former scripps professor speaks for liberal education

By Kandace Fung (CMC) ‘19
Staff Writer

Former Scripps professor, past president of the California College of the Arts, curator, historian, author, associate director for the Getty Research Institute, and now president of Wesleyan University since 2007, Michael S. Roth spoke for liberal education in his Athenaeum talk at Claremont McKenna College. On the evening of Thursday, February 11, in a room packed with faculty and students, Roth expanded on the four core points of liberal education: liberation, animation, cooperation, and instigation.

Discussing the value “liberation,” Roth traveled back to Thomas Jefferson, an Enlightenment thinker who believed that without education, the freedom the Americans fought hard to secure would crumble and become meaningless—for how can one have freedom if one cannot think for himself? Education is supposed to open up possibilities, and to catalyze students to challenge their own dogmas and beliefs. Roth jokingly added that education “doesn’t look like Harvard,” because people used to attend Harvard to learn the ways of becoming a minister.

Roth believes that one should start one’s educational journey not knowing what path they will end up on; one should not start the quest for education already knowing where they want to go. Roth then brought up another important historical figure, giving a short story about Frederick Douglas when he was a slave. The mistress of the house he served taught Douglas to read while the master was away, and when the master discovered this when he came back, he raged “Education will make [them] unfit for slavery!” Education will liberate.

After explaining liberation, Roth dissected the next aspect of a liberal education: animation. He began by quoting the words of Emerson: “the task of education is to animate, so that you can animate the world.” Roth elaborated on this quote, stating that education should be more than just drilling facts and rote memorization—rather, we should be educated to make the world come alive. Liberal education opens up the opportunities for students to meet people who were otherwise “off-limits” -- people we would otherwise never meet in our life. Many people from around the world with various interests come together in a liberal arts education to explore themselves and other paths. Students are put in a university environment, where they can listen to music they would have never listened to or heard of before, take classes outside of their majors just for fun, and, through this, become animated to break the rote part of life and what was expected of them. The liberal education will animate our lives and bring us out of the hum-drum norms in life.

To begin talking about the third value of liberal education, cooperation, Roth shared a story about Jane Addams, who wanted to go to a university. However, because of her father’s refusal to send her, she went to a convent school instead. Addams proved her worth to her father by becoming a campus leader, getting straight A’s, and writing for the convent school’s newspaper. But after graduating, her father still refused to send her to university, and he died shortly afterwards. Obeying her father’s last wishes, she Addams did not go to a university, and instead traveled with her companions. Then one day in London, she saw a man trampled by a horse and carriage, and the realization struck her that “I have lumbered my mind with literature. I have studied so damn much that I can’t think in a way that allows me to act.” She realized that her “quest for knowledge will soon handicap her to act.” When she returned home, she began to learn by working in community, aiding immigrants and the less fortunate in partnership. She realized that “she had been trapped from learning to free herself through her mind”; she wanted to “create conditions in which people free themselves together through practice - through action.” She believed that in school, students shouldn’t delve deeper into their subject, but look up from it to see another fellow’s perspective. Addams believed that “we needed to overcome a blindness”--people become more and more blind as they narrow themselves to only one field, dismissing and ignoring things outside of their fields-- and worked to fix this dilemma.

Similarly, explained Roth, while schools push students to become independent and to get things done by themselves, John Dewey thought that this push was “narcissism at best” and “sick isolationism at worst”. He urged that people should “learn to do things in concert with one another”, because it would lead to obtaining values that would “allow us to put what we are learning into service.” Applying Addam’s story and Dewey’s pragmatic view, Roth promoted the idea that we do not learn from a professor, but learn as a group. Liberal education calls for cooperation and learning together, from each other.

Roth ended his talk by explaining the concept of instigation, something he believes should happen from a liberal arts education. When students go to college, they reject the very terms of their education: that they should start education not knowing where they’ll end up. Roth explains that student protest serves as evidence that the education provided is effectively working. There should be an instigation for change. The country will only thrive and overcome challenges with the instigation stimulated by liberal education.

For more information about Michael S. Roth, visit