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Why liberal arts matter

By Michael S. Roth, Special to CNN
  • Michael S. Roth says his parents sent him to a liberal arts school to broaden his world
  • He says postwar America valued well-rounded citizens to create vibrant culture, economy
  • Now many make mistake of narrowing focus to science, engineering for competitive edge
  • Roth: Education helps develop new skills, connections, ability to seize opportunities

Editor's note: Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. He is a historian, curator and author. His latest book, "Trauma, Memory and History: Essays on Living With the Past" (Columbia University Press), will be published in the fall. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he is in the first generation of his family to attend college. CNN's"Don't Fail Me: Education in America" Video examines the crisis in the public education system. It airs at 8 ET Saturday night.

(CNN) -- When my parents arrived at Wesleyan for my graduation, they were very proud -- of themselves and of me. They hadn't known much about college when they had first sent me off to school. My father (like his father) was a furrier, and my mother had given up big band singing to raise a family. She sold clothes from our suburban basement to help make ends meet.

Sending me to a prominent liberal arts school meant something special to them because it represented access to opportunity. This wasn't only economic opportunity, but the chance to choose work, make friends and participate in a community based on educated interests rather than just social and ethnic origins.

Since I am now president of Wesleyan University, I guess we all got more than we bargained for.

My parents were part of a wave of Americans after World War II whose confidence in the future and belief in education helped create the greatest university sector in the world. Students from all walks of life began to have the chance to acquire a well-rounded education, and it was on this basis that Americans created a vibrant culture, a dynamic economy and a political system that (after many struggles) strove to make equality before the law a fundamental feature of public life.

A well-rounded education gave graduates more tools with which to solve problems, broader perspectives through which to see opportunities and a deeper capacity to build a more humane society.

In recent years university leaders in Asia, the Mideast and even Europe have sought to organize curricula more like those of our liberal art schools. How, they want to know, can we combine rigorous expectations of learning with the development of critical thinking and creativity that are the hallmarks of the best American colleges?

But in our own land we are running away from the promise of liberal education. We are frightened by economic competition, and many seem to have lost confidence in our ability to draw from the resources of a broadly based education. Instead, they hope that technical training or professional expertise on their own will somehow invigorate our culture and society.

Many seem to think that by narrowing our focus to just science and engineering, we will become more competitive. This is a serious mistake.

Our leaders in government, industry and academia should realize that they don't have to make a choice between the sciences and the rest of the liberal arts. Indeed, the sciences are a vital part of the liberal arts.

The key to our success in the future will be an integrative education that doesn't isolate the sciences from other parts of the curriculum, and that doesn't shield the so-called creative and interpretive fields from a vigorous understanding of the problems addressed by scientists.

Already at liberal arts schools across the country there is increasing interest in the sciences from students who are also studying history, political science, literature and the arts. At Wesleyan, neuroscience and behavior is one of our fastest growing majors, and programs linking the sciences, arts and humanities have been areas of intense creative work.

Students and professors aren't crossing departmental boundaries to be fashionably interdisciplinary. They join forces to address specific problems or in pursuit of particular opportunities.

Dr. Joseph J. Fins, a history-literature-philosophy major at Wesleyan, is now the E. William Davis, M.D., Jr. Professor of Medical Ethics and chief of the Division of Medical Ethics at Weill Cornell Medical College.

Joshua Boger, a philosophy and chemistry major at Wesleyan, founded the biotech chemistry company, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, to "transform the way serious diseases are treated."

Diana Farrell, an interdisciplinary social science major at Wesleyan, helped restructure the U.S. auto industry as a deputy director of the National Economic Council.

Government officials and academic administrators should realize that innovation in technology companies, automobile design, medicine or food production will not come only from isolated work in technical disciplines. Effective vaccine delivery programs, for example, require technical expertise, but they also require cultural understanding, economic planning and ethical reasoning.

Similarly, scholars in the humanities must recognize that some of the most interesting work in history, art and philosophy now involves the active participation of scientists. The growing field of animal studies, for example, brings together interpretative and analytic skills along with contemporary scientific research.

A pragmatic, broadly based education that encourages bold inquiry and regular self-reflection recognizes the increasingly porous borders among disciplines and departments.

We should look at education not as a specific training program for a limited range of mental muscles but as a process through which one will generate some of the most important features in one's life. It makes no sense to train people as narrowly as possible in a world going through cataclysmic changes, for you are building specific strengths that leave you merely muscle-bound, not stronger and more flexible.

We should think of education as a kind of intellectual cross-training that leads to many more things than at any one moment you could possibly know would be useful. The most powerful education generates further curiosity, new needs, experiences to meet those needs, more curiosity and so on.

Education isn't just an object that you use to get started in a career; education is a catalytic resource that continues to energize and shape your life. Education enhances your ability to develop new skills and capacities for connectivity that allow you to solve problems and seize opportunities.

I hope that parents across the country can still believe in this form of education as they attend graduation ceremonies across the country. America should not retreat to a narrow, technical education in hopes that it will make us tougher in global competition.

We should have confidence, as my parents did, that a broadly based, liberal education will help our young people lead lives of creative productivity, lives in which they can make meaning from and contribute to the world around them.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael S. Roth.