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INTERVIEWS BY: Diane M. Bolz, Suzanne Borden, Sarah Breger, Dan Freedman, George E. Johnson, Noach Phillips, Amy E. Schwartz, Francie Weinman Schwartz, Ellen Wexler & Laurence Wolff

PANO KANELOS

I would say the one thing that students leaving college should know is that they actually don’t know very much at all. The purpose of looking and thinking about the world critically is to take nothing for granted, to try to understand things in the most complex and nuanced way that we can. But to do that, we have to understand ourselves, because we’re depositories of our own biases. The mirror of human nature is rather cloudy. Understanding ourselves critically allows us to understand the world clearly and obviates the impulse that we might have simply to deconstruct or tear things down.

If the purpose of society is to support human flourishing, then a healthy society is one in which human beings are trending toward happiness—happiness in the Aristotelian sense, when human beings feel that their activity in the world, their relationships, accord with what the highest order of those things might be. So a society that’s healthy is one where we feel that we’re given that opportunity to lead ourselves toward the best possible lives.

Education up through high school is meant to give young people the tools, the skills, to understand the raw material of the world, such as mathematics, biology and history. It’s a very skill-and-content-based education. What makes higher education “higher” is that at that stage in life, we’re ready to become fully critical human beings, to turn the mirror back upon everything we’ve learned and begin to question and analyze and understand things in a more complex way. It’s during those years after high school and in college, when we’ve reached a level of maturation—intellectual, moral and otherwise—that we’re ready for those questions.

I think part of the foundation of human flourishing in the aggregate is the ability for us to have common and civil conversations with each other, where we can exchange ideas and learn from one another. The question of human flourishing, like all great human questions, is one in which we’re never going to find a final answer. A truly profound education, a liberal education, is one that points students in that direction.

They’re seeking the meaning of human flourishing. And, in seeking human flourishing, we flourish. So that’s what we want to propel our graduates into the world with—that momentum toward the highest and best things.

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I’m with Aristotle. I think that wisdom begins with wonder. If what college graduates have learned during their college experience is that the world and being human beings in this world are wondrous things, awesome things, and that we should approach all of this, the world, our lives and one another, with a sense of being awestruck in wonder, that, to me, is the beginning of wisdom.

Pano Kanelos is founding president of the new University of Austin and former president of St. John’s College in Annapolis. A Shakespeare scholar, he was the first member of his family to attend college.

Nikole Hannah-Jones (Photo credit: Courtesy of Nikole Hannah-Jones)

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES

Every college graduate needs to have an extreme skepticism of power and institutions. If you come away from your college education with a historical narrative that’s not actually reflective of how our society works or how power works, you won’t be able to defend democracy in this country, or anywhere else in the world.

If I could wave a magic wand, every student would graduate with some depth of study in history—specifically, a history that allows us to question the way our institutions have been set up and how they operate. Now, not everyone’s going to study history. And, of course, the study of history at the university level also is narrow. You don’t study all of history, you study a narrow slice of it. But it takes just a class or two for you to become aware that you have been taught a narrative.

For instance, many of us were taught in school that this country is one of the oldest continuing democracies in the world, but that’s not true. We were an ethnocracy until 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. We know that Black people are underrepresented in every positive indicator and overrepresented in every negative indicator. And I can’t tell you how many times I encounter somebody, well-meaning or hateful, who thinks Black people had no real culture or knowledge or university education or anything before they were enslaved, when clearly in the 1600s, English people knew that they did.

We don’t have to frame this as unseating one people’s history: Rather, there has been a group of people in our society who have been able to dominate the narrative in a way that I think distorts our understanding of the world. You can certainly study great European literature, but do you know enough to know that Europe is not the center of the world? Timbuktu was a center of learning before anyone thought about Europe as a center of learning—can we learn that too? You don’t have to have a great depth of knowledge and expertise in history, but just understanding that shift makes us more tolerant. It opens the mind. And that, above all else, is what college should do:

Opening the mind helps us understand that power is created, not inherent.

