Defending A Liberal Arts Education Amid Rising College Costs - Editorial

As we charge headlong into August, many people’s thoughts now turn back to school. That first bell is just a few weeks away. And for families who have students in between their junior and senior years of high school, school has possibly been on their minds all summer long. That’s because this is the summer they have been researching, visiting, and even interviewing at colleges.

Among the many questions swirling in these people’s minds is sure to be how they are going to pay for higher education.

The price of higher education is soaring here in America and so is the amount of student loan debt. It is frightening.

President Obama has tried to take steps to enact regulations that would place a cap on student loan payments at 10 percent of a graduate’s income, but according to the latest information from the Labor Department, nearly a third of recent college grads are either underemployed or jobless.

It’s no wonder why some are questioning if the price of college is worth it. And in an economy that places a high premium on high-tech skills, one must wonder if a liberal arts education is even relevant anymore.

National Public Radio aired a segment this week in which Wesleyan University president Michael Roth argued 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 spoke with NPR reporter Eric Westervelt about the issue and said that the debate over the value of higher education is hardly a new one.

Here is a transcript of that report, courtesy of National Public Radio:

NPR: 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 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—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.

NPR: 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 the 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 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 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 [victimized] by it.

NPR: 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 carry themselves handsomely and enter a room genteelly.” Part of that critique of a liberal arts 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, a very healthy American tradition for good Democratic reasons.

NPR: 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 US 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 point. 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 to more voices, more talents.

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

ROTH: I’ve found the teaching of these massive open online classes an extraordinarily powerful 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 in fact. Many of my students in the MOOCs 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 MOOCs are a 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.

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