Michael Roth on the Whole-Person Approach to Education


Michael S. Roth  Photo: Lu Zhiyu/CSST

In a time of rapid technological advancement, what is the primary focus of learning and the fundamental objective of education? With the rise of artificial intelligence tools, which simplify life but also raise significant concerns, how can students prepare for the future? In a recent interview with CSST, Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, emphasized that regardless of evolving times, students should consistently strive for independent thinking, a spirit of experimentation, and strong community connections -- a philosophy that educators should embrace.


Openness in sustaining lifelong education


CSST: When considering the most crucial elements of education, what three factors would you prioritize?


Michael Roth: For me, the three things that everyone should learn, especially in the college and university, but also in high school, are to discover what you love to do, to get better at it, and then to learn how to share with other people.


Discovering what you love to do is so important. It’s not just about finding out what your passion is. It’s not like closing your eyes and thinking, what do I love? No. You have to try things, you have to work at something and develop a practice. And then, once you develop the practice, you think, “I really love doing this” — maybe it’s math, maybe it’s theatre. And then you have to work much harder to get much better at what you love to do. That’s a great thing. It’s really fulfilling. You work really hard, but it fills you with joy. But then, you think, what I might do if I’m not at school? How am I going to continue something and get good at it? You have to learn, with some help from a teacher, maybe from a college or university, how to share it with others.


How to get a job and do things you love to do, how to contribute to an organization in a way when you are doing things, the things you got really good at it. You love to do something and other people recognize it. The last piece, recognition, can come from a job, from being connected to a community, while you work hard at something you really find fulfilling.


CSST: Lifelong education has been discussed a lot recently. What is the core content for life-long education?


Michael Roth: The core content for lifelong education is learning how to learn. You know, we learn how to do computation; we learn a new language; we learn data analysis. The most important skill we have to develop, we have to practice, is learning how to be open enough, to continue to learn. Because when you are open to learning, that means you are able to figure out that "Hey, I may be wrong about this… I have the wrong path, or I am doing the wrong thing.” [And then you correct.] That kind of openness keeps you learning during your whole life.


I find being a teacher so rewarding because I’m always finding out that the things I thought I understood, I don’t understand so well. Because my students make it clear to me that I have to go further, have to learn more. So I think this idea of being a perpetual student, always open to learning, is a great gift. My literary agent is a French refugee from World War II. He’s really old now, but he tells me, I love to be an agent, because I always read something new everyday, always learning something. He’s 93. He is still a student.


The challenge of equitable access


CSST: What are the biggest challenges facing education presently? What can we (teachers, community/society, parents and students) do to overcome them?


Michael Roth: So, I think a tremendous issue in education in many parts of the world is equity. How do we provide quality education to anybody who’s open to learning? In the United States, you can get a quality education if you are rich; you can get a quality education if you are lucky — if you live in the right neighborhood. There are so many people, of course, in the United States, who don’t have a quality education. They don’t even learn to read at adult level by the time they are through high school. And that’s not because they don’t want to; that’s not because they can’t. It’s because that we have a system that it gives wealthy people great advantages in education. All over the world inequities exist, where people don’t have access to education, either because of their gender, because of their religion, because of their social and economic status. So, a great challenge is equitable access.


Another challenge is that many people think education has to just be [about] preparing for a career. Just prepare your job, and don’t think about other things, just think about your job. Now I know that most people have to have a job and they want to have a decent job. Of course, that’s really important. But it’s so important that we do not limit education to the narrow job you might have to refuse, and then change completely. So, that’s the second biggest issue.


And then, the third biggest issue for education around the globe is how to continue to cultivate an ethos of experimentation and openness, so that people don’t depend, let’s say, on artificial intelligence, to do your thinking for you; don’t depend on the government to do your thinking for you; don’t depend on your boss to do your thinking for you. You have to depend on yourself, to think for yourself in the company of others. So, on this new book, The Student, that’s my theme — how do we teach our students to think for themselves in the company of other people, not be isolated, but also not just follow a leader.


CSST: What can we do more to improve equality?


