From Jefferson to Rorty

Beyond the Universityby Michael S. Roth

Yale University Press. 241p $25

My colleague from up the road, Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University, has written 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.

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The subtitle of the book names the concern: “Why liberal education matters,” and the criticism, as everyone knows, is that liberal education does not prepare students for the real world when what is wanted is targeted undergraduate vocational instruction that will get students jobs.

The best thing about this book is that it poses the question in a distinctively American context and so is able to explain how Americans in particular think about liberal education. Roth begins his discussion with the Founding Fathers: Jefferson, Adams and Franklin. Here it is Jefferson who sets the terms of the case for liberal education in America: Liberal education trains men (deliberate choice of word here; and free, white men at that) for the independence of judgment that is essential for responsible participation in political and civic life. So from the very beginning, liberal education in the American context came to be closely identified with the autonomy and individual freedom that Americans believed to be a precondition for responsible political life. Roth acknowledges another tradition of liberal education with which graduates of Catholic universities would be familiar: the rhetorical tradition, based on the liberal arts as first articulated in medieval universities and renewed in the Renaissance to include the appropriation of the great works of the classical past. This tradition, of which Jesuits were probably the greatest practitioners, sought to introduce students to a common culture and was thought to have a formational purpose: forming men of virtue who would be good Christians and good citizens.

But, although this rhetorical tradition initially found purchase in the colonial colleges and persisted in some places (Princeton, for example) well into the 19th century, it was overtaken by the distinctively American view of Jefferson and those who followed him, and by the rise of research universities at the end of the 19th century. So the rhetorical tradition of liberal education does not, appropriately, find a place in the story Roth is telling, existing as it did only in the backwaters and ghettos of American higher education. It is interesting, though, that at the very end of the book, Roth returns to some of the purposes of the rhetorical tradition—cultural understanding and value formation—to make up for the principal defect to which the dominant tradition has brought us: the kind of “critical thinking” that only debunks and is incapable of finding or making meaning.

In addition to Jefferson, the heroes in the articulation of an American vision of liberal education are Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James; especially John Dewey and, in our own day, Richard Rorty. Other voices are brought into the discussion and make important contributions: Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Dubois and Jane Adams. Emerson gave content to Jefferson’s autonomy through his emphasis on the cultivation of the individual—and of interiority—certainly of self-assurance or, as Emerson termed it, self-reliance. Conformity and an unquestioning acceptance of the goals society set for you were the enemies of the personal transformation that was the end of education, so what Emerson called “aversive thinking” had to have its place in true liberal education. Pragmatism was the appropriate response to the claim that liberal education was too individualistic, and John Dewey is key here with a vision of education that is social experiential as well as dynamic: a “practical idealism” that sought transformation, but in ways that would affect social realities.

Pragmatism as the dominant school of American philosophy declined rapidly after World War II in the face of logical positivism and analytic philosophy, but Roth contends that this was at the cost of any sense of the relevance of philosophy and hence of liberal education for real world problems in the wider culture. Richard Rorty and others helped revive philosophy as enquiry into critical (social) issues and so brought liberal education back to the place where it influenced political and civic life.

Liberal education as conceived and practiced in most universities today has, however, for better but mostly for worse, been reduced to “critical thinking,” the post-modern hermeneutics of suspicion that encourages and rewards the unmasking of error and the demonstration of “privileged” points of view in anything that looks like a truth claim. This brings Roth to the place where he must in effect plead for a greater cultural sensitivity in an approach to liberal education: the need to “absorb ourselves in great works of literature, art and science,” and the need for moral engagement: “a way of tuning the heart and spirit so as to hear the possibilities of various forms of life in which we might actively participate.”

These are noble goals, coming from the leader of one of the preeminent liberal arts colleges in our country. Obviously, he and his institution do not operate out of the context that grounds liberal education in institutions where the older, rhetorical tradition still functions (albeit with its own issues!). Still, it is good to see these questions being raised at a place like Wesleyan.

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