Interview with Michael S. Roth

PUBLISHED: Feb 21, 2019

In This Episode.

Dave and Steve welcome Michael S. Roth, author of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.  Michael offers wonderful perspectives on the relationship between critical thinking, the liberal arts, and interdisciplinary.  He also raises critical perspectives about the importance of pushing students to step outside their own viewpoints about the world.

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Podcast Transcript

Steve Pearlman: So thanks for joining us today. My pleasure having you on the podcast with us. And as you know, most of our listeners are educators themselves, many at the college level, but also throughout all of education. I’m sure a lot of them have already seen your book, but if not, let’s promote it as much as you can. Excellent. So what was your impetus for writing the book? Was there a moment that prompted that or a particular realization that started you into that process?

Michael Roth: Yeah, I guess there was. So I’ve been a university president now for almost 20 years. The first seven of those were at a art school in the San Francisco Bay Area, a California college of the arts. But when I came back to Wesleyan in two thousand seven, I was surprised as especially as the economy got destroyed by the Great Recession, how confidence in a traditional liberal arts education waned. And I had been in an art school. I was used to people saying, Oh, what are you going to do with that painting degree? What are you going to do with that degree in installation art? And the answer was that our students at SCCA were learning through the arts, and some of them would go on to have gallery careers. But many of them would go on to have other interesting work lives that combine creativity and the economy in some ways. And so I was used to defending what looked like a very useful form of education, but turned out to be an extraordinarily powerful kind of education and arts education or education through the arts. So I came to Wesleyan, you know, Wesleyan is a very traditional in some ways liberal arts school, and it has a great reputation. I had was a student here, myself in the 70s, and so I was surprised. Between 2007 and 2009, at the acceleration of skepticism about a broad liberal education. And so I started responding to many of those questions in reviews in op eds.

Michael Roth: I do a lot of book reviewing. I enjoy that process, and at some point I decided that it would be worthwhile to try to figure out to do how to do a more full throated defense of broad liberal education. And it came out of me seeing a reviewing a book from Yale in a series that they had why x matters and I was reviewing a book. It was pretty good. Called Y, the Dreyfus Affair matters. I’m a French historian, mostly, and so I thought, Well, wouldn’t it be interesting to do something like why liberal education matters? And I remember sitting here in this office and trying to figure out who the editor of this book was and writing her a letter and saying, Would you be interested in a short book like this? Because I am a university president, I still like to teach, and so I don’t have that much time to do the kind of research I used to do in France. But I thought I might be able to do a book in this series, which were fairly compact, and she was very enthusiastic and urged me to write a proposal for such a book. So, you know, is it right after the Great Recession? There was also the kind of what should I call it, the infatuation with disruption, you know, so interesting in a way because the whole idea of disruption is that it’s supposed to be unfashionable and blows everything up.

Michael Roth: But in fact, there was just kind of meme in a way that disruption is is comfortable or good or wonderful. And so there were a lot of people trying to disrupt higher education, and I’m sympathetic with some of that. But I also thought it was very important not to move away from the kind of education that would empower people in a general way so that they could adapt to and perhaps even initiate some of the changes that would be important in the culture and economy to come. But the challenge for me was I’m not an American historian. European historian, mostly in France, mostly did work on kind of theory of history and memory. And so I started to do the research for the book, and I was very conscious of the fact that I had not had a class in American history since high school and that I was discovering in quotation marks discovering things that lots of Americans knew very well. Thank you. They didn’t need Michael or us to tell them. But I found that wonderful. I mean, as a as a reader, as an American, as an as a historian, I just had a great time learning more about the history of the university in the United States and bringing that together with my own commitment to pragmatism, which is as an American philosophy, something I encountered in graduate school and have worked in ever since.

Steve Pearlman: So maybe we could loop this then into critical thinking, which is obviously our emphasis with the podcast. And you do a lot of work in the text tracing back the part of sort of a liberal education back to Jefferson and to pragmatism with Dewey. But I wonder if you could articulate. At least in your vision of it, what’s the role that critical thinking plays through that threat and has its conception even morphed in your opinion over time? What’s the role that that’s played throughout?