Michael Roth: Well, I think that’s a political question. And in the United States we have to fund schools in poor neighborhoods, and at a much higher level. I work at a liberal arts university, very expensive. If you can afford it, it’s very expensive; if you have no money, it’s free —that’s great. But if you have little bit money, you get some aid. But maybe too much money for your family, that’s not very fair. We have a program at Wesleyan with high schools in high poverty areas. We offer free college classes online and with hybrid (in-person) dimensions in high poverty high schools. And we find, which is so interesting to me, we find these kids, who think “I’m not that smart at high school”, “my parents didn’t go to college”. And then it’s like, “Hey, I’m pretty smart”, “I can take a course from Wesleyan, from Harvard, and I do really well”. And they get a free college credit, and they get confidence. I think offering opportunity to students improves education equity. Creating opportunity is the way to go.


Become real contributors to their countries


CSST: Could you elaborate on the Wesleyan faculty’s renowned work in East Asian studies, as well as its appeal to students from East Asia?


Michael Roth: Wesleyan has this long history, especially in China, with Mansfield Freeman and his son Buck, born in China, actually, and some of the founders of AIG insurance. They began recruiting students to China in early part of the 1900s. And it took a while for that to grow. I met with a Freeman alumnus today, Tian Ai, who is in financial services. He said he came to Wesleyan, I guess, twenty years ago, maybe by then there were two or three Chinese students there. Now there are probably thirty new students every year. We have several hundred students in class every year, and maybe thirty will be from China. Maybe thirteen percent of our students are from outside the US, and the biggest group is from China. And that’s [been] true for a long time. Some of them because of the Freeman program.


There’s a wonderful historian, she’s retired now, at Wesleyan, Vera Schwarcz, who spent many years at Peking University, and published poetry in China. She wrote me just last night- she doesn’t know I’m in China. She’s now living in the Middle East. She really built a tradition of studying Chinese history, which continues at Wesleyan now. And we created, about eight years ago, the College of East Asian Studies. So we have students studying Chinese poetry, and economics, or Chinese politics, and religion, or Chinese music, and political science. And so they all combine in this College of East Asia Studies in a beautiful house that the Freeman family donated to us. And it’s a world community, many of the students there are from East Asia, from China particular, but many of them are not. You have students from Africa, students from New York, and California, and it really makes for a wonderful atmosphere for studying art, music, literature, politics, economics, with a focus on East Asia and its languages.


CSST: Could you provide further details on Wesleyan's scholarship programs, particularly those offered to students from Africa, as well as other countries, in addition to those from underprivileged communities? Furthermore, how does Wesleyan facilitate these opportunites?


Michael Roth: We have run the Freeman Scholarship Program for decades now. They give lots of money to Wesleyan to fund scholarships for students from eleven different Asian countries, and that was a great success. A few years ago, a trustee at Wesleyan, who’s from Africa, said, “Do it in Africa! Because in the next thirty years, Africa is going to grow economically, it’s growing demographically, [and] a lot of students want to come to North America for education. You should have a program like the Freeman program we have in China and Japan, you know. Have it in Africa.” I said, “Great”, but I have to find the money. So part of my job is to raise money for that program. This year, we started an African scholar program. We put some money together, and we have twelve students from nine different African countries coming to campus this semester. And our goal is, every year, to bring about ten, twelve students from Africa. They form a little family on campus, connect to each other, but they can do whatever they want, of course, as students. And the goal will be, once they graduate, they’ll go back to their home countries, and become real contributors to their countries.


Giving support to help them thrive


CSST: What kind of support do these students need to be successful?


Michael Roth: This is such an interesting issue. You know, I thought for years, "Ok, we give the people money to come, everything is over. We’re done. They are fine”. No, no, no. Because as you said, they get to school, [but] they don’t know how to navigate the school. Maybe their preparation isn’t good. Someone who went to some fancy high school, and they know exactly what to do. And so we found these students, the first generation in their family to go to college, and they’re from low-income, they need a little help in the beginning. And so, for years we didn’t recognize that.


I’ll give you an example- we have vacation and we closed the dining hall, and people go home. But for the poor students, they have nowhere to go, and we didn’t provide them food. We just thought they would figure it out. And they did, no one starved. But it made it harder for them. So, now we give them that support. We bring them to Wesleyan in the summer before they start; we give them courses so they can get going, get used to the school. We have special support in stem fields because we find in the sciences if you didn’t go to a very good high school, the material you’ll have in a university is really new. To those went to a good high school, some of them will be very familiar, so that’s not really fair. So, we are giving special support to students who are the first in their families to go to college, or have low-income families- giving them the support they need to succeed. It’s not just getting them in, but helping them thrive.


