Episode 102: Michael Roth, President of Wesleyan University

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In this episode of the Meet Education Project, I talk to Michael Roth, the President of Wesleyan University. We talk about the discussion that’s happening nationally that’s questioning the value of higher education, specifically liberal arts education.

In his book Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, Michael presents an argument for liberal education and why it’s so important. We also talk about workforce skills and the value of a degree, and also the value of non-cognitive learning and lifelong learning.

Guest Bio:

Michael Roth, President of Wesleyan UniversityMichael S. Roth became the 16th president of Wesleyan University on July 1, 2007. Formerly president of California College of the Arts, Roth is known as a historian, curator and author.

A native of Brooklyn and in the first generation of his family to attend college, Roth entered Wesleyan in the fall of 1975. He designed a university major in “history of psychological theory” and wrote a thesis titled Freud and Revolution, which began the exploration that would become his first book and the basis of the Library of Congress exhibition. He completed his undergraduate studies in three years, graduating with University Honors, summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and went on to earn his doctorate in history at Princeton University in 1984.

A professor in history and the humanities since 1983, Roth was the founding director of the Scripps College Humanities Institute in Claremont, Calif., a center for intellectual exchange across disciplines. He developed a reputation as a leader in the arts community through his accomplishments as associate director of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles and his success as President of the California College of the Arts in enhancing that institution’s academic quality, national reputation and financial strength.

Since becoming president of Wesleyan, Roth has undertaken a number of initiatives that have energized the curriculum and helped to make a Wesleyan education more affordable.

(Source: http://www.wesleyan.edu/president/biography/)

Show Notes:

(01:54) Michael’s background

(08:08) Your book Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters comes at a critical time when we’re talking about progressive education. There’s a strong debate reaching critical mass right now where people are questioning the value of traditional education, how well it prepares us for “workforce skills.” Why do you think this conversation becomes so important and what is your response to the challenge on the value of liberal education?


What’s different now is what you have people who have had a pretty good education calling for a narrowing of the educational funnel and an increase in specialized training at the expense of broad, contextual learning.


These kinds of debates in American history seem to recur at times of significant economic anxiety… The current mania for vocational education comes because of the technophilia or technological change seen as the engine of economic growth.


In today’s world learning just a very specific skill means that you will soon be obsolete because those skills will be replaced quite quickly because of technological change. So I think what students really need is a broad contextual learning so as to create habits of mind that leads to inquiry and the ability to seek and create opportunity. So the folks who are most likely to find productive and meaningful work in this economy I think are people who have access to a broad, contextual education.

(14:22) I think sometimes people have trouble quantifying what the value… when they don’t experience a liberal education they have trouble quantifying it. In a time of constant change, to me, it becomes dangerous to just focus on skills when you can focus on inquiry and lifelong learning, and then dig deeper into specific skills.

(16:14) Do you think there’s a place for liberal education and this more specific education? Should there be different brands in the marketplace that do different jobs, like one’s liberal education, the other… Or do you believe that all kids who are trying to learn should have this inquiry-based strategy?


That wholistic approach allows you to not just repeat what you’ve just been told but to build on it and perhaps go beyond it.

(20:40) How do we perpetuate this open inquiry into elementary and secondary education? How do we get kids to identify and target opportunities where they continue their learning?

(25:40) Is there a book that’s most impacted you, and why?

Fin-De-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture by Carl Schorske

(26:50) If you could have dinner with one person you admire, past or present, who would it be and why?

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel


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