Michael Roth: So I wrote a piece while working on this book. I think it’s called on the limits of critical thinking or critical thinking isn’t so great or something like that, because I did find that when people defended liberal education, they were want to say, We do believe in critical thinking. Everybody believes in critical thinking, and I’m of that temperament that if everybody is saying they believe in, it is probably it’s probably not very meaningful. And so I also thought that there was a lot of discussion in higher ed circles and in opinion writers worlds about problem-solving. And I thought that, you know, that’s clearly that’s important. It’s important to be able to to show that arguments are not what they’re cracked up to be or to expose lies or to engage with the body of ideas so as to expose their blind spots or fallacies. All of those things are obviously important, and to solve problems is important. But creativity and creating opportunities also really important. And so I became a critic of critical thinking, I suppose you could say, by trying to make the case that the industry around critical thinking grows up at a time when people are being trained to think in such a way as to be productive, according to the categories and criteria that are part of the establishment.

Michael Roth: And so critical thinking can be taught to elementary school kids and high school kids. And what it really means is to be a little bit skeptical of the world around you. And when it’s time you get to college, what you find, I find, is that students get very good at saying to a speaker, a kind of basic question isn’t your point of view when applied to your own argument undermines that very argument or these little tricks. These gestures of criticism that become habits of mind that make it easy for people to dismiss things but make it very hard for them to accept anything. And I guess that’s the nub of it for me that cultivating skepticism comes at a cost. I think that we need to be able to see through things that are deceptive or are faulty, but that’s not enough. We also need to see things that we want to embrace. We also need to find ways of increasing our capacity for joy and creativity. And that’s seemed to me highlighted at times by the emphasis on critical thinking.

Dave Carillo: And that’s something that we see a lot in your book. Is this repeated emphasis on the generative element of critical thinking, and you take that position in a couple really compelling ways, and one of them is earlier on when you make the claim that there’s a tension in higher education today between the idea that a research institution is populated by experts who rightly do the kind of work that allows us to advance in their respective fields to produce the kind of information that allows us to make that kind of progress. And that information needs to be in some way imparted on students. Yet the tension arises from the fact that any good generative critical thinking is going to be in a position to question that kind of information are not accepted passively, and there needs to be the sort of ongoing push and pull. You say that tension is good. You say the tension shouldn’t be dismissed. It should be.

Michael Roth: I do think that tension is good, but I go further than that. Let me give you an example from a teaching. So I teach, I call them good enough books courses. I just thought a class called a virtue advice from Confucius to Spike Lee. That’s the first week is as Confucius, the second week as Aristotle and Aquinas and Machiavelli. So it really go and we end up with contemporary queer theory. Now, the students in the class, they’ll say things like, Well, Aquinas says X, but I don’t agree. Or Rousseau says Y, and I don’t agree. I think he’s misunderstands what nature is. And I have to tell them, and they’ve really shocks them. I don’t care what you think about Rousseau. I don’t want you to tell me why you think Aristotle made a mistake. Nobody cares what you think about Aristotle. Nobody should care what I think about it. So I want you to tell me what Aristotle says and why he says it. And they are shocked by this because they have been trained since they were kindergartners. The critical thinking is a good thing and that they should take a critical perspective on whatever it is. And I’m telling them, No, I want you to tell me why Aristotle says what Aristotle says, because assume that he knows everything you know and that any objection you have, he’s anticipated and said something different.

Michael Roth: Now that may not be true, I say I understand that. I mean, Aristotle didn’t have access to your phone, but. Play the game that way and see what you learn about Aristotle, and they find this extremely challenge and they rebel against it many years ago, someone in California said I raped them of their opinions. Of course, I’ll never forget. Yeah, but but because they have been taught, they should take a quote unquote critical perspective on whatever they’re doing. When I’m saying, put yourself in Rousseau shoes, why does Rousseau say that you can get out of his shoes and it’s really impossible to get into them, but you should try? What does he have in mind here and when they say but. But Russo’s view of nature is essentialist, and I said, Well, yeah, well, he thought of that. So why does he have it anyway? Right? And then they’re like, What do you mean? How could he have thought of that? Because they’re not used to sympathetic interpretation. They’re used to critical interpretation as opposed to sympathetic rather than seeing them in some kind of dynamic interrelationship.