CSST: What are the results?


Michael Roth:Yes, in the sciences, the data is improving. We used to lose lots of students. They come, and they would say “I want to major in biology", and then a year later they would say, “now I’m majoring in sociology, or in English". We said, “What happened?", they would say, “Oh, nothing happened”. Then we look at their grades, and they had often gotten a bad grade [in the science class]. So, why did that happen? Because they didn’t get a little boost in the beginning. And so by giving them a little boost at the beginning, by helping them get started, and also changing the way we teach, with more active learning, we got much better results in what we call “persistence in the major”. So, if you are a kid who is low income, or you are the first in your family to go to college, we now have a much better chance to keep you in biology, if that’s where you want to be. What if you change your mind? That’s fine too, but we want you to change your mind because it’s up to you, not because you hadn’t been given the support you need. And the statistics are impressive, because we started this small program. We made this small investment. I said “show me the data”. More students are staying at their majors and that worked.


The other thing we’ve done, and I think it’s really interesting, is to have a program at Wesleyan to get a MA in five years rather than a four-year BA. We have a special program for students from under-representative groups, from minority groups. It had been a small program, and I wondered why it was so small. Because you got to go for free, and you get master’s, and the idea is you get prepared to go to an even better PhD program. But why wasn’t it more popular? Someone pointed out to me: we weren’t giving the students enough money. They were there for free, but they needed to take a job for food, they aren’t actually getting enough benefit from the research. So I found a generous donor who made a very generous gift. And we increased their stipends, so they can really focus on their work. And suddenly, it’s very popular. So this summer, we have students who had been doing their own research at Wesleyan. They went to Rockefeller University in New York, which is just a graduate program in the sciences, with some of the greatest research professors in the world. So these are black and blown students, mostly, who are going to make great contributions in the sciences. And all we did is giving them a little boost, and then they are on their own.


Wesleyan University Photo: File

Education is about the whole-person


CSST: What are the relationships between education and communities?


Michael Roth:So education of course is not just job training, and it’s not just about scientific research. Education, as I’ve learned to say, learning from my colleagues in China, is about the whole-person, and that means being part of the community. You know, in America, we are very individualistic. We say, I learned it by myself, and I made it by myself. No, no, no. A person is part of a community, part of a nation, and it’s part of the region. And so, I think, one of the things we help the students to understand, is they can succeed as individuals and still have deep connections to community. So I’ve been creating scholarships for people who want to participate in elections, who want to work for candidates, who want to run for offices. The mayor of Middletown, where Wesleyan is, is a young alumnus right now, and the state’s senator in our region also went to Wesleyan. And there are many, many, many other students who get involved as public servants, because they start those habits while they are at Wesleyan.


More broadly, one other thing you learn, I think, when you work at a science lab, when you are working at a theatre group, is you learn to collaborate. You know, you’re making a movie, say. I have the vision, I’m the director. Yeah, you need a cameraman, you need a sound-man, you need an editor, you need actors. And so, our film program is one of the greatest examples of these. Our film program is probably our most famous program at Wesleyan, and they make great movies and TV shows. But the students learn they have to work together. And if I help you to do your film, you’ll help me. And that kind of reciprocity, culture of mutual assistance, is a great thing to learn earlier on. Because, then as a citizen later on, when there’s a problem, you pitch in the help. When there’s a celebration, you take joy in it. And those, I think, are cultural elements in theatre, and in biology, that compliment education missions.


CSST: How do universities play a role in education today?


Michael Roth: There is in the United States, especially, a divide now, between what is so called elite universities, and education more broadly. Some of these are politically disingenuous attacks on elites, but some of the criticism is true. Some people from fancy universities, like the Harvards, Wesleyans, or Yales think they are so much better than the average person. And then, after a while, the average person doesn’t like to hear that. Moreover, they don’t listen to the universities because they don’t think they are speaking the same language.


