Learning to Think for Ourselves

by Michael Roth, President, Wesleyan University, HuffingtonPost.com, 11/12/2013

Over the last year there has been a steady stream of articles about the “crisis in the humanities,” fostering a sense that students are stampeding from liberal education toward more vocationally oriented studies. In fact, the decline in humanities enrollments, as some have pointed out, is wildly overstated, and much of that decline occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. Still, the press is filled with tales about parents riding herd on their offspring lest they be attracted to literature or history rather than to courses that teach them to develop new apps for the next, smarter phone.

America has long been ambivalent about learning for its own sake, at times investing heavily in free inquiry and lifelong learning, and at other times worrying that we need more specialized training to be economically competitive. A century ago these worries were intense, and then, as now, pundits talked about a flight from the humanities toward the hard sciences.

Liberal education was a core American value in the first half of the 20th century, but a value under enormous pressure from demographic expansion and the development of more consistent public schooling. The increase in the population considering postsecondary education was dramatic. In 1910 only 9 percent of students received a high school diploma; by 1940 it was 50 percent. For the great majority of those who went on to college, that education would be primarily vocational, whether in agriculture, business, or the mechanical arts. But even vocationally oriented programs usually included a liberal curriculum — a curriculum that would provide an educational base on which one could continue to learn — rather than just skills for the next job. Still, there were some then (as now) who worried that the lower classes were getting “too much education.”

Within the academy, between the World Wars, the sciences assumed greater and greater importance. Discoveries in physics, chemistry, and biology did not seem to depend on the moral, political, or cultural education of the researchers — specialization seemed to trump broad humanistic learning. These discoveries had a powerful impact on industry, the military, and health care; they created jobs! Specialized scientific research at universities produced tangible results, and its methodologies — especially rigorous experimentation — could be exported to transform private industry and the public sphere. Science was seen to be racing into the future, and some questioned whether the traditional ideas of liberal learning were merely archaic vestiges of a mode of education that should be left behind.

In reaction to this ascendancy of the sciences, many literature departments reimagined themselves as realms of value and heightened subjectivity, as opposed to so-called value-free, objective work. These “new humanists” of the 1920s portrayed the study of literature as an antidote to the spiritual vacuum left by hyperspecialization. They saw the study of literature as leading to a greater appreciation of cultural significance and a personal search for meaning, and these notions quickly spilled over into other areas of humanistic study. Historians and philosophers emphasized the synthetic dimensions of their endeavors, pointing out how they were able to bring ideas and facts together to help students create meaning. And arts instruction was reimagined as part of the development of a student’s ability to explore great works that expressed the highest values of a civilization. Artists were brought to campuses to inspire students rather than to teach them the nuances of their craft. During this interwar period a liberal education surely included the sciences, but many educators insisted that it not be reduced to them. The critical development of values and meaning was a core function of education.

Thus, despite the pressures of social change and of the compelling results of specialized scientific research, there remained strong support for the notion that liberal education and learning for its own sake were essential for an educated citizenry. And rather than restrict a nonvocational education to established elites, many saw this broad teaching as a vehicle for ensuring commonality in a country of immigrants. Free inquiry would model basic democratic values, and young people would be socialized to American civil society by learning to think for themselves.

By the 1930s, an era in which ideological indoctrination and fanaticism were recognized as antithetical to American civil society, liberal education was acclaimed as key to the development of free citizens. Totalitarian regimes embraced technological development, but they could not tolerate the free discussion that led to a critical appraisal of civic values. Here is the president of Harvard, James Bryant Conant, speaking to undergraduates just two years after Hitler had come to power in Germany:

To my mind, one of the most important aspects of a college education is that it provides a vigorous stimulus to independent thinking…. The desire to know more about the different sides of a question, a craving to understand something of the opinions of other peoples and other times mark the educated man. Education should not put the mind in a straitjacket of conventional formulas but should provide it with the nourishment on which it may unceasingly expand and grow. Think for yourselves! Absorb knowledge wherever possible and listen to the opinions of those more experienced than yourself, but don’t let any one do your thinking for you.

This was the 1930s version of liberal learning, and in it you can hear echoes of Thomas Jefferson’s idea of autonomy and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s thoughts on self-reliance.

In the interwar period the emphasis on science did not, in fact, lead to a rejection of broad humanistic education. Science was a facet of this education. Today, we must not let our embrace of STEM fields undermine our well-founded faith in the capacity of the humanities to help us resist “the straitjackets of conventional formulas.” Our independence, our freedom, has depended on not letting anyone else do our thinking for us. And that has demanded learning for its own sake; it has demanded a liberal education. It still does.

Cross-posted from Inside Higher Education. The op-ed draws on Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, which will be published by Yale University Press in the spring.

