Having lived in the East Bay for seven years when I was president of California College of the Arts, I was delighted to come back this week to talk about education on KQED's "Forum" show.

Although I had been booked to talk about higher education, the first part of the show was devoted to discussing the breaking story about a Los Angeles judge finding California's tenure system for public school teachers to be unconstitutional.

We need seven years at the college level to decide whether someone deserves tenure. How can California teachers be judged after only two?

In the second half of the show we got to college education, especially the strain in American higher education that places a premium on critical thinking, creativity and learning how to learn, which is the subject of my recent book, "Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters."

Of course, I knew that many in the audience would want to debate such hot-button topics as student debt, the challenging job market and rising inequality. They did.

Arguing about education is an American tradition. Many of the Founding Fathers envisioned learning as a vehicle for social mobility and effective citizenship.

The health of a republic, Thomas Jefferson argued, depends on the education of its citizens. Only an educated citizenry can push back against the tyranny of the powerful.

Although our nation's commitment to learning runs deep, we've always been suspicions about what those kids were really learning.

Ben Franklin was pretty sure that some of the boys up at Harvard were just learning how to feel superior to everybody else, and films like the new documentary "Ivory Tower" show schools that pander to the worst instincts for luxury, partying and callousness. Students seem to be having fun, but families are often borrowing heavily only to discover that the college diploma is no sure ticket to economic self-sufficiency.

Throughout our history, critics have often proposed compelling versions of a broad education that was useful beyond the university without being narrowly instrumental.

Thinkers as different as Jane Addams and W.E.B. DuBois underscored that no university worthy of the name should merely train young people for jobs that the previous generation thought most suitable.

How different this is from today's critics who no longer claim to be in search of "true liberal learning," but instead want education that simply equips people to play an appropriate role in the economy.

In the 1920s, narrow utilitarians wanted to train students to become docile workers. Today, young people are encouraged to abandon a broad education to focus on developing yet another app. Where is the progress?

During the show, callers described educations that enhanced their abilities to think and create, rather than ones that trained them in a soon-to-be-outmoded technology.

They were grateful for professors who aimed to enhance the capacities of the whole person. But they also spoke of the pernicious consequences of the debt they assumed during their student years.

The promise of college was greater freedom and an expanded range of possible choices. But student loans undermined their freedom and reduced their options.

Today, we must use frameworks that link repayment obligations to 10 percent of income, and we must put an end to any school's ability to profit from loans without providing real prospects for successful learning.

But we must also fight against efforts to limit higher education by social class or to constrict the college curriculum to a neat, instrumental path. Disguised as real-world solutions, these attempts stem from elitist condescension combined with the traditional effort to protect the status quo.

Since the country's founding, education has been closely linked to freedom and creativity, the combination of which is good for the individual as well as the society.

The pace of change has never been more rapid, and the ability to shape change and seek opportunity has never been more valuable than it is today.

If we want to push back against inequality and enhance the vitality of our culture and economy, we must support greater access to a broad, pragmatic liberal education.

Michael Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His new book, "Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters," was published in May by Yale University Press. He was also the president of the California College of the Arts and founding director of the Scripps College Humanities Institute in Claremont as well as associate director of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.