So I think it’s really important for people like me, presidents of universities, professors from universities, to talk to other people who are not at the university. [As I argued in my] book, Beyond University, the most important value of a university education for me occurs beyond the university, beyond the walls of the campus. And so, I think our educational system in the United States definitely needs the expertise of really smart people, at really great universities. We also need to share our knowledge more broadly than we have in the past. So, I’ve been teaching online for a decade now. Every week, a few hundred people joining my Coursera class on the modern and the post-modern. I’d have thousands of students take that class online, and it gives me great pleasure. When I’m traveling, I often meet people who said, “Hey! I took your class online”. And many schools can do this, it’s not that hard. It’s a way of sharing what you learned with other people, and that sometimes I’m learning from them. Because I correspondent with some of these students over time, and get to know them a little bit. And I think that we have to play a role in helping to reform the educational system for young people. And then, we must play a role in helping create better citizens.


Again, in the United States, [we are] very individualistic. You go to college, and you go to graduate school, and you become a very successful lawyer, and you get a house, and you put a gate around it, and you are all by yourself, and … No, that shouldn’t be the way. Your success should be a complementary success- you should work with community, your connections to community. And so, I spend a lot of time now working with a group of other universities’ presidents in the United States, trying to figure out how can teach our students to be better citizens. Some of them just to teach them how the government works. But more importantly, I think, is giving them the habits of spirit, that they want to participate in the public sphere. That’s not just about making money. It’s about doing well for yourself, but in the context of a community that should thrive. And that means you have to do your part, in your town, your city, and in your country.


CSST: What is the role of universities in dealing with current global issues?


Michael Roth: It is a big topic. I do think my job is to try to remind people of some basic values that are key to education, but also, importantly in international relations. Honesty, mercy, compassion, pursuit of peace- all of these things are really important on a campus. If you are in a classroom and you are arguing with someone, and then they are taking out a gun, this is not education anymore.


And so how you get from the pursuit of justice, how do you connect the pursuit of justice to the pursuit of peace? I think that is something universities can play a role in. Most of the time, universities should be a place where you can have an open dialogue about geopolitical issues, not a place where you are told what to think. You know, people come from different perspectives, and trying to work out their differences, or at least understand their differences from one another, and their similarities with one another.


So, here I’m in China this week. And the relationship between the US and China in the last couple of years have been bad, and there’s been a lot of tension. And I thought to myself, should I really go back to China? I used to come every year, and had a great relationships with Chinese Academy of Social Sciences of course, and some other institutions. And when I thought about coming back, those are the relationships that matter. Maybe people in the government, there have their own issues to deal with. But I have colleagues in the Chinese Academic of Social Sciences, I have colleagues at the universities. I met the group of high school students today, these are general educational relationships, so it’s important to cultivate them. I think the same thing is true in the business world. Businessmen, they realize, “Ok, you are Chinese, I’m American, we have our differences, we also can work together”. That’s the key. We have to work together. We all know that, and maybe those of us in education can set an example [about] what it means to work together, and find some common ground so that we can make progress.


Learning Freedom in the company of others


CSST: What is the primary message you hope readers will glean from your recent book, The Student: A Short History, and who is the intended audience for this work?


Michael Roth: The choice audience is anyone who’s been a student, and wants to be a student again. It’s probably high school and up- I mean it’s written accessibly and maybe old high school students, college students, and their parents. I started off by looking at three iconic teachers, Confucius and his followers, and Socrates, three of his interlocutors, and Jesus, three of his disciples. I’m interested in the way a student can be a follower, try to be a follower, like Confucius’ followers, or a conversation partner, and a critical dialogue partner with Socrates, or someone who wants to imitate the life, like the cases with Jesus’ supporters. And those are models of learning that goes out to the history of the West.


I then really focus on the history of the West, showing how, before the modern age, being a student meant learning how to be economically independent, and how to be integrated into a community. So your parents want you to learn stuff so you can leave the home and go set up your own household. It’s a very important way of being a student. You don’t need a school for that although some schools had been developed. But in the 1700s, especially the second half of the 1700s, the idea of the student gets tied to the idea of freedom. And that’s the core idea of the book: being a student in the modern age, and the contemporary age, is learning to practice freedom. I started with the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who says that being enlightened is to leave behind your self-imposed immaturity. Many of us still act like children, you don’t want to, but you hold on to these things because it’s easier sometimes to not take responsibility, to not think for yourself. And Kant says what it means to really be enlightened by the past: being enlightened is learning to think for yourself, and to be exposed to the ideas of others. Free speech is so important. Free publication is important, because that’s how you learn to think for yourself. And so I traced this idea up to the present through ideas about college, about high school. I discuss [Wilhelm von] Humboldt and the German context [of Bildung]; I also looked at some of the very famous students in the United Sates, like W. E. B. DuBois, who had to overcome enormous racism, to become one of the greatest students of our time, learning so much about so many things.