Universities should provide spaces where people of different viewpoints come together. But we have to start with a basic framework—that there are certain groups that have been mistreated, and that they deserve some level of protection. We have to be able to critique, but we also have to be able to have discernment in our critique.
College obviously can’t teach us everything that we need to know, but it can unsettle what we believe to be fact and truth, that there are some certain facts and certain truths that are shaped by people who want us to understand our world in a certain way.

We say all the time, “Our children, our students, are going into a global economy.” “The world is smaller than ever.” But we’re not preparing them for that. What we’re preparing them for is to go into a world where white people are the dominant force in America and where America still is and should be the dominant force in the world. We should actually prepare them, and help them have an understanding of the actual world, not the imagined world.

Nikole Hannah-Jones is a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter, founder of The 1619 Project and inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at Howard University’s School of Communications, where she established the Center for Journalism and Democracy.

JULIA FISHER

I’m an old-fashioned millennial, and this is an old-fashioned answer. The most important thing to get out of a college education is a fairly rigorous grounding in what are probably now thought of as old-fashioned forms of canonical knowledge. College graduates should have a good knowledge of history, particularly American history, and the history of ideas—not to the exclusion of other things, but enough to give them a firm sense of the Western intellectual tradition. They should have read Shakespeare, Plato, Homer, and should be able to trace the big movements of thought over time in the traditions that have shaped the world we live in now.

Something like Columbia’s Core Curriculum or Yale’s Directed Studies Program should be required at every college in the country. Roosevelt Montás, former director of the Core at Columbia, has a new book in which he gives a beautiful defense of the value of the humanistic tradition in allowing people to be people. There’s a reason these subjects are called the humanities. They prompt you to ask questions that have no set answers, but have inspired thousands of years of good and beautiful and contradictory answers to the grand questions about what it is to be human—questions about beauty, justice, truth, science, love.

Yes, all of that is really useful for preparing people for careers, or teaching them to write and think better, but that’s not ultimately why they matter. History, philosophy, art history, literature matter most because they enrich your soul. Actually, students should learn a lot of this in high school, but unfortunately they don’t. Even in college, a lot of philosophy and English departments these days are too focused on simply training students who might want to go into those fields. But history and philosophy and literature are more important than learning how to write academic papers in those areas.

To be clear, I don’t think a strong grounding in a Western tradition should be to the exclusion of other things. It’s just a base. The canon shouldn’t be fixed; it should be argued about. It would be sad if at every school in America they read all the same books. There are a lot of ways to tell the story of the history of human thought and give people a glimpse of it. In programs such as Directed Studies, which I did, the faculty argue every year about what is included. The goal should be that college grads know enough to be able to participate in those arguments and see that there isn’t a fixed answer. Maybe that’s the test of whether you have a good grounding in the humanities: Whether you can argue about what that grounding should be. College should also be a time to devote to exploring all passions in all directions—whether that’s reading really intensely, or staying up till 3 a.m. arguing about liberalism, or going to parties, or running a newspaper and thinking that’s the most important thing in the world.

Education isn’t moving in this direction at all. It’s super practical, super commercially driven. People think, “Am I going to need this in my life? Am I ever going to use this?” It worries me. I guess I need the skill of paying my taxes, but I’m glad I didn’t learn that in school. School should be exciting and fun and a feast for the mind and the soul. You’re going to use it when you’re walking to the grocery store and your mind is wandering. It’s more interesting to live in your own head if your head is enriched with a good education.

Julia Fisher teaches English at Georgetown Day School in Washington, DC. She received a PhD in English from the University of Virginia.

MEIRA LEVINSON 

More than any one form or type of knowledge, we want our students to leave college with a certain set of dispositions. They should have a sense that they are able to lead lives that they value and that are of value to others. And they should know that one important way to achieve that is to work in concert with other people.

It’s way too much to expect our students to know what kind of life they want to lead when they leave college at 22. Very few of us knew that, and some of us are still questioning ourselves about it in middle age. So our kids don’t have to leave school with a clearly defined purpose. But we do want them to leave with a sense of themselves as people who can have purposes, who feel some confidence in exercising agency to pursue those purposes. They should have a sense that the life they’re leading will be something they enjoy—not just looking to the future or making their parents happy—and that it will have a purpose beyond themselves. They should feel able to work toward something that they think is good for others and also gives them some sense of joy, satisfaction or progress.