Steve Pearlman: It’s a fascinating point that you’re bringing up, and I’m going to try to work my way back to the question here eventually. So there’s fascinating neuroscience research on that. When people read novels, for example, that activates parts of the brain so that they they develop empathy, that they have to learn what it is to take on another stance. And what you’re describing is similar in this respect is very much a critical act and that we have to be conscious of our biases and our own perspectives to suppress is to take on somebody else’s see the world through a different lens. And that’s similarly doing some things. And I think where I’m really resonating with you and we’re Dave and I think have spoken a lot about this on some previous podcasts is the tendency for so many critical thinking tests that are out there of training to merely be error tests, right? The logical thing I have to say, Hey, yeah, and we always call that sort of the basis level of critical thinking. And we think it’s as you’re suggesting, I want to put words in your mouth, but a misstep in the conception of the totality of critical thinking because it’s only looking at where you can see something that’s negative instead of generate something that’s positive. You talk a lot in your book about the importance of it being self generative of people becoming more self realized through the process of critical thinking. And I don’t think you are quite as much about the creation of new idea, but I think you do at certain points and that goes along with it. And that’s something that we’ve worked really hard to develop with respect to how we approach. Teaching people to teach critical thinking is not just having them be critical, but for students to generate a new idea and a new perspective while being self-aware of their own and their biases and so forth. Can you talk more about how you’ve seen that in practice or where you think higher education in your experience is perhaps slanted in the wrong direction in that respect?

Michael Roth: Sure. I think that a great portion of the generative work of this kind of thinking is in creation of new questions and new opinions or new positions, but generating new forms of inquiry. And so the emphasis in beyond the university is on inquiry as the core of liberal education. And that’s a, you know, Jefferson says that Dubois says it and it’s a pragmatist. You know, it’s a dewy thing, right? How do you learn anywhere you practice it? You know, you practice it, practice practice and you figure out through play through other forms of habituation how to get better at generating new questions or new moves in the game. So we spend some time on Wittgenstein in this virtue class. Not too much. Well, you don’t spend too much time on anything. So, but so we read the poet Maggie Nelson, who is a MacArthur winner a few years ago and an alum of Wesleyan and an extraordinary writer. She’s difficult for the students. As it turns out, she’s. And it’s the book. There’s a kind of, well, it’s called auto theory. It’s the title of the book is the Argonauts, and it’s a kind of exploring queer theory. But there’s this little section on Wittgenstein, which allows me then to talk to them about language games and what does it? What does it mean to create a new move in a game? So if I come to play soccer, I’ve never seen soccer played and I pick up the ball and run with it, and I said, it’s a new move.

Michael Roth: It’s a new rule of the game. No, no, no, you can’t. It’s not actually in the game anymore. And so the great new moves in the game are not picking up the ball, but finding a way to do things that people hadn’t anticipated that could be done. But within the framework of rules, the great people in sports or in science or in art who do that are people who actually play the game a lot and they play and play and play. And then they come up with a new move in the game that maybe stretches the game, but still recognizably soccer or chemistry. Let’s say a move in the chemistry game. Now, I think what happens in higher education is as you solidify disciplines, you reduce the opportunities for creating new moves in the game. And I told my faculty here at Wesleyan, I started in 2007. If I had my way, I would abolish all the departments and they left because they knew I couldn’t have my way. Unlike the President Trump, I am not willing to shut down the university so to abolish all departments, but what they also. Have seen is that we’ve moved resources to places that are outside of departments, and so we started a college of the environment around two thousand and nine, and since then College of Integrated Science, College of Film and the moving image and a College of East Asian studies.