But what are they really learning? This goes back to the question about the perpetual student. What they are really learning, I argue, is how to practice freedom, how to be open, how to have an ethos of experimentation, and how to learn from others while thinking for yourself. That’s the paradox of being a student, right? Because you have a teacher, and [yet] you are thinking for yourself. Nietzsche says, your teacher should be your liberator. And there’s a great art professor, John Baldessari, who said, being an art teacher means knowing how to get out of the way. So being a student is to know you are on your way, in the company of others. And that’s what I think freedom means. Towards the end of the book, I talked about the other three things I hope students learn, which I talked about before- about what you love to do, and getting better at it, and sharing it. But the core idea is that in the West, being a student, comes to mean learning freedom.


Never outsource our thinking


CSST: In terms of the relationship between education and AI, what are the major challenges/benefits presented by AI, with regards to teaching and learning in particular?


Michael Roth: What a great question. You know, when I first heard about it, the simple AI of chat-bots, the OpenAI, I was horrified. Because my view, you know, is thinking for yourself and, this machine thinks for you. I asked OpenAI “why does Michael Roth loves the movie, the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, which is a film I teach in my film and philosophy course. It gave me a great answerIt said: Michael Roth likes this film because he’s interested in memory and forgetting desire, and romanticism, and he wrote about it”. I read this and I showed it to my wife, and she says “it sounds like you”. And then I got to my office to get ready to class, and I think to myself, “I’ve never written about this film”. I go and have to take my book about the movies from the shelf, and I never wrote about this film! If I had written about it, I probably would say something about what this machine said I would say. But I have never said that. So I think, ok, it’s very smart, but it has no judgement. It’s a useful tool, but we don’t want to outsource our thinking.


My view of the student, is that you should learn to think for oneself. AI says, don’t think for yourself, I can think for you, go have a beer. It’s very tempting. But I say, [letting some machine think] for me is a nightmare. So, I think if we use it as a tool so we can think for ourselves more effectively — making proteins, solving climate change issues, complex computational problems, problems, even complex literary analyses, that’s great. I tell my students: use it, just cite it. And then make something yourself. But if we give up making something of ourselves, I think then we give up being human beings.


It’s very challenging. When I do my grades at the end of semester, I use a calculator, I just don’t sit there using a pencil anymore. I use a tool. Is there some loss? I don’t really think so. But if, I would say, I want write an article for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, so I just ask AI to do it. If that, you got enormous loss. It’s dishonest. So I think figuring it out when you have the tool, and the tool has you, that’s the challenge. And being a student means you always want to figure out how you can use something, and not just be used by it. And if the world is used by AI, I think it is a great loss. I also threaten [my students], though. I also say, if you use AI, and you don’t tell me you are doing it, I’ll kick you out [of school]. I don’t know. I’m sure they use it, and maybe they are thinking, I’m using the calculator [like a tool], and that’s ok. I don’t think you can stop people from using most technologies that make things easier. But this is a technology [that knows how] to teach itself new technologies, and that’s an order of concern. But I don’t think we will be able to forbid it very long. But I do think if we create those, we should use this technology for our own purposes, and not just follow its purposes.


I’ll give you another example: this morning I met these wonderful high school students in Beijing. And I said, you know, you could ask AI, what school you should go to. Here is what I took, here’s my interest, where should I go?” And AI just tells you where to go. I said if it says go to Wesleyan, please don’t, because I want people to go [to Wesleyan] not because of an obvious prediction, that most people who look like you will do that- [as in] most people who like this movie, like this book. You can use that, but if you let [the machine] run your life, then I think you are less free. In my view, as the student, you want to be more free. AI can give you more time to be more free, or it can just take your freedom away because it takes over your life.

Edited by YU HUI