The Student: A Short History

The Student: A Short History

This article was written by Michael S. Roth from The Wall Street Journal. Appeared in the May 18, 2024 print edition. Teaching teachers new tricks.

The U.S. has the world’s best universities and, it sometimes seems, the world’s worst students. This is because most universities have two business models. One is research and development in concert with the private sector, and the creation of new patents. The other is keeping young people off the streets and the unemployment rolls, and using other people’s money—parental savings, student loans—to advance programs of indoctrination inimical to most Americans. 

The Student. A Short History

By Michael S. Roth

The first business attracts the cream of the world’s scientists and makes the U.S. the world’s leading innovator. The second is clotted with identity-based tokenism, political extremism, bureaucratic incompetence, intellectual imposture, and students who can’t spell. Not to mention, especially on Ivy League campuses, antisemitism. University presidents pander to the mobs, and professors link arms to defend their protégés. 

Democracy requires educated citizens. Government needs competent servants. The education system produces neither in sufficient number. From your local preschool to the Harvard Kennedy School, American education is failing the public. But it was not always this way, and it doesn’t need to be.

Michael S. Roth is the president of Wesleyan University, and his book “The Student” is an instructive and idealistic apologia for the ideals of instruction, from Confucius and Socrates to the clowns and communists of current educational theory. An apologia is not an apology—as medieval students knew; an apologia is a defense or justification—but Mr. Roth’s is welcome anyway.

The means and ends of education, Mr. Roth shows, have always changed to reflect their time and place. He begins with the ancients: Confucius (“harmonious integration”), Socrates (“critical self-awareness”) and Jesus (“renewal through the acceptance of a mentor’s path”). Confucius, Socrates, and Jesus didn’t write anything down, so we must take their students’ word about their pedagogical aims.

Confucius, the son of a nobleman who had lost his social footing, lived in disordered times, and wrote in exile, like Machiavelli but with morals. Confucian educational theory inculcated private virtue (de) in the service of public benevolence (ren). The ideal student is a junzi (learned gentleman), the ideal result a “harmonious collective.”

Socrates was born in 469 B.C., about a decade after Confucius’ death. Unlike many of today’s professors, Socrates was good with his hands and was proud to defend his homeland. “His stonemason father taught his son the family trade, and Socrates fought for Athens against the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War. One student, the soldier-historian Xenophon, depicts Socrates as the practical man who teaches that eupraxia (well-being) comes from successfully completing a challenging task. Another, Plato, depicts Socrates as an ironic trickster, whose irritating questions teach that self-knowledge begins in recognizing your own ignorance.

Athens’s oligarchy executed Socrates for “corrupting the youth.” 

Jesus was also executed for political reasons. He taught, Mr. Roth writes, neither Confucius’ “return to tradition” nor Socrates’ “conversational encounters,” but pursued the “transformative dimension of learning” to the highest level, total rebirth. This method creates disciples and revolutionaries, not students and bureaucrats. Socrates would have appreciated the irony, and Confucius the results, of how Christianity remade education.

Before the modern age, the ideal education was private: small groups of adepts or followers, and tutors in the homes of the wealthy. The university was born in medieval Europe to train staff for the Catholic Church. It was reborn in early modern Europe during the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment. As the means of education went public, its ends changed from teaching Christian dogma and training bureaucrats to reviving the Greek “spirit of critique” (” critical thinking,” as educators now call it) and socializing liberal-minded gentlemen. The proto-modern student appears late in the Renaissance. Hamlet (home from Wittenberg U.) is anguished, antagonistic, depressed, pushing thirty and entirely dependent on his parents. Shakespeare, the son of a glover, did not attend any university.

Mass democracy requires mass education, and that, gradually, opened the university to all. The early 20th-century American university was both a finishing school for idlers and a social and professional escalator for women, African Americans, and the children of immigrants. The contradictions in the student body heightened in the decades after 1945. The GI Bill and the removal of racist quotas allowed adult students to study seriously and made university admissions more meritocratic, but “corporatization” and credentialism conformity also intensified.

“The great object of Education,” Emerson wrote, should be “commensurate with the object of life.” He meant the inner life, not social life, or the pursuit of a “vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever to barbarism.” But, like Ophelia with Hamlet, today’s American student receives mixed messages. One is the Romantic ideal of education as personal liberation; the other is the Enlightenment ideal of ordering society by reason and specialization.

