Liberal Education in Tough Times

"College Choice" day has just passed, and many high school seniors are now anticipating the beginning of their undergraduate careers. Meanwhile, on campuses across the country thousands of undergraduates are preparing for the end of the semester, and almost everybody in college is wondering how they are going to translate what they are learning at school into what they will do after graduation.

Being open to discovering new possibilities has been a hallmark of American education for a very long time. When the generation that founded this country was considering higher education, many believed, like Thomas Jefferson, that it was crucial that students not think they already knew at the beginning of their studies where they would end up when it was time for graduation. For all those who have followed in this American path of liberal education, learning was all about exploration - inquiry was most productive if one was open to unexpected possibilities. That's why W.E.B. Du Bois argued that a broad education was a form of empowerment that must be accessible to those disenfranchised by the economy or by legacies of discrimination. That's why Jane Addams insisted that a liberal education worthy of the name enables you to connect with others, helping the most vulnerable while also learning from them.

In today's climate of renewed economic anxiety, many are prompted to jettison this tradition of pragmatic liberal education. In search of short cuts to vocational success, they undermine students' ability to respond to changes in the economy by preparing them only for what is valued right now. This is a terrible mistake. Instead, we must cultivate our tradition of pragmatic liberal education not only because it has served us so well for so long, or because it will make people "well-rounded." We must cultivate a broad, inquiry-based education because it can revitalize our economy, lead to an engaged citizenry and create a culture characterized by connectivity and creativity.

I am more convinced than ever that what is really needed today is the kind of pragmatic liberal education John Dewey called for a century ago: one that must never be reduced to short-term training, but instead should empower graduates to be productive while also being engaged citizens. Sure, by narrowly preparing themselves for 21st-century jobs, broadly educated graduates can reduce fears about life after college. But as empowered citizens, they can also work to transform an economy and polity now hell-bent on reproducing privilege and poverty.

We need liberal education in these tough times.

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent book is Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (Yale University Press, 2015).