loan payments at 10 percent of a graduate's income, and according to the latest Labor Department data, about a third of recent college graduates are either underemployed or jobless.

Given those numbers, some are wondering: Is the price of college worth it? And in an economy that places a premium on high-tech skills, is a liberal arts education even relevant?

Wesleyan University President Michael Roth argues that a liberal arts education is more important than ever. He makes that case in his new book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. He tells NPR's Eric Westervelt that the debate over the value of higher education is hardly a new one.


Interview Highlights

On the long debate over liberal arts education in America

This tension between the useful and the wide-ranging, that tension goes all the way back to the founding of this country — because even though Jefferson and Emerson, let's say, were very much in favor of a wide-ranging and broad education, they also thought the proof was in the pudding. You had to be able to do something with it, and Jefferson talked about the useful arts. He thought you're going to be less useful or less pragmatic if you narrowed yourself too early.

On whether higher education is necessary for success

There are people who just think, "Some of us just don't need a lot of education. Most people need something more specialized because the economy has shifted." ... Throughout American history people have said, "Yes, it's because the economy has shifted." They said that in 1918, they said that in 1948, and now they're saying it again.

Today the shifts in the economy mean technological change will only produce accelerated pace of innovation, of changing relations to audiences. A broad, wide-ranging education is the best way to be able to shape that change rather than just be victimized by it.

On the history of anti-elitism in America

It's an important critique because if left to our own devices, we academics might become more and more out of touch with what the society really needs. That tradition of criticizing elitists, criticizing the kind of snobbery that often goes with elite education, that's I think a very healthy American tradition for good, democratic reasons.

On the cost of paying for college

Higher education in the United States has traditionally functioned as a vehicle for social mobility. And as costs have escalated and financial aid has not kept up with those costs, elite education has become a way of cementing privilege rather than opening up elite [education] to more voices and more talents.

On his experience teaching a massive open online course, or MOOC

I think that the MOOCs are a great experiment in bringing educational practices to a wide variety of audiences. And I think it's incumbent upon those of us who are in education to try new modes of teaching that would maintain a high level of engagement but might reduce cost and might expand the number of people who benefit from what we have to offer.

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Transcript

ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

The price of a college education in America is soaring student loan debt is as well - and about a third of recent college graduates are either underemployed or jobless. Many are asking, is the price of a college education worth it? Is a liberal arts education still relevant? Are universities preparing students for today's high-tech cloud and mobile-first economy? Wesleyan University president, Michael Roth, is the author of the new book "Beyond The University: Why Liberal Education Matters." He says that debate over vocational versus a wider education was raging even back in Thomas Jefferson's day.

MICHAEL ROTH: This tension, between the useful and the wide-ranging, that tension goes all the back to the founding of this country. Because even though Jefferson and Emerson, let's say, were very much in favor of a wide ranging and broad education they also thought the proof was in the pudding - that is you had to be able to do something with it and Jefferson talked about the useful arts. And he just thought you were going to be less useful or less pragmatic if you narrowed yourself too early.

WESTERVELT: But some young men and women today will look at the modern economy and say look, some of the most successful businessmen out there Bill Gates and late Steve Jobs, you know, they didn't graduate from college. They made it happen on their own.

ROTH: Yes and there are people who win the lottery and they don't have to go to college either. And there are people who just think, you know, some of us don't really need a lot of education. Most people today need something more specialized because the economy has shifted. Eric, throughout American history history people have said yes, it's because the economy has shifted. They said that in 1918 they said that in 1948. And now they're saying in again. Today, the shifts in the economy mean that technological change will only produce accelerated pace of innovation of changing relations to audiences. A broad wide-ranging education is the best way to be able to shape that change rather than just be victim by it.

WESTERVELT: Anti-intellectualism is an enduring tradition in America but so is Ben Franklin's critique of the Ivy League. I mean he called Harvard students, you know, rich and lazy - in his words blockheads. He wrote that Harvard students quote, "learn little more than how to can carry themselves handsomely and enter a room genteelly. Part of that critique of a liberal art education is still with us today, no?

ROTH: Absolutely, and it's an important critique because if left to our own devices we academics might, you know, become more and more out of touch with what society really needs. You know, that tradition of criticizing elitists, criticizing the kind of snobbery that sometimes goes with elite education that's I think of very healthy American tradition for good Democratic reasons.

WESTERVELT: Your book is not about the cost or really the impact of a college education today but cost and efficacy are issues. In a recent skating article in the "New Republic" William Deresiewicz writes the U.S. system of elite higher ed. is quote, "exacerbating in equality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite isolated from the society it's supposed to lead." Does he have a point?

ROTH: He has a very good. Higher education in the United States has traditionally functioned as a vehicle for social mobility and as costs have escalated and financial aid has not kept up with those costs elite education has become a way of cementing privilege other than opening up elite to more voices more talents.

WESTERVELT: And you stay active in the classroom teaching I mean you teach both the classroom and in massive, open online course, or a MOOC at Wesleyan. Why not tapping into MOOC more to help people get some of the same knowledge at a lower price? Why role do these MOOC's play in higher education today? In your view?

ROTH: I've found the teaching of these massive open online classes an extraordinarily powerful to experience as a teacher. I've gotten to know many students online. It's not the same thing as giving a seminar - far from it fact. Many of my students in the MOOC's say well, can I come to Wesleyan and have this education in a much more purified, if you will, or distilled form? But I think that the MOOC's are great experiment in bringing educational practices to a wide variety of audiences. And I think it's just incumbent upon those of us who are in education to try new modes of teaching that would maintain a high level of engagement but might reduce cost and might expand the number of people who benefit from what we have to offer.

WESTERVELT: Michael Roth is the president of Wesleyan University and the author of "Beyond The University: Why Liberal Education Matters." Mr. Roth, thanks a lot for talking with us.

ROTH: Thank you very much, Eric. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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