An essential feature of living that way is living in concert and communication with diverse others. There may be the occasional solitary guru, but there is a reason why in Jewish tradition, for instance, the rabbis are always in conversation. Trying to understand what it means to live out one’s values is a communal process. And whatever young adults are trying to do—get into medical school, write a novel, make it up the corporate ladder, teach fifth grade in rural Mississippi or English in Taiwan or care for an ailing parent or grandparent—they’ll do better if they have people to rely on who will ask them questions they haven’t thought to ask themselves.

“What I wish for college to impart to our students is a capacity to thrive in (and protect) our fragile democracy.”

Getting away from your family for a while lets you bump up against people who think differently from you and have different experiences and life plans, people who will challenge what music you like and what foods you find gross and how you’re spending spring break and whether you really want to go to law school. That constructively forces you to define what you know and what you want to do. That’s what colleges are set up for—residential colleges in particular, but not exclusively—to bring young people together in community and give them the opportunity to ask really big questions.

Do colleges do a good job of making that happen? It’s hard to offer a generic answer. Almost every college strives to provide students with those opportunities. Not all students have the support for that freedom to define themselves instead of having to fulfill somebody else’s expectations. If they have to work constantly to earn money to support themselves or family members, for instance, they won’t have the time to reflect and engage with others in ways that can build these opportunities.

“Every college student should know how to frame a question that merits an answer.”

Different schools have different cultures, and every college has pathways or areas or communities in which that kind of interaction and growth does take place. But sometimes it takes real work by students to seek those places out. They may not know where to look, or end up on tracks that skew them away from opportunities. How to successfully construct campuses that maximize those opportunities is a science unto itself. Constructing a diverse class along multiple dimensions, and then creating the spaces and opportunities in classrooms, dorm rooms, activities, summer internships, for that diversity to be experienced by all as a net positive in an equitable way—that takes a lot of work. It’s not easy, but it’s very valuable.

Meira Levinson is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Director of the Design Studio at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and the leader of Justice in Schools and EdEthics, which aims to launch a field of educational ethics. 

EVAN GOLDSTEIN

If you leave college knowing one thing, let it be this: Your value—and the value of the college degree you just earned—is not synonymous with your net worth. Your salary is not a report card on your life. Your vocation is not synonymous with your education. College is more than an economic sorting system. Most of us need jobs, ideally work that is interesting and adequately remunerative, but we also need meaning, perspective and understanding. As sociologist, historian and Pan-Africanist civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois put it: “The object of all true education is not to make men carpenters, it is to make carpenters men.”

This is an old insight in need of new defenses. As a society, we increasingly talk about college in starkly economic terms: What’s the salary premium on a four-year degree? What’s my return on investment? A cottage industry has sprouted up to calculate the economic value of your college degree, an arms race of calculators and scorecards that purport to measure whether you got your money’s worth. The impulse behind these efforts is admirable: Like any sector, higher education has its share of bad actors and grift. We need some way to assess whether colleges are delivering on their promises to students and families. But you’re more than a cog engineered for the labor market, and every question doesn’t lend itself to an economic answer. Some things can’t be distilled on a spreadsheet.

So what is college for? Here we get to the heart of the matter.

You are hopefully departing college having been awakened to life’s possibilities. Your gaze has been directed outward at the world, at the full range of human experience, and not merely inward at your own sense of self. You’ve been exposed to ideas you disagree with, and identities other than your own. You’ve cultivated—or managed to preserve, against great odds—an attention span, despite the apps and algorithms clamoring for your time. You understand the benefits and responsibilities of citizenship. You are humble about all the things you do not know, and curious enough to keep learning.

Am I being impossibly quaint? Possibly. But you should expect a lot from your college education. You’re worth it.

Evan Goldstein is the managing editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

MICHAEL FEUER

When I was in college, a half-century ago, we did social media a bit
differently—with spray paint. On the wall of a campus building that became a graffiti sketch pad, multicultural messages were scrawled in multicolor. One student offered a two-word summary of the late 1960s zeitgeist: “Challenge Authority!” The next day, a wry rebuttal appeared: “Says who?”

