College presidents used to be the influential, ‘thought leaders’ of their time, consulted by heads of state and corporate CEOs. It’s the rare college leader who steps out today and takes a stand amid the conflicting pressures of donor interests, state legislatures and government regulation.
In 2007 Michael S. Roth became president of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Five years later he wrote an opinion in The New York Times with the title ‘Learning as Freedom’. In it he borrows heavily from the writings of John Dewey, an early twentieth century philosopher and leader in education reform.
At this time of year when students are deciding where to attend college amid a growing conversation on the value of college, it’s refreshing to take a step back into history and revisit the ideas of those who defined American higher education.
President Roth asks the question, “Who wants to attend school to learn to be ‘human capital’ ? Who aspires for their children to become economic or military resources?”
Why do we attend college? For Dewey “…schools first and foremost should teach us habits of learning…these habits included awareness of our interdependence; nobody is an expert on everything. He emphasized ‘plasticity’, an openness to being shaped by experience: “The inclination to learn from life itself and to make the conditions of life such that all will learn in the process of living is the finest product of schooling.”
President Roth concludes,“Dewey’s insight that learning in the process of living is the deepest form of freedom. In a nation that aspires to democracy, that’s what education is primarily for: the cultivation of freedom within society…Higher education’s highest purpose is to give all citizens the opportunity to find ‘large and human significance’ in their lives and work.”
For high school seniors, this is an important message. For the past twelve years of education your struggles are about to be rewarded with an invite to attend the college of your choice. But what about life after admission?
Frank Bruni gives voice to the concern that it’s all about the process in his article ‘How to Survive the College Admissions Madness’. “College is a singular opportunity to rummage through and luxuriate in ideas, to realize how very large the world is and to contemplate your desired place in it. And that’s lost in the admissions mania, which sends the message that college is a sanctum to be breached – a border to be crossed – rather than a land to be inhabited and tilled for all that it’s worth.”
Look beyond the letter and imagine who you’ll be a year from now. Where will you best exercise your inclination to learn from life?