Michael Roth: And now they get faculty and students from all these different departments. And, you know, it’s not a very sophisticated idea. In my part, if you put a lot of money there, people will come and want to compete for those resources and create new classes and new modes of research. Because the departments and departments, people, people lead through seniority and these programs, people lead, I hope, through having a really good idea. So whether it’s in fact a good idea to abolish a department, I realize that I may say those things because I can’t do them. You know, if I could really do the, maybe I would be more reticent about it. But I’ve long felt and this is because I went to Iceland as an undergraduate, that disciplines are the enemy of inquiry. I mean, they do facilitate a certain kind of discipline. They have a certain kind of practice that helps people learn other things. But I also think they get in the way of creating new kinds of inquiry. But it seems to be translating everything into one. Discipline is not usually that helpful, especially if it’s if it’s reductive. And so putting people who are doing like, say, neuroscience with people doing philosophy with people who are doing history or science and society, that that to me is creates an interesting dynamic.

Dave Carillo: Right? Initially, I’m always interested in how you see that kind of work playing out for students in general. But also, I want to sort of link that to something else that you say much later in your book about the fact that students outside the university, once they leave, they also seem to be told that the most value comes from simply undermining other people’s arguments. So there’s this force on the outside that we would like to sort of dissipate or avoid or rid of entirely in terms of what critical thinking is thought of or how it’s valued on the outside of the university. How do we make students aware of this other type of generative movement, this intellectual inquiry that we’re talking about, that we see value in here? And do you see a tension evolving or ongoing and even in these interdisciplinary departments in terms of what students perceive they need to do to get a job or, yeah, they need to do to excel in or outside of university?

Michael Roth: Well, let me start with the first part about students more generally and the kind of skills they need to develop and not just moves in a game and some, some very loosey goosey way. It’s certainly the case that not all students should be encouraged to move from one to one to another and never actually learn very much in any of them. I mean, that’s that’s disaster. That’s this smorgasbord approach can leave you with just enough smarts to impress people who have a little bit less smarts than you. Not a great skill. When I talk to my students, whether graduate students in the old days or undergraduates today, I also talk about to learn a trade really with graduate students and with undergraduates just to learn something that you can really do quite well. And so if you’re taking if you’re taking a language, you really should learn to speak it well so that you can navigate in that country or watch the television in that language or read newspapers in that language with pleasure and not just for work. And that just takes that takes work in time. And so I think that that’s the same thing as learning a musical instrument or or learning some basic elements of science or history. So I do think that there’s a certain amount of information gathering and methodological sophistication that comes from working within a discipline know best of all, possible worlds, students would come to college having done that in high school.

Michael Roth: But that doesn’t happen in the United States very often. So that’s that’s something that has to happen at college. And I think that some schools really have to work quite hard to get students up to a reasonable level of proficiency in writing and thoughtful reading, critical reading as well as sympathetic reading. So those are really important tasks. I don’t want to minimize them. You know, it’s a fancy places like Wesleyan, as students often come with lots of skills, but I think they don’t come with sophistication about how to deepen those skills in ways that open them up to other questions, rather than close them down to more narrow ones. And that’s part of our job. I gave a talk about the book shortly after it came out in New York, and there was a young man in the audience was unfortunate. It was the last question of the evening, and he said, I just you say that in order to really have an education that’s meaningful, you have to be able to use it when you leave the university and you to have, let’s say, like proficiency in a language. He said I majored in music in Amherst and I don’t know how to play an instrument and are you telling me my education is a waste? And I said, Yes, I am. And my interlocutor had been the president of Amherst, Tony Marx. We had a good laugh about it, but I said, it’s like if you majored in French and you could talk about the French, but you couldn’t speak French or I think that would be a waste.