Sometimes four simple words are enough to conjure a philosophy of education. College students should acquire technical skills and knowledge to advance them in their careers—in science, the arts, business, government or some combination. But just as important are the ideas and values that will matter wherever they go next. Challenging authority was how the republic was founded, and college grads need to appreciate their luck to live in a society allergic to autocracy—and be prepared to cope with the ensuing messiness. To do this well means treating civics education as more than an accidental byproduct of the physical and social sciences and humanities; and it requires innovations in interdisciplinary teaching and learning, so that principles of the public good and excellence in traditional college majors don’t get trapped in foolish either/or logic.

But that won’t be enough. As much as I hope college grads have confidence to argue and a skepticism that is at the core of scientific and artistic progress, I hope they can curb their rebellious enthusiasm by showing respect for the authority of knowledge; and that they exhibit a trait which has been stuck in the clogged supply chain for some time, namely humility. That’s the wisdom of the “Says who?” part of the wall art: It’s fine to dissent, but we all need to listen to that inner voice that murmurs, “Don’t think you’re so great.” In other words, we need to challenge our own authority, too. This should be obvious in a religious society such as ours: After all, monotheism means, among other things, that God is [the only really great] One, so we should all take it easy. As the late Israeli author Amos Oz so poignantly reminded his audience in a talk at Australia’s University of Monash in 2011, “The Jews gave monotheism to the world…and then proceeded to argue with their creator—and with anyone who claimed they had things all figured out.” (I’ve often wondered if the romantic attachment between America and the Jews stems from our shared preference for argumentative cacophony over anodyne conformity.) Humility should be an essential goal in everything we teach: We build on the shoulders of giants, while doggedly and civilly searching for and correcting the flaws in their (and our) convictions.

Below every so-called “bottom line” there usually lurk unseen squiggles and curves. Nevertheless, what I wish for college to impart to our students is a capacity to thrive in (and protect) our fragile democracy. It is a sense that robust dissent and self-imposed modesty are the hand and glove of civic responsibility. On their graffiti walls (OK, their Twitter feeds) our graduates might put playwright and former president of the Czech Republic Václav Havel’s wise counsel: “Keep the company of those who seek the truth—run from those who have found it.” Inevitably, then, someone will add, “Oh yeah? Don’t be so sure…”

Michael Feuer is dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at The George Washington University and past president of the National Academy of Education. He is working on a book about civics education.

Leon Botstein (Photo credit: Courtesy of Leon Botstein)

LEON BOTSTEIN

The one thing that, ideally, every college student should know is how to frame a question that merits an answer. That’s the one universal skill, and it’s not as obvious as it seems. Asking a question that either merits an answer or suggests a search for an answer is what everybody should be able to do. We spend a lot of our time asking nonsensical questions. So it’s a critical intellectual skill to distinguish what are the important questions, which ones have merit, and which ones are worth the time and effort to answer.

“Why are canaries inferior to crows?” Well, they’re not. That’s a bad question that doesn’t deserve an answer. But if you ask “Why do people believe canaries are inferior to crows? Why harbor such beliefs?” that’s an interesting question.

The whole enterprise of science is based on asking the right question. At best, you’re asking a question about how the world works, how nature works. There’s a chance that if you pose the question properly, you may have a chance to push back on the people who insist on believing things that aren’t true, whether it’s the assertion that the 2020 election was stolen or fake Russian reporting about the invasion of Ukraine.

The asking of the right question can puncture the falsehood. Questioning underlies rabbinic commentary, Talmudic commentary and Socratic tradition. It is Athens meets Jerusalem, both centered on the asking of questions.

I also think that everybody at some point in their lives should have the experience of making music, whether they sing or play an instrument—whether at home or in a group. I would wish for everyone the experience of making music that’s heard by others. Bard has a requirement that all undergraduates take one semester of a studio art. That can be music, but it also can be painting or photography. The distribution requirement includes a semester of making art, not only studying it.

Engendering curiosity and thinking clearly and critically require knowing a lot of things. But understanding what needs knowing and defending—and what truths need defending—is also very important.

Leon Botstein has been the president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York since 1975. A violinist, Botstein has served as principal conductor for the Hudson Valley Philharmonic, music director of the American Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra.

