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Michael Roth
A historian and frequent commentator on higher education, Michael Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent book is Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, published in the spring of 2014 by Yale University Press. Among his past publications are Psycho-Analysis as History: Negation and Freedom in Freud; The Ironist’s Cage: Memory, Trauma, and the Construction of History and Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living with the Past. In 1998 he curated the international traveling exhibition, Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture for the Library of Congress. He also blogs at

Entries by Michael Roth

Review of "The Girl from Human Street" by Roger Cohen

(0) Comments | Posted January 19, 2015 | 3:07 PM

'Jews learn selectively from the past," writes Roger Cohen, "just like everybody else." But how (and whom) does one select or forget? We build stories from our memories to cope with the ghosts that haunt us or to avoid them. As a distinguished reporter and columnist, Cohen has spent a...

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Worthy of Free Expression

(1) Comments | Posted January 10, 2015 | 2:27 PM

I was in Washington, D.C. this week to give a talk on "why liberal education matters" at American University. Most of the audience had been in conference sessions all morning Friday while I sat glued to the TV watching events unfold in Paris. I'd lived in Paris for a few...

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Making Education Our Cause

(0) Comments | Posted December 23, 2014 | 2:18 PM

In conjunction with the publication of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, I've been having conversations with groups around the country on the future of higher education.

The assault on education has been brutal in many parts of the world -- especially education for girls and...

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Why They Attack Schools

(8) Comments | Posted December 16, 2014 | 10:24 PM

This morning's horrific news came from Pakistan. Taliban militants stormed a school in Peshawar, killing at least 145. Children were gunned down in their classrooms, or as they attempted to flee. Teachers and other staff members were murdered in cold blood.

Several months ago we watched in horror as...

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Attack Ad to Beat All Attack Ads

(0) Comments | Posted October 29, 2014 | 2:40 PM

Those of us in higher education often say that liberal learning includes the preparation for citizenship. It's great to see an example of that preparation grounded in the collaborative work of faculty and students.

The Wesleyan Media Project conducts quantitative and qualitative research to understand more fully the...

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Colleges Don't Need More Tests or More 'Sheep'

(0) Comments | Posted September 19, 2014 | 12:05 PM

You've probably heard the buzz around William Deresiewicz's polemic against the "miseducation of the American elite." In the most widely read article in the history of The New Republic, Deresiewicz lambasted Ivy League schools (and others) for attracting students who will do almost anything to build a résumé...

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Review of "Why Football Matters" by Mark Edmundson

(2) Comments | Posted September 4, 2014 | 5:05 PM

Mark Edmundson is a distinguished professor of English at the University of Virginia, the author of many learned essays and important books. He can talk about Freud and Wittgenstein, Homer and Emerson, and he has eloquently written about the importance of teaching and reading. But as he has reflected on...

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College Must Be More Than Just a Classy Trade School

(25) Comments | Posted August 31, 2014 | 12:01 PM

Yesterday many PBS stations carried this conversation I had on liberal education with Alexander Heffner of Open Mind. Here's a clip.

The following is cross-posted from The Daily Beast.

There is a tradition in this country stretching back to Thomas Jefferson of lofty ideals for our colleges and universities. Liberal learning is said to prepare one for autonomy and for citizenship. As Ralph Waldo Emerson emphasized, it also led one away from the crowd; it helped one escape mere imitation and opened access to authenticity. Finally, education offered the opportunity to discover work that would be meaningful -- to find one's "passion."

But, as I describe in Beyond The University: Why Liberal Education Matters, there is another tradition stretching back just as far questioning the "real world" relevance of these lofty ideals. Is it right to speak of "finding meaningful work" when available work might necessarily involve drudgery and worse? Is it right to emphasize citizenship and finding one's passion to students who first and foremost are desperate to find a job? Such questions, so much on our minds today, were especially urgent for freed African slaves and their descendants at the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1903, Booker T. Washington voiced the following complaint about education for African-Americans:

There were young men educated in foreign tongues, but few in carpentry or in mechanical or architectural drawing. Many were trained in Latin, but few as engineers and blacksmiths. Too many were taken from the farm and educated, but educated in everything but farming.

