Wes President’s NYT Op-ed Hypocritical?
Wesleyan’s President Michael Roth contributed an op-ed to the NYT’s September 5th Opinion section titled ‘Learning As Freedom’. Roth appears to take the Council on Foreign Relations to task for a report that refers to students as “human capital” and expresses conclusions about the public education system that largely resemble those of the early 20th century movement that resulted in the Smith-Hughes Act.
The Smith-Hughes Act funded vocational learning in public schools, leading to what Roth calls a “dual system of teaching” in which students are sorted, and restricted, to either an academic or vocational career track. Ultimately, Roth sides with an historically prominent critic of this educational philosophy–John Dewey:
“Who wants to attend school to learn to be ‘human capital’? Who aspires for their children to become economic or military resources?” Roth pointedly asks the Council on Foreign Relations.
He applies Dewey’s concern that the dual track system perpetuated pre-existing achievement gaps in society as an argument for the liberal arts ideal:
“The inclination to learn from life can be taught in a liberal arts curriculum, but also in schools that focus on real-world skills, from engineering to nursing. The key is to develop habits of mind that allow students to keep learning, even as they acquire skills to get things done. This combination will serve students as individuals, family members and citizens — not just as employees and managers.”
Taking to Wesleying to voice a response, wieb$ questions the sincerity of Roth’s concern. In particular, the writer highlights the third component to Roth’s proposal to eliminate need-blind admissions at Wesleyan as contradictory to the same ideals Roth espouses in his article.
The original text of Roth’s proposal reads:
The third component is to emphasize a three-year option for those families seeking a Wesleyan experience in a more economical form. We will help those students who choose to graduate in six semesters get the most out of their time on campus. The three-year option isn’t for everyone, but for those students who are prepared to develop their majors a little sooner, shorten their vacations by participating in our intensive Summer Sessions, and take advantage of the wealth of opportunities on campus, this more economical BA might be of genuine interest. Allowing for some summer expenses, families would still save about 20% from the total bill for an undergraduate degree.
wieb$ argues that by encouraging an alternative (three year) path to their degree, Roth is already sorting low-income students in the same way his article decries:
“The effective consequence of foreshortening a college education is, necessarily, to circumscribe the opportunities for learning outside one’s chosen field, to direct students along vocational paths that lack an appreciation for the life of the mind which he sets as a core value for an undergraduate education.”
As a Bowdoin student watching the protest to Roth’s proposed changes unfold (literally), I’d like to add another dimension to the argument. Roth name-drops Peter Wood as a conservative scholar who asks, “why people destined for low-paying jobs should bother to pursue their education beyond high school.”
Peter Wood is the President of the National Association of Scholars, the same group hired to investigate Bowdoin’s curriculum for liberal bias (a study that he took to The Bowdoin Orient to defend). His writing does seem to favor a multi-track educational model:
“We academics value the life of the mind. But the truth is that our blessing is a bane for many students. Obama’s assumption that only lack of opportunity and excessive expense stand in the way of college for everyone misses a simple reality: lots of Americans hate school or barely tolerate it, and for many a high-school diploma represents the limit of their academic ability and interest.”
The problems that he has with higher education don’t seem like problems to me:
“Two of the tent posts of the liberal orthodoxy in higher education are that college education is, in some form or another, good for everybody, and that people today face an existential threat from climate change which can best be met (or perhaps can only be met) by drastic changes in our carbon-based economy.”
But then again, I’m liberal.
From the perspective of a Bowdoin student familiar with at least one of the conservative scholars Roth mentions, I would like to emphasize that attacks on the liberal arts model that we know and love are very real–and they are not apolitical (see ‘Rick Santorum is Right’ by Peter Woods).
The best defense that schools in the ‘Cac have against critics of the liberal arts is to show that we are serious about education as more than “human capital” for willing students of any financial background, and to continue to reach out and encourage students who would otherwise default to a career oriented track. We must give these students the opportunity to consider us as a viable path for their continued learning–not discourage them with misguided financial solutions.
Citizens should be learners more than workers, Roth seems to say–but his proposed budget changes would sort them otherwise.