Bob Mankoff (Photo credit: Courtesy of Bob Mankoff)

BOB MANKOFF

The one thing graduates should know is that five years from now, they will forget almost everything they learned from all of their college courses. Of course, there will be a residue that they will remember—sparked when they’re watching Jeopardy! That’s about it. Their education was largely wasted. They could have taken out books on answering Jeopardy! questions, and they would have done a lot better. I do think that most of education is wasted and actually harmful. It’s harmful in that it is forcing students to learn and to be able to recite and pass examinations. To do this, they will have to cram. And then they will say, ‘Well, that’s over, that’s done with, no more of that cramming and learning and testing.’ All of those topics they’re studying are actually quite interesting. But their curiosity has often been completely squelched.

“College graduates urgently require humanism—the drive to live up to their higher potentialities.”

I took these kinds of courses when I was at Syracuse. And then years later, after all the toxic effects of the cramming and having to go to class and all of those things that were interfering with my social life wore off, I got interested again. When you leave school, you may never want to see one of these books again. But try to get over it. Go back and look at those materials you were interested in. Try to reignite the curiosity you had originally when you stepped into the class.

Going to college is almost compulsory for all sorts of occupations. But we undervalue all sorts of non-college kinds of skills. We look down on people who go to vocational schools, but that’s a whole other kind of talent and intelligence. There’s a whole class of people, myself included, who can maybe do well on Jeopardy! and do The New York Times crossword puzzle, but if they get a flat tire, they’re out of luck.

The actual thing that changed my life happened at Syracuse. I often didn’t attend classes, so there was one class in sociology that I didn’t go to at all, except for the first class. But I went to the last class for the exam. And when I arrived late for the exam, the teacher came over to me and said, “Who the hell are you?” And I waited a beat, and then another. And then I said to him, “You know, I could very well ask you the same question!” And the entire class as well as the teacher broke out in laughter. And that’s actually what did change my life because then I knew I was going to go into humor.

Bob Mankoff is the cartoon editor of the digital magazine Airmail and former cartoon editor of The New Yorker. He is the author of Have I Got a Cartoon For You!: The Moment Magazine Book of Jewish Cartoons and many other books.

ERIC ADLER

College graduates should know their answers to two crucial questions: “What does it mean to be a good person?” and “How can I lead a fulfilling life?” Naturally, these are not easy queries. But their college education would be greatly enhanced by an introduction to transcendent works of literature, philosophy, art and religion that grapple with such questions in especially penetrating ways. The examination of great works such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Analects of Confucius, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man can help students ponder their own responses to the human predicament.

Unfortunately, most of our nation’s colleges and universities do little to help the young address issues of the utmost significance to human flourishing.

With their choose-your-own-adventure approach to general education, these institutions avoid the crucial element of character building. A college curriculum ought to provide a philosophical blueprint for the sorts of adults it aims to create. The university smorgasbord, by contrast, treats students as customers and reinforces the pernicious notion that the young have nothing to learn from the past. What else can one say about institutions that leave the content of an education up to the whims of the uneducated?

Unfortunately, most of our universities do not take human nature seriously. Enraptured by a chimerical faith in man’s natural goodness, they appear to believe that people left to their own devices will make the best decisions. But what happens when undergraduates are allowed to select all their own courses? Most of them choose the classes that don’t meet on Fridays or early in the morning and that don’t require much work. As the great Harvard humanist Irving Babbitt contended, “The very word curriculum implies a running together. Under the new educational dispensation, students, instead of running together, tend to lounge separately.”

Eschewing character development in favor of strict vocationalism is a danger to society. We can no longer presume—as the pedagogical romantics who built the American research universities in the late 19th century presumed—that young people will naturally use their pragmatic training for altruistic purposes. By avoiding the ethical element in education, America’s institutions of higher learning run the risk of creating adults whose resistance to introspection can cause great misery.

In short, college graduates urgently require humanism—the drive to live up to their higher potentialities. It is a fine thing that our universities have helped improve the material conditions of life and allowed for greater prosperity and efficiency. But by attending overwhelmingly to such matters, our higher education has lost sight of its crucial role in training for wisdom and character.