Michael Roth: So I do think that there is a grounding in skills that get tested after you leave the campus. So if you could speak on a French to get along in class, but you couldn’t actually read a paper newspaper or, you know, talk to somebody on the street, that’s a waste. When I was a graduate student, I was taking a course at the Alliance Francaise in New York, and my teacher was a graduate student at Rutgers and the other eight or nine bankers, whatever they were, all left the class after 10 days, you know, maybe less, much less. And so it was just the two of us. So we would talk about like what I was trying to do in my dissertation and learning French. That way, I got to Paris. I couldn’t ask where the bathroom was. I could talk about what does Hagel have to say to Marx? And that was pretty bad. So I do think that getting basic skill levels and the kind of skills that generate more knowledge, like writing and drawing and listening and I mean lots of ways of doing it in the scientific method statistics. I mean, there are a lot of basic things that are not easy to learn, but once you learn them, actually allow you to learn other things.

Michael Roth: Now, the second part of the question is about how does this play out beyond the university? Does it play out after you graduate? I do think that the culture right now does reward people who can go into a cocoon and contribute to the mixed metaphor of the echo chamber of the cocoon and contribute to the the sense of protective affirmation. And you can delude yourself into thinking that’s critical thinking, right? So you go into an online publication where what you do is you get your snarky about all your enemies, right? And so you think you’re being really critical because you’re snarky about all your enemies, but actually, you’re just going at your church is beyond criticism. The Church of Snark, let’s say. And we do reward that a lot now because of the the siloed culture after college and the university. But I do also think that many people are successful after graduation because they find ways of connecting people who hadn’t been previously connected. They help a company develop markets that it didn’t know could develop. They are effective as caregivers to people who others had written off as not deserving that kind of care. I mean, there are many different kinds of examples where you are extending the boundaries of a particular area of commitment and expertise. And that’s one way to think about it is are you extending the boundaries or are you building a wall to use the phrase

Dave Carillo: Very, very relevant?

Michael Roth: And we want people who can extend boundaries. That doesn’t mean you want people who pick up the ball and soccer. I mean, that’s the slippery slope argument. I don’t think it’s a good argument. I’m not saying that. I’m not saying we want somebody who goes into the basketball court and says, I’m not dribbling. No, that’s nonsense. How do you extend the game and you see people who are good at talking to multiple audiences, scholars who can talk to different kinds of students and or colleagues? These folks are extremely valuable because they do things that other people have thought were not worth doing or couldn’t be done.

Steve Pearlman: We talked so much on our podcast with faculty about what you’re saying, the importance of foundational skills. Writing and reading for us are very big ones, but we don’t dabble in the scientific method, but obviously critical. We talk about critical thinking in that broader sense. We’re talking about it as a critical skill as well. One of the ways we try to persuade them about the importance of all this is with respect to how the business community now is asking for the very kind of people you’ve described who aren’t siloed, who aren’t mired down in just a particular isolated skill set that has a value only in a very narrow context or bandwidth. But who can come up with what that next need is going to be right? So I guess I have a twofold question about that. The first part would be what do educators need to do? As you’ve seen it, your college president, you’ve taught a lot. So what should happen in the classroom level and maybe what should happen more at an institutional level to create that because we have a lot of educators who I’m sure would be sympathetic to the notion, but perhaps not have a step to take and not know what that next step to take would be. So we’ve offered many, but we’re curious as to what your advice would be. And then also, I imagine you’ve also had interaction with a lot of people outside of academia in the corporate world who are looking for the very thing you’re describing. And I’m wondering if you can articulate some of your experience with that as well.

Michael Roth: Well, I think in the classroom there are two metaphors that we use a lot. One is intellectual cross-training.

Steve Pearlman: So we just stole that. We. We’re going to take we’re going to credit you. We love that

Michael Roth: Term. Yeah, well, it’s I took it from a guy named Jeff Dusek, who was a trustee at Wesleyan years ago, and I like this idea a lot because, you know, you can get really good at developing. I don’t know your quads or something, but or your ability to jump, but you know, you can hear, I don’t really know what the hell I’m talking about. But of course, training is build up a capacity that can be used in different things, and that’s what we aim for in a college education now. What’s problematic is that most of the faculty are not the product of intellectual training, and they’re not rewarded for it. They’re rewarded professionally by going deep. And this is a problem across the country that even in a teaching centric school, a lot of the faculty get their professional validation, not from how well they teach, but from the last conference they went to or the paper they presented. And that’s that’s typically not about crush training, which typically about going further in a very specific area. There is definitely a tension about that, and I find it that many of my colleagues here at Wesleyan, who are wonderful teachers, are also the kinds of thinkers who find it very stimulating to speak to different kinds of audiences. However, there is a tendency in many classes to teach the classes. If the people in your class were going to become professors like you, you give them assignments and that mirror the professional criterion of your field.

