Synopses & Reviews
Contentious debates over the benefits—or drawbacks—of a liberal education are as old as America itself. From Benjamin Franklin to the Internet pundits, critics of higher education have attacked its irrelevance and elitism—often calling for more vocational instruction. Thomas Jefferson, by contrast, believed that nurturing a student’s capacity for lifelong learning was useful for science and commerce while also being essential for democracy. In this provocative contribution to the disputes, university president Michael S. Roth focuses on important moments and seminal thinkers in America’s long-running argument over vocational vs. liberal education.
Conflicting streams of thought flow through American intellectual history: W. E. B. DuBois’s humanistic principles of pedagogy for newly emancipated slaves developed in opposition to Booker T. Washington’s educational utilitarianism, for example. Jane Addams’s emphasis on the cultivation of empathy and John Dewey’s calls for education as civic engagement were rejected as impractical by those who aimed to train students for particular economic tasks. Roth explores these arguments (and more), considers the state of higher education today, and concludes with a stirring plea for the kind of education that has, since the founding of the nation, cultivated individual freedom, promulgated civic virtue, and instilled hope for the future.
"This timely volume by Wesleyan University president Roth (Memory, Trauma, and History) makes the case for liberal education in America 'broadly based, self-critical and yet pragmatic' learning that encourages independent thinking, empathy, and understanding. For Roth, and the intellectuals he cites Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, W.E.B. DuBois, William James, Jane Addams, John Dewey, Richard Rorty, and others liberal learning make us and our society better; it makes our democracy stronger; it helps people overcome prejudice. It helps us 'navigate in the world.' And even if such study doesn't provide vocational training, it creates 'habits of action' that make us better thinkers and workers, and helps us tackle society's problems. Using intellectual history to support his position that liberal education matters as much as ever, Roth takes the reader on a journey from the 18th century to today, as he explores how liberal education has figured in the growth of the U.S. Those with more than a passing knowledge of the subject may find some of his recounting basic, but both the introduction and the last chapter include Roth's more personal experiences, and his direct, passionate voice is moving and persuasive. (May)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Illuminating...Between pragmatism and idealism, the author strikes a moderate, balanced approach."—Kirkus Reviews
"An elegant and informative survey of the work of important thinkers."—Inside Higher Ed
“[An] economical and nearly jargon-free historical account of liberal education in America.”—Washington Post
"An accessible, useful, intelligent book on a topic that concerns many of us in higher education and about which there has been much discussion of late."—Jeffrey Von Arx, America
An eloquent defense of liberal education, seen against the backdrop of its contested history in America
About the Author
Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. A professor in history and the humanities, he teaches at Wesleyan and reaches many thousands more through his open online Coursera course, The Modern and the Post-Modern.