Washington was a passionate advocate for an intensely practical education for ex-slaves and their descendants. He was born a slave on a small farm in Virginia and after the Civil War found work in the mines of West Virginia. After his education at the Hampton Institute, Washington was convinced that only by achieving economic success would blacks ever be recognized by white Americans as full members of society. Education should make people self-reliant, in Emerson's ideal sense, but for Washington self-reliance was first and foremost the ability to earn a decent living.

Washington's fame was as a teacher, institution builder (especially at the Tuskegee Institute), fundraiser, and spokesperson for the view that American blacks needed an intensely practical, vocational education. He appealed to ex-slaves and their descendants who were looking for a path out of poverty, and he appealed to whites who appreciated his decision not to demand much in the way of political or cultural change. Washington was an "accomodationist," willing to work within the structures for legal subordination of blacks in the South as long as he was able to promote black economic advancement. His message resonated with wealthy industrialists, high-toned educators, and even presidents. He was the most famous black man in America at the end of the 19th century.

Born shortly after the Civil War, W.E.B. Du Bois came into his own just as Washington was reaching the height of his fame. Du Bois was a prodigious intellectual with a slew of degrees--bachelors diplomas from Fisk and Harvard, eventually a Ph.D. also from Harvard (he was the first black person to receive one there) with continued graduate work in Berlin. He was a classics professor and a historian who wrote sociology (highly praised by Max Weber), poetry, plays, and fiction--to name just some of the genres in which he worked.

Washington was impressed by the American desire for material success and wanted to build progress for African Americans based on their ability to be successful in the economy. Du Bois, on the other hand, emphasized political and civic equality, along with the Jeffersonian notion of "education of youth according to ability." Education was at the core of the differences between the two. "The pushing of mere abstract knowledge into the head means little," Washington had written. "We want more than the mere performance of mental gymnastics. Our knowledge must be harnessed to the things of real life." Du Bois agreed, but he wanted to broaden what might count as "the things of real life" so that the pursuit of happiness wouldn't be reduced to the pursuit of dollars:

The function of the university is not simply to teach bread-winning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be a center of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.

Du Bois was acutely aware that the "fine adjustment" between life and knowledge was especially problematic in a society of oppressive racial inequality, a society that had denied many blacks the most rudimentary education in the years after emancipation. He was committed to the ideal that education was a path to freedom, but he also acknowledged the fact that different people need different kinds of educational opportunity:

How foolish to ask what is the best education for one or seven or sixty million souls! Shall we teach them trades, or train them in liberal arts? Neither and both: teach the workers to work and the thinkers to think; make carpenters of carpenters, and philosophers of philosophers, and fops of fools. Nor can we pause here. We are training not isolated men but a living group of men--nay, a group within a group. And the final product of our training must be neither a psychologist nor a brickmason, but a man.

Educational institutions should aim to stimulate hunger for knowledge -- not just contain it or channel it into a narrow path destined for a job market that will quickly change. Education should not teach the person to conform to a function, a repetition of slavery, but should provide people with a wider horizon of choices.

Du Bois repeatedly defended liberal education against those who saw it as impractical. In an address at the Hampton Institute in the beginning of the century, he lamented that "there is an insistence on the practical in a manner and tone that would make Socrates an idiot and Jesus Christ a crank." At one of the centers of industrial learning for blacks, Du Bois argued that its doctrine of education was fundamentally false because it was so seriously limited. What mattered in education was not so much the curriculum on campus but an understanding that the aim of education went far beyond the university. And here is where Du Bois issued his challenge:

The aim of the higher training of the college is the development of power, the training of a self whose balanced assertion will mean as much as possible for the great ends of civilization. The aim of technical training on the other hand is to enable the student to master the present methods of earning a living in some particular way . . . We must give our youth a training designed above all to make them men of power, of thought, of trained and cultivated taste; men who know whither civilization is tending and what it means.

The differences between Washington and Du Bois, and the tensions between the lofty and practical ideals for higher education, are instructive for us today. Sure, we must pay attention to what our graduates will do with their education, and we must give them the skills to translate what they learn in classrooms to their lives after graduation. But we shouldn't reduce our understanding of "their lives after graduation" to their very first job -- which should be the worst job they'll ever have. We must recommit ourselves instead to ensuring that a broad, liberal education is also pragmatic -- in Washington's words, "harnessed to the things in real life," to productive skills valued beyond the university. By doing so, we will also achieve what Du Bois championed: practical idealism based in lifelong...

