Sanctimony: Roth on Dewey and Higher Education

Given the rate at which the stacks of New York Times seem to be disappearing these days, Roth’s opinion piece yesterday might be old news to many of you. For those who didn’t spot it, our esteemed/reviled/misunderstood president (I know Wesleyan students are students of diverse opinions) offered some choice words about the state of education in this country today, while simultaneously sidestepping the debates about access and affordability that continue to rage at Wesleyan (chiefly with regards to need-blind admissions).

Our Dear Leader frames his argument for an expansive, diversified system of higher education around the words and ideas of the nineteenth-century philosopher John Dewey, emphasizing the primary responsibility of schools as “[teaching] us habits of learning” and “[cultivating] freedom within society.” He ends with an assertive appeal that “higher education’s highest purpose is to give all citizens the opportunity to find ‘large and human significance’ [quoting Dewey] in their lives and work.”

The piece itself is right on the mark. However, it seems wildly disingenuous coming from a university president currently embroiled in a fight to cut accessibility and distill the romances and freedoms of a liberal arts education (which he lauds) into a nose-to-the-grindstone three-year degree program—despite how Roth might view the latter himself. His critique rests without a single mention of his own restrictive proposals.

Decrying a “narrow, instrumentalist perspective [where] students are consumers buying a customized playlist of knowledge,” he fails to recognize that a three-year degree ensures precisely that. The effective consequence of foreshortening a college education is, necessarily, to circumscribe the opportunities for learning outside one’s chosen field, to direct students along vocational paths that lack an appreciation for the life of the mind which he sets as a core value for an undergraduate education. Indeed, in proposing such a path as an alternative for low-income families, he offers as a remedy that which his article bemoans: namely, a “more narrowly tailored education—especially for Americans with limited economic prospects.”

Roth rails against such a “dual-track system” as a barrier to economic mobility, a measure that could only “reinforce […] inequalities.” Yet the character of his own cost-saving initiatives readily abandons his stated concern for equality in education. As Benny Docter ’14 and Leonid Liu ’14 so aptly note,

A need-aware admissions policy sends an inherently unfriendly message to applicants: you may be a great applicant, but we won’t accept you into our community because your family can’t pay enough. Or, you may be a great applicant, but the deciding factor in accepting you is your money.

So, too, does Roth’s spirited defense of “Dewey’s insight that learning in the process of living is the deepest form of freedom” directly contradict the greater socioeconomic homogeneity that a need-aware policy promises. Quoting, again, from Docter and Liu,

We learn as much from each other as we do from our professors, so the makeup of our school is crucial to the Wesleyan experience. Excluding people from our community based on their ability to pay reduces the scope of our intellectual growth in ways that cheapen the Wesleyan experience.

In striving after the “large and human significance” of your own lives this upcoming school year, I urge you to reflect on the impact Roth’s proposed changes will have on the Wesleyan you know and love, and understand, in the words of Dewey, your “education [as] a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness.” You just might find the need to act.

[New York Times]

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