Is there a central core of human wisdom—across the ages, from manifold
traditions—that can guide us as we contemplate the best ways to live? Undergraduates can best find out by experiencing masterworks from a broad range of cultures. Especially in our increasingly pluralistic democracy, that’s exactly what they need to do.

Eric Adler is a professor of classics at the University of Maryland. His most recent book is The Battle of the Classics: How a Nineteenth-Century Debate Can Save the Humanities Today.

ERICA BROWN

I’m a believer in the importance of academic freedom, so there is no one subject I believe university students need to know before graduating. They are on college campuses to figure themselves out and should enjoy the autonomy of selecting their own courses. They are not children, they are emerging adults who usually learn at the end of their first finals that they are accountable and must drive their own educational trajectory.

Students, however, can become quickly overwhelmed by a heavy course load, club memberships and social obligations. They do not always know how to prioritize, often confusing what’s urgent for what’s important. By midterms, many students are drowning in commitments and not doing well at any of them. They are controlled by time and the lack of it instead of managing time well. The fable that papers fueled by creative adrenaline at the eleventh hour are better is an unfortunate myth. By the time college students graduate, they should have the kind of strong time-management skills that set them up for success in their future careers.

“The one thing graduates should know is that five years from now, they will forget almost everything they learned from all of their courses.”

The other necessary skill to graduate is writing. We tend to think of writing as a talent someone either has or does not have. But good writing is fundamentally an expression of good, clear, logical and coherent thinking. Every college student needs more of that.

Papers without clear thesis statements, without supporting evidence and with poor introductions and conclusions are not a problem primarily of writing, but of thinking.

How is it that a university education can cost upward of a quarter of a million dollars and allow students to graduate unable to master time management or write well?
It so happens that both these arenas are profoundly fundamental to Jewish life. Genesis 1 opens with the logical ordering of creation within time. This precious taxonomy is the first and perhaps greatest gift to humanity. And in receiving the Ten Commandments chiseled in stone, we understand that that which is in writing carries greater weight and influence. It has staying power.

Erica Brown is Yeshiva University’s vice provost for values and leadership and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership. Her forthcoming book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning.

DAVID KERTZER

We hope our students will get many things out of their college education, but as an anthropologist let me focus on two closely related skills they should acquire to help them escape from cultural bias. One is the ability to remove the blinders of ethnocentrism—that is, our natural tendency to judge other cultures by the standards and categories of our own. The other is the ability to critically evaluate the claims to knowledge that we encounter. My colleagues in the discipline of anthropology should be uniquely qualified to help students learn both of these skills. Ethnocentrism is something that anthropologists have historically warned their students against. That said, I fear that in recent years many of them have fallen prey to it.

On the fraught subject of race, for instance, anthropologists have long argued that race is a social construction, not to be treated as an essential or innate quality. But in recent times, many anthropologists themselves seem to be trapped in a highly culturally specific (and highly politicized) worldview. I am constantly struck by the extreme ethnocentrism shown in so many college discussions and presentations dealing with issues of race. Colleges overflow with courses and guest lectures that seem to take for granted that it is a Western or even a peculiarly American practice to divide the world’s population into categories based on physical appearance and place of origin.

Yet anyone who has lived in other parts of the world knows how widespread such distinctions are, though the specifics of course differ. While one might expect anthropologists to raise such points and help students draw out their implications, these days such discussions are often avoided. (With this in mind, in one of my own classes, a course on the role of symbolism in politics, I assign readings that describe how the racial and ethnic categories in the U.S. census, such as Hispanic, are political constructions, the product in part of lobbying by ethnic entrepreneurs in whose interest it is to create groupings that they can claim to represent.)

Besides showing students how to question and deconstruct categories that are widely assumed to be somehow natural, a college education should teach students to critically evaluate claims to knowledge, including—and this is essential—those they agree with. In our highly politicized society, students often seem to assume that dubious claims (“fake news”) are to be found on only one side of the political spectrum. Yet assumptions of facts and implicit editorializing are to be found on all sides.

If a student came out of college with a wider understanding of other world cultures and with the recognition that all knowledge claims, no matter what their source, need to be evaluated before being accepted, along with the tools to do so, that would be a great achievement of the college years.

