Michael Roth’s new book may finally answer a question I have often asked myself: Why do the leaders of our nation’s liberal arts colleges find it so difficult to define liberal education clearly and so challenging to communicate its benefits?

After reading Roth’s economical and nearly jargon-free historical account of liberal education in America, I think the answer may be this: There are many distinct threads of liberal education in America that have been woven and rewoven over time in many different ways. As a result, nearly every college now existing can legitimately lay claim to a distinctive sort of liberal education. Generic descriptions simply cannot convey the variegated vitality of liberal education as it is lived on our many college campuses.

By presenting his argument historically, Roth, president of Wesleyan University, maintains a judicious distance from his subject and avoids the trap — all too enticing for a zealous advocate — of delivering a passionate apologia for a broad generalization. Instead, he gives us a substantial and lively discussion that allows the reader to maintain an open mind while examining the strengths and weaknesses of the several threads, each in its own turn.

The book’s supporting framework, which Roth borrows from the education scholar Bruce Kimball, is the idea that two distinct traditions of liberal education have “uneasily co-existed” in America. The first is a philosophical tradition emphasizing preparation for inquiry; its aim is freeing the mind to investigate the truth about things physical, intellectual and spiritual. The second is a rhetorical tradition emphasizing initiation into a common culture through the study of canonical works; its aim is learning to participate in the culture, to appreciate its monuments and to create new monuments inspired by the old. Roth characterizes the philosophical thread as “skeptical” and the rhetorical thread as “reverential.”

The central argument is that liberal education is some combination of these two traditions that aims at serving the needs of the “whole person.” Both traditions are necessary for raising free and autonomous individuals who must also participate with others in society. It is next to impossible to attain independence alone, precious little can be learned without a common culture and the society of others, and it is the special task of education to offer the tools required to understand both oneself and the world in which one lives.

‘Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters’ by Michael S. Roth (Yale Univ.)

Roth fills out the two-part framework with a third thread that enters the tapestry as an explicit critique of the two main traditions — namely, a utilitarian strand insisting that higher education must generate useful knowledge that can benefit society, or can increase the student’s financial and social status, or can advance business and economic interests.

With this as background, Roth presents the ideas of prominent Americans who have shaped educational thought in this country — ideas that have gone on, because of America’s unprecedented success and power, to influence education throughout the world. It is the personal engagement with these influential individuals that provides the book’s animating element.

For Thomas Jefferson, education was the guardian of freedom. Cultivation of the capacity for independent judgment was necessary to inspire and defend a fledgling democracy devoted to the pursuit of happiness. Jefferson admired knowledge for its own sake but insisted that it also be useful to human progress. In this, he agreed with Benjamin Franklin, and each of them founded institutions — the Universities of Virginia and Pennsylvania — expressly dedicated to practical knowledge.

For Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose thought was at the extreme end of the philosophical tradition, education demanded cultivation of the self, resistance to the crowd and striving to transform society.

For Booker T. Washington, education was a means to economic inclusion that might eventually lead to higher pursuits. For W.E.B. Du Bois, higher education was much more than preparation for economic inclusion: It provided access to aspects of life that can’t be attained merely by getting a good job. Along with these higher things comes the responsibility to help others attain their own freedom.

Jane Addams and William James thought autonomy should be tempered with mutual support and responsibility. She sought an education that would cultivate empathy and cooperation. He stressed the study of literature in developing imagination, which can help overcome blindness to others’ points of view.

In his last chapter, Roth assesses the current state of higher education, which on the whole overstresses autonomy and economic advancement. In John Dewey, Richard Rorty and Martha Nussbaum he finds support for a new notion of utility in the academy: Higher education must reach out “beyond the university” and show itself to be what it is in its highest form — namely, cultivation of the whole person for the whole of life. Now more than ever, we need both reflective and pragmatic liberal education if we are to shape accelerating change rather than be shaped by it.

“Beyond the University” is a lucid, helpful and accessible account of the current challenges to higher education. My only slight reservation comes from my conviction that liberal education at its best cannot be entirely circumscribed by the philosophical and rhetorical traditions. It rises above them, transcends their oppositions and removes the tension between them. Education serves a unitary soul motivated by love of learning and aware that it lacks something it needs to reach its highest desires. In the end, liberal education must take its bearings from the most fundamental question of all: What does it mean to be human?

Christopher B. Nelson is president of St. John’s College in Annapolis.


Why Liberal Education Matters

By Michael S. Roth

Yale Univ. 228 pp. $25