Michael Roth: And that’s hard to break. And in some ways, it’s it’s not entirely bad, but it doesn’t lend itself to cross training or the second metaphor is translation. I think it’s really important for professors to give their students an invitation to translate what they’re learning in the class to what they might do with it in another context. Again, not something professors necessarily have a lot of experience with because their context is the university. And yet I do think that it’s our job as teachers to provide that invitation to translation. What does that mean concretely? So what I’m teaching intellectual history class, let’s say, and we’re talking about, let’s say, Marx. Karl Marx and we’re talking about an early text of Marx is on alienation. And I’ll say so give me an example of how does this play out in the lunchroom at Wesleyan? Or give me an example. You have a job and I say, Yeah, I work at the gym, say, OK, well, show me how this works. Tell me the story, how this worked. So I’ve always done it this way, not just to give them an invitation to translation, but because I want to see if they understand it and if they can just repeat to me that, well, alienation is somehow self estrangement that comes through labor that’s done through when you don’t own the means of production, they’re repeating the words. I don’t know if they understand it, right? But if they say, Yeah, when I go to work for John in the training room and he does this crap all the time and I said, Yes, that’s it.

Michael Roth: Or, you know, I show them, we showed a clip from modern times to show, how does Chaplin translate it? And now I’ve had interesting, I think, interesting anyway, discussions with my colleagues like so how much of that you want to do? You’re reading, I don’t know, Paradise Lost. You want to stop and say, Well, how is this like American politics today? Well, maybe at some point. But if you do that all the time, then you’re not going to actually read Paradise Lost. I mean, there’s something about spending the time with this strange text or strange painting or historical event that demands your attention in itself. So I think there is this balancing act we do as teachers of saying, I want to know if you understand Aristotle, but OK, how would this Aristotle’s point about friendship relevant to what happens Thursday nights and the bar crawl? And then they like what it should be? Yeah, I said it should be relevant because as he’s talking about friendship, so if they do that about all kinds of things going on on a college campus that I think will grease the wheels so that the mental wheels so that they’re able to engage in continual cross-training when they leave. I mean, the goal, of course, is is not that we can just get them through. The goal is that when they leave the university or college that they’re able to continue to learn.

Michael Roth: That’s not a goal that all of the students have. And I think in some of the fancier places, it’s even worse. And so the schools are the most difficult to get into. I think a lot of students would get their feel I’ve gotten in. My job is over. Everybody at this Ivy League school, let’s say, gets an A or B and C minus the worst. I’m done now. I’m just I’m networking and learning how to party, and there is some truth to that. I think because the challenge was getting in and I feel very fortunate at Wesleyan. You know, my perception is the students are intensely curious. They want to be challenged. They take pleasure in this mix of ideas and disciplines, and they’re curious, how am I going to be able to do this when I leave? How am I going to be able to use this when I leave? You know, and and sometimes it’s politics. How am I going to be able to continue to be engaged civically when I leave? Or how how am I going to be able to earn enough money to support myself and my family? I mean, you know, we have 20 percent of our students are. Eligible and but what unites them with the other students who don’t have the same financial concerns is that they have to find a way to translate what they’ve learned here into what they want to do next.

Dave Carillo: It sounds like we’re looping back to that generative idea of critical thinking, right? That we can find limitations in Aristotle, we can find limitations in and Stein. But part of what’s going to allow students to become stronger critical thinkers, at least to some extent, is being able to find the value of vacant stein in that sort of application and that transfer. My parting question or my contribution to this would be, well, what’s next? I don’t think that that kind of generative element is something that you abandon you working on new projects to further that or new sort of perspectives on that to add to your conversation here.