Michael Roth

President, Wesleyan University


Critical and higher-level thinking

A Society with Poor Critical Thinking Skills: The Case for ‘Argument’ in Education by Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, HuffingtonPost.com, 08/15/2013

Devaluing the Think Tank by TEVI TROY, National Affairs, Winter 2012

Why We Need New Ways of Thinking by Barry Boyce from the Shambhala Sun, September 2008The same old thing doesn’t work… because when it comes to complex, tough problems…we have to go beyond the approaches that got us there in the first place… a loose but growing collection of thinkers, activists, academics, and social entrepreneurs who are searching for the “unthinkable”—the new ways that we can’t see because of our old ways of looking… they all firmly believe that the good old world we’ve come to know and love is coming apart at the seams. Systems of all kinds are breaking down and will continue to do so. In response, they champion ways of seeing and acting that acknowledge that the world is a chaotic, deeply interdependent place, a place that won’t yield to attempts to overpower it. We must come to understand, they argue, the nature of complexity, chaos, and interconnectedness—and to train ourselves in ways of acting that embrace this unmistakable reality. full text

Wisdom: The Forgotten Dimension?  by Mary Jaksch…Wis­dom means hav­ing the moral will to do right by other peo­ple, and to have the moral skill to fig­ure out what doing right means. This is not a new idea; it is some­thing that Aris­to­tle taught in ancient Greece…A wise per­son takes the overview…Com­pas­sion­ate action – the out­flow of wis­dom – hap­pens when we stop being the cen­ter of our concern. Then we can open up to a wider view of real­ity that includes the suf­fer­ing of oth­ers, as well as our own – and  respond with compassion.  full text

Salons: A New Intellectual Culture is Taking Shape Throughout the Country By David Rosen, AlterNet, May 9, 2011 – …a salon…a social venue where people gather to consider pressing social issues or compelling ideas…a new intellectual culture is taking shape throughout the country…an unprecedented flowering of intellectual life is underway. It signals a rebirth of ideas in America.
This new intellectual environment takes two principal forms, online and public…The Internet is home to a new intellectual culture….Less discussed are the efforts by people to reclaim public space for discussion and social engagement over ideas…. America is in the midst of the gravest economic and social crisis since the Great Depression and a growing number of people recognize that the nation’s future is at stake. They increasingly reject the politician’s bought-and-paid-for words of reassurance and the swill promulgated by media blowviators. The tempo of political debate is intensifying and people are seeking new, more intimate and engaging forums for discussion, debate and action….They speak to the great desire to not simply seriously intellectually reflect on important issue and meet similar like-minded people, but to fashion a political outlook and activism that truly is personally meaningful and makes a difference. Welcome to the 21st century…

Why Teaching People to Think for Themselves Is Repugnant to Religious Zealots and Rick Santorum by Henry A. Giroux, Truthout | Op-Ed, February 22, 2012

Religious Freedom” and the Conservative Quest for Absolute Truth By Ira Chernus, Religion Dispatches, February 21, 2012

A Crisis from the Top: The Unwisdom of Elites by Paul Krugman, New York Times,

Thinking in More Sophisticated Ways by James R. Flynn, February 27, 2012

A brainpower revolution By Eugene Robinson, Washington Post, December 26, 2011 - This is a moment when policymakers should be thinking big, not small….The complex and difficult questions we’re avoiding, however, may haunt us through the century…It’s crazy to have spent so much brainpower and energy on a skirmish that was purely tactical, while blithely ignoring the enormous challenges we face…The central issue is the prospect of decline. For much of the 20th century, theUnited Statesboasted the biggest, most vibrant economy in the world and its citizens enjoyed the best quality of life. The former is still obviously true; the latter, arguably still the case. But there is a sense that we’re fading — that tomorrow might not be as bright as today. Our systems seem to have become sclerotic…. colleges and universities…medical care…economic mobility…manufacturing sector…rich countries can only excel at high-end manufacturing that requires more brains than brawn. Our future lies in knowledge and information. So let’s go there…The solution that conservatives advocate — let free markets do it — isn’t enough….It’s important to remember that markets are supposed to serve the nation, not the other way around. And it’s important to recognize that while long-term debt isn’t the most urgent problem facing the nation, it has to be addressed. Transformation, after all, isn’t cheap…Is the political system broken? Yes, but this can’t be an excuse. The system didn’t break itself. Our elected officials put in place the rules that create dysfunction — campaign finance regulations that allow money to corrupt the political process, redistricting procedures that ensconce our representatives in districts where they couldn’t lose if they tried. The rules can be changed. But our leaders, beginning with Obama, can’t settle for playing small ball. As he campaigns for reelection, the president’s task is to explain why this is a time to think big — and why we have no choice.

The Value Of Dissent by William G. Bowen, Forbes, September, 2010

President Obama’s Remarks to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, New York Times, March 10, 2009 March 10, 2009

Texas Republicans express ‘regret’ for officially opposing critical thinking skills by Laura Clawson, Daily Kos, June 29, 2012

In Defense of the Generalist by Carter Phipps, huffingtonpost.com, April 26, 2012

The Death of Liberal Arts by Nancy Cook, Newsweek Web Exclusive, April 5, 2010