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Fighting for Full Access to Education for Girls and Women

(4) Comments | Posted July 14, 2014 | 4:32 PM

This week we sadly remember the three-month anniversary of the kidnapping of the schoolgirls from Chibok. The world's attention for these victims of brutal terrorists has underscored that the battle for equality in the developing world is inseparable from the battle for access to education for girls and women. Unfortunately,...

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Declaring Our Independence Through Education

(7) Comments | Posted July 3, 2014 | 2:31 PM

Just tell me one thing. Will my daughter have a job and not be moving back home after she graduates from your university?

That's what a dad asked me at a Wesleyan University information session caught on film for the recent higher-education documentary Ivory Tower. Traditionally, a college degree...

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Review of Adam Phillips, Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst

(2) Comments | Posted June 29, 2014 | 6:37 PM

Reading Adam Phillips' account of Freud's early years, Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst, I was reminded of philosopher of history Hayden White's remarks at Wesleyan University's Commencement this year.

You can change your personal past. You do not have to continue to live with the past provided...

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How to Destroy College Education

(82) Comments | Posted June 23, 2014 | 1:11 PM

It is crucial to support efforts to reduce student indebtedness and increase access to higher education . However, we should beware of those who want to turn this moment of educational reform into a program of vocationalism and tracking as a substitute for liberal education. I recently made the case...

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Commencement Thoughts for Class of 2014

(2) Comments | Posted May 29, 2014 | 5:54 PM

You, the class of 2014, have spent your college years exploring new fields, creating work that pushes boundaries, even setting new records. While you have been creating your own legacy, you've also joined your school's tradition (which means that you can officially start complaining that the new entering class isn't...

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Education, Gender, Kidnapping: Fight for the Right to Learn!

(2) Comments | Posted May 5, 2014 | 7:52 PM

Almost two weeks ago Gordon Brown wrote: "The world must wake up to an escalating tragedy now engulfing Nigeria. Today the lives of 230 teenage schoolgirls hang in the balance." As of this afternoon, more than 200 girls are still missing, presumed kidnapped from their school in Nigeria....

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Supreme Court Decision Undermines Education and Opportunity

(158) Comments | Posted April 24, 2014 | 1:47 PM

Ever since the founding of this country, we have recognized that education is indispensable to our vision of a democratic society. All men may be created equal in the abstract, but education provides people concrete opportunities to overcome real circumstances of poverty or oppression. Thomas Jefferson argued that the talented...

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In College, Choose to Thrive

(3) Comments | Posted April 14, 2014 | 10:46 AM

I originally wrote this op-ed for the McClatchy-Tribune, and it has appeared in various newspapers over the last few days. I then read Arianna Huffington's new book, Thrive, which argues for a different "metric of success" -- something harder to quantify than traditional measures, but potentially much more...

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Conflict and Culture at New York's Jewish Museum

(1) Comments | Posted February 24, 2014 | 4:17 PM

In December I enjoyed announcing to the guards at The Jewish Museum that my name was Sigmund Freud, and that I was coming for the Wish You Were Here event. I died in 1939 (and it was enough already), but Michael Roth had been invited to speak for me, as...

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Tolerance of Ambiguity -- An Opportunity to Learn

(0) Comments | Posted February 5, 2014 | 9:35 AM

"A high tolerance for ambiguity" is a phrase I heard often from chair of the Wesleyan Board of Trustees, Joshua Boger, during my first years as president. I understood the phrase to mean that much creative and constructive work gets done before clarity arrives, and people who seek clarity too...

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The Obamas' Jeffersonian Moment

(5) Comments | Posted January 23, 2014 | 10:37 PM

Last week I sat with about 100 other college and university presidents invited by the White House to discuss boosting access to and success in higher education. We spoke about the myriad ways that big public universities, like UC Berkeley, and small liberal arts schools, like Wesleyan University (my institution)...

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Boycott of Israeli Universities: A Repugnant Attack on Academic Freedom

(135) Comments | Posted December 21, 2013 | 9:30 AM

I published this op-ed in the Los Angeles Times rejecting the resolution of the American Studies Association to boycott Israeli universities. The universities, claim the leaders of the group, "are a party to Israel state policies," and these scholars of American culture claim to be responding to "the call of...

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