Michael Roth: Yeah, I’ve just finished a new book which will be out in the summer, which is called Safe Enough Spaces, a pragmatist approach to inclusion, political correctness and intellectual diversity. So I think the confidence in American higher education has not grown despite beyond the university. I mean, in the last seven years or so, confidence in higher ED has weakened further, and some of that is due to the controversies around affirmative action and inclusion around political correctness and around intellectual diversity. And so I’ve written this little book that some of its things I’ve published in the press on these issues, arguing for the importance of affirmative action, for intellectual diversity, for creating a conversation on campus that’s likely to lead to more cross in the cross training, more translation that’s meaningful and that would empower students to do the work they want to do, and we’ll find meaningful beyond the university. I’m very interested in continuing to defend the space of a university as a place where you can find meaningful debate and encounter with people who are not like yourself, as the country has gotten increasingly segregated by class and race. Some colleges and universities are places where people from very different social classes actually have meals together. A plan teams together live in the same darn suite, and that’s not going to happen unless they graduated. It didn’t happen before they got there. How do you maximize the benefits from having a diverse campus? The way to minimize them is clear that as you create boundaries on speech so that nobody actually is going to antagonize anyone else, whether those are formal or informal.

Michael Roth: So how do you create a space that’s safe enough to reap the benefits of antagonism? I really that was the title. I really liked the benefits of antagonism, but with no one else like it. But I do think that’s important, and it’s interesting to me that when I go to public lectures, very little combat actually as the kind I used to see when I was a student. People are, you know, very it can be ironic. They can be, you know, a little bit probing. And and maybe that’s because people only go to the lectures they anticipate liking them when they go. Maybe it’s because their criticism can spin out of control quickly. They’re they’re afraid of antagonism. What I want to see and I do see in my classes, especially the benefits of confronting views that you find not just challenging but sometimes abhorrent. So in my virtual advice class, you know, we start off with these old thinkers and they, you know, they say things like, Oh, I can’t believe that Rousseau uses the male pronoun, and I have to explain that’s like a dumb criticism to me because he’s writing, he’s writing at night, writing in English, and his is the 18th century they look around like, is he allowed to do that? Is that to say that? And then we’re reading this Maggie Nelson text in the first pages about dildos and anal sex, and they’re like, but it’s queer anal sex. And so they’re like, Well, are we? I mean, are we? And I say, So what are these stereotypes about gay people? And it’s one person out of 80 said, and I don’t think that I was very uncomfortable at that conversation.

Michael Roth: And I say to them, Listen, we’re going to say stupid things. Some people are going to get upset. Let’s just say we’re all friends here. We’re going to try to, you know? And if you say something bad, apologize and eventually you get to a place not perfect. But people actually are going to have a chance to talk about things that make them uncomfortable, but don’t destroy them. Now, if you don’t do that, it won’t happen. If you, as a teacher, create a safe enough environment where people can actually try out their critical jobs, try out their sympathetic jobs. The university is such an incredible opportunity to ask students to go beyond where they thought they could go. We do it in athletics as a matter, of course, right? They push, they push the push. You could do it in in philosophy, in history and in chemistry. And I always say to the parents, you can’t overestimate how hard a 20 year old can work much harder than I can. But you can also can’t overestimate how little they’ll do if you don’t get them to do it right. And so I do think as a teacher giving them a sense of the pleasure of that. Counter the empowering feel of like when you learn to speak a language or you learn to get a film or a piece of music, that’s incredibly exciting for many students. I mean that all I’m sorry I can keep going on and on.

Steve Pearlman: No, I don’t think there’s a much better way to end the podcast and with what you just said about the university’s power. We really appreciate your joining us today and being on. There is a great pleasure for us.

Michael Roth: Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you for having me. It’s always fun to talk about these issues. Thanks.


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