Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, Michael Roth

  • Liberate
  • Animate
  • Cooperate
  • Instigate

Michael Roth, author of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters and President of Wesleyan University, used those four terms to summarize historical threads that have combined to justify and shape liberal education.  He explained them in a dynamic and sometimes hilarious keynote at American University's annual teaching day conference last month.  Roth's talk begins at the 57:44 mark of this video segment.

Liberate - as Jefferson and others argued, higher education is a process in which, through inquiry, students should learn who they can become, and what they can do.  This ideal is the opposite of the notion that students should first decide what to do, and then to college in order to become an X as quickly as possible. The latter is something between training and indoctrination, Roth argued, not a liberal (liberating) education.

Animate - As Emerson and others asserted, higher education should make elements of the world come alive for for the student while making the student more alive to that world. Things that had seemed dull, stupid or inscrutable can become marvelous, intimate, and awesome to a more educated human. 

Cooperate - American pragmatists argued that freedom is empty without cooperation and interdependence.  William James said that education is overcoming your blindness about how the world looks to others, why those others think as they do and feel as they do.  Education should attack the pathologies of individualism, not reinforce them. another thread: Jane Addams wanted an education that would prepare a student to make a better world, not to paralyze and distract them by only being able to finding the faults in the acts of others. Don't sacrifice compassionate understanding on the alter of critical thinking.

Instigate -John Dewey, Richard Rorty,and Emerson saw a goal of liberal education as helping students learn to think against the grain, to question and change what has been accepted as normal or obvious.

This is just one of the reasons why I've recently come to see more clearly that education for the workplace should not define higher ed:  potential student (a) picks a job, (b) picks a course of study, (c) succeeds in that course of study, and (d) gets that job).  Instead much of the hard work of higher education- that part that can take several years of work - is to developing the kinds of capabilities described above - capabilities essential for a respondible job, for becoming a citizen, and for becoming even more true to your self.

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