Mr. Roth is alert to these complexities, but he struggles to explain what happened to student identity in the 1960s. Why did the leaders of the freest and most comfortable generation in human history become Trotskyites and Maoists? Why, when the students asserted their Kantian right to educate themselves, did their independent minds all conform to the same repressive political ideologies?

The usual parochial reasons (civil rights, the Vietnam draft, campus curfews, sex-segregated dorms) are insufficient. The rebels of 1968 lost the battle but won the war by retreating to the campus, inducting generations of students into the myth of revolution and sending them on the long march through the institutions. More than the internet, the prime site of radicalization today is the elite private university. As Mr. Roth notes, if the good student is a true believer, there is no place for Socrates’ “ironic skepticism.” A degraded Confucianism endures because the ever-expanding bureaucracy needs managers.

The university has always been a Ship of Theseus, sailing on even as all its original timbers are replaced. It has mutated into the allegorical Ship of Fools, a vessel for vanities. The crew is now cannibalizing itself, like the shipwrecked sailors in Théodore Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” (1819). Salman Khan’s “Brave New Words” suggests it can be refloated on the ocean of artificial intelligence. AI, Mr. Khan believes, can combine the personalized ancient model (“the kind of tutor Aristotle was Alexander the Great”) with the impersonal modern model (“the utopian idea of offering mass public education to everyone”).

Mr. Roth asks if certification by “a teacher (or both)” is “the capitalist version of Confucian harmony,” with teaching reduced to “lessons of conformity;” students should be so lucky. As the founder of the tutoring firm Khan Academy, Mr. Khan has done more than anyone to compensate for the failings of old-school education. He is blunt about the unsustainable inadequacy of a system in which three-quarters of graduating high schoolers “lack basic proficiency in writing” and “a majority of students, even the ones who graduate from high school and then decide to go to college, do not even place into college-level math.”

The alternative ideal, advanced in this readable and cheery view of the academic apocalypse, would grant “every student on the planet” access to “an artificially intelligent personal tutor” that could debate with them, fine-tune their writing, and suggest “new ways of experiencing art and unlocking their own creativity.” It would be enough for them to learn to read and write.

As the fates of Socrates and Jesus teach us, terrible things are often done in the name of the public good. 

Mr. Khan, of the Kahn Academy, recommends that students ask their AI to help “generate a first draft” of essays, but admits that the line between “help” and “cheating” is unclear. He recognizes the need for data protection and “guardrails” to avoid “bias and misinformation” but admits “uncertainty” about how these guardrails should be designed, because AI is a new frontier.

We have already crossed it. While Mr. Khan dreams of a “real, ethical, responsible tutor sitting next to your child when they do anything on the internet,” the emerging reality of this fraternal image is Big Brother, under orders from the Education Department and the American Federation of Teachers. Some teachers get flustered by directing the traffic at drop-off and pickup. They won’t have the time to micromanage the digital education of every child.

AI will take over because it is efficient, cheap, and nonunionized: Khan Academy serves more than one hundred million students a year on an annual budget of about $70 million: “equivalent to the budget of a large high school in many parts of the United States.” Mr. Khan believes that teachers won’t be thrown overboard in the name of efficiency, because teaching is an “essential profession.” But if AI will shortly “automate almost any traditional white-collar process,” why should teachers be spared?

The same goes for university students. AI, Mr. Khan writes, can be trained not to favor college applicants by “race, religion, gender, or age”—but it won’t, because that would be political anathema. AI can also detect cheating which is endemic in college papers—but that would be bad for the university business.

Though universities will fight to retain their pre-digital monopolies, the writing is on the whiteboard. Why take out a government-issued mortgage on a traditional credential for a white-collar job that no longer exists? What kind of eupraxia would students get from completing a task in which AI did the demanding work? Anyway, we don’t need more social workers, gender students and Marxist literary theorists. We need plumbers, nurses, and soldiers: people trained to do the jobs that AI cannot yet do. Socrates’ father was right: Stonemasonry is a job for life.

Mr. Green is a Journal contributor and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

Copyright ©2024 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.