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Painting by Nicolas-André Monsiau on Wikimedia

The Student: A Conversation with Michael S. Roth

In The Student: A Short History, Michael S. Roth narrates a vivid and dynamic history of students, exploring some of the principal models for learning that have developed in very different contexts, from the sixth century BCE to the present.

In this Q&A, with talk with the author about his own experience as a student, the central role freedom plays in modern education, and returning to the joys of being a student in the United States.

Tell us about the process of constructing this history. How did the piece emerge from your own eagerness to remain a student?

I was always happy being a student. Even as an instructor, I found ways to stay in a student role—to sit in on lectures, audit seminars, ask questions of colleagues. At my first academic job at Scripps College, I created a Humanities Institute where fellow professors and advanced undergrads in the humanities could learn from one another and from invited luminaries. It was, I see now, a way for me to remain on the student side of the equation. Years later, I took a job running the Scholars Program at the Getty Research Institute. Noted researchers and artists came from around the world to Los Angeles to work on a problem chosen because my colleagues and I thought it was interesting and open-ended. Although I “led” our weekly seminars, I felt the same sense of intellectual adventure I did as an undergraduate at Wesleyan. At the Getty, too, I got to be on both sides of the equation.

Even as a college president, I’ve been able to remain a student. Both at the California College of the Arts and at Wesleyan University I find myself in the happy position of learning from my colleagues and fellow students.

The Student centers three iconic, ancient teachers—Confucius, Socrates, and Jesus. Why include Jesus in this introductory line-up?

It’s hard to find someone who has had a more powerful impact on how one conceives of education as transformation. His followers often addressed him as a rabbi, which just means as teacher. And the idea of following on Jesus’ path, or even of aspiring to imitate his life as well as his teaching seems to me an especially powerful example.

In tracing the idea of the student in the West, you arrive at contemporary associations of the student with autonomy and freedom. How do you approach discussions of freedom and slavery in The Student?

Whereas in the early modern period in the West, the idea of being a student was linked with developing economic autonomy and the ability to integrate into one’s community, in the Enlightenment being a student takes on a broader sense of learning freedom. This is, of course, an ideal, and so I thought it important take on how writers dealt with populations excluded from this ideal—women and enslaved people. I discuss Mary Wollstonecraft’s devastating critique of some of the patriarchal assumptions of those who wrote about learning and freedom, and I also turn to the Enlightenment hypocrisies regarding slavery. Excluding enslaved people from the possibility of being students underscored the importance of the idea of learning as freedom and the racist assumptions that co-existed with lofty Enlightenment ideals.

The pandemic and rise of artificial intelligence have forced educators to confront outdated models of learning. Do you believe AI will foster us into a new age of education?

I suppose it will, but I think it important that we hold onto the essential connection of being a student and learning freedom. It is too early for me to guess at how exactly artificial intelligence will intersect with our ability to be embodied creatures who can learn practices of freedom. Will AI be a tool that allows us to be more free, or will we allow it to do our thinking and judging for us, thereby making us even more dependent on technologies we do not understand?

What advice would you give to current students who are discouraged by recent Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action and student debt relief? How can universities respond to these anxieties, fostering the joy of being a student?

This is hardly the first time that older generations have tried to reduce access to education in ways that make it harder for under-represented groups to gain the benefits of being students. We can push back and continue to create paths for learning that do not require family connections, wealth, or phony meritocratic gatekeepers. Of course, it’s harder to be a student practicing freedom when one is struggling against prejudice and economic constraints. But the paths for learning will always be there; we can shine a light on them and help people make their way to the forms of education that will be most meaningful to them.

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His books include Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters and Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses. He lives in Middletown, CT.

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