David I. Kertzer is University Professor of Social Science at Brown University, where he teaches anthropology and Italian studies. A Pulitzer Prize winner, he is the author of the forthcoming The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini and Hitler.

REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN

If a student doesn’t leave college knowing what knowledge is, what knowledge demands of us, the responsibilities it lays on us, then, sad to say, I think the four years have been a waste of time and money.

Philosophers have a handy definition of knowledge: Knowledge is “justified true belief.” All the big questions get pushed off into the word “justified.” It’s not enough to have a true belief if the grounds on which you believe it are bad, because then your belief just happens, by accident as it were, to be true. You’ve got to make the truth less than accidental, up the odds. Justification means you have to have a good argument for your belief. And what’s a good argument? That’s what students should be trained to know. They should become adept at recognizing the difference between good arguments and bad ones. This isn’t easy, especially if the conclusion is something that we want to believe. Then we’re easily bamboozled into accepting bad arguments.

Then all the cognitive fallacies our brains are prone to are put to work, and we end up basing our beliefs on unsound arguments. Students should learn how difficult it is to argue well for a conclusion. To know this, they have to know how to distinguish between different types of arguments—deductive, inductive, abductive—and what counts as good within these three categories. Fortunately, there’s a whole science of assessing arguments, and the science is called logic. So what I’m advocating for is a basic knowledge of logic.

The most useful tool I learned as a student was to take some article I’d read and formally reconstruct it, laying out the bare bones of its logical structure. What, exactly, is the conclusion? What, exactly, are all the premises that the author is relying on, both stated and unstated? (Often the unstated premises are the shakiest. You may not realize the author is depending on them until you do the formal reconstruction.) Once you’ve got the structure of the argument all neatly laid out, only then can you ask the next questions: Do the premises actually support the conclusion? Are the premises themselves true?

This familiarity with arguments of different kinds, knowing what’s required of each kind and how to spot the fallacies, should become a lifelong habit. It means a lifetime of changing your beliefs in response to changing evidence. Recognizing that some of your premises are less than established, meaning that reasonable people could believe otherwise, tends to make you grasp your conclusions less tenaciously. You understand how others might reject one of your premises and reach a different conclusion. In other words, you lean more naturally toward tolerance. And also—and perhaps most important, as these last few years have demonstrated—being hyper-conscientious about the grounds for your belief will provide a vaccine against the deadly contagion of conspiracy theories that spread through communities, again because the conclusion is one that the believers so desperately want to believe.

It makes them feel powerful, especially if they feel otherwise powerless.

Students often leave college with the opposite of this inoculation. They learn some narrow ideological framework guaranteed to churn out an answer to all questions. And that ideological framework hasn’t itself been subjected to rigorous standards of justification, but is just handed to students as the very meaning of justification: To be justified is to fit into this ideological framework. In that case—and I think this is tragic—they’ve spent their college years being anti-educated.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, a MacArthur Fellow and an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction, is an American philosopher, writer and public intellectual.

Sarah Otto (Photo credit: Courtesy of Sarah Otto)

SARAH OTTO

The one thing undergraduates should leave college knowing is how to learn. There is no one factor, no one area of knowledge. There’s no one skill, no one technique that they need to know. It’s just the ability to be aware and humble about your lack of knowledge. No matter how much of an expert you are, there’s so much more to learn. Students should be well prepared to be students for the rest of their lives, to know how to learn, to know how to look things up, investigate, take pause with their assumptions, and then consider if their assumptions may be invalid and need updating. It may be that science has changed, the evidence has changed, our understanding of our role in the world has changed, culture has changed. The ability to update one’s knowledge to learn continuously is the number one skill a student can leave college with.

We do experiments in the lab with yeast. And sometimes we say things like, “Of course, we understand how something as fundamental as meiosis cell division works.” And then we look into it, and we realize, “Yeah, but we don’t know this.” We don’t exactly know where the chromosomes are in the cell and why that matters. And we just realize, again, that what we know is the tip of the iceberg. In some ways, that’s why I like experiments, because a lot of times they reveal to you your ignorance, that you can make a prediction and that’s not what happens. And then you have to figure out, ‘Well, OK, what’s really going on here?’

Sarah Otto is a MacArthur Fellow and professor of zoology at the University of British Columbia. She specializes in evolutionary biology and is coauthor of A Biologist’s Guide to Mathematical Modeling in Ecology and Evolution.

Nate Looney (Photo credit: Courtesy of Nate Looney)

NATE LOONEY

Students should learn resilience. They should learn to take charge of the direction of their education. I got my undergraduate degree in business, and I could have just attended classes, but I was working on the business plan for West Side Urban Gardens, so I pretty much turned my senior year into my own think tank. I used that time to lean on my professors who knew the most about the startup world. One professor was my first client.

Many students are missing a level of grit. They come out of college with an expectation that all their needs will be met in the exact way that makes them feel comfortable. They have a knee-jerk reaction to run from conflict versus meeting it head on. I think there’s a cold splash of water when people meet the reality of what it’s like out in the business world or in the working world.

Sometimes resilience comes with upbringing. Some of it comes from putting yourself in really challenging situations and sticking through them. Some programs give you a taste of it, but you have to seek out the opportunities in order to gain that learning, it’s not spoon-fed to people. Service learning programs such as the Peace Corps are an example. If you have never experienced scarcity, see what it feels like not to have enough money to eat a nourishing meal every day, to survive on beans and rice. See how that impacts your body.

We live in a challenging world. If people don’t have that resilience and grit, they may not be ready for what could come our way. We think we have an impenetrable bubble around the United States. We live in this sense of comfort and safety that isn’t accurate. And I wonder how people would react if that bubble were to pop.

If you don’t know something, you can only blame it on your educational upbringing for so long before you have to take charge and have agency over your own learning. So the one thing that you should walk away from college knowing is that you’ve been given a set of tools to navigate learning. Thinking you know it all is a recipe for disaster.

Nate Looney is Avodah’s manager of Racial Justice Initiatives, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq, and CEO and owner of Westside Urban Gardens, an agricultural company based in Los Angeles, CA.

NADINE EPSTEIN

The knowledge of humanity’s long slow hard trudge through misery to what we have today is in danger of being lost—and we can’t let that happen! Lessons gleaned from millennia of massacres, mass starvations, plagues, tyrannical rulers and more are being forgotten. It’s not just the failures: Much of what we’ve learned from golden ages and breakthrough moments that have changed the path of history for the better is also vanishing from public consciousness.

This inspiring story of the human struggle for knowledge—the history of the evolution of human thought, organization, expression and the revolutionary marvel that is the scientific process—are among the most critical lessons a college education has to offer. It’s a vast territory to cover, so every one of us needs a time and place to learn to recognize some of the stepping stones along the way, enough to arrange into our own rudimentary path of understanding. These stones include not just the well-worn ones set by white men, but less-trodden ones left by women and global cultures off the beaten track.

Your years in college are your best opportunity to build a mental construct, be it a path, map, memory palace, tapestry, series of images or a personal library on a virtual or physical bookshelf. Whatever construct you choose, think of it as an evolving framework that will stay with you and add balance and humility to your post-college life of osmosis learning and invention. We live in complex times that will only grow more complex, so you will need every tool at your disposal to navigate them and swim through the tidal wave of information you’ll encounter every day. Some kinds of learning are better found outside of college, but this kind rarely is. A better understanding of what came before, our human entanglements with nature and each other, combined with rigor of thinking and skeptical analysis filtered through empathy, are essential for a democratic humanity that can solve the problems of the world.

One more thing. We’re also forgetting that historically, higher education was, with few exceptions, reserved for the rich or the well-connected. One of the goals of a modern democracy is to open the doors of college to everyone who wants to learn. Colleges are as imperfect as any other human institution. Nevertheless, the more people who experience college, the better life will be for all of us.

Nadine Epstein, a writer and artist, is the editor-in-chief of Moment Magazine. Her most recent book is RBG’s Brave and Brilliant Women: 33 Jewish Women to Inspire Everyone.

DEAN BELL

Critical thinking is a core skill that students need to develop—along with the ability to apply it to the ways they see and interpret the world. However, I believe there is something else that is just as important: The concept of complex resilience.

Usually when we think about resilience, we think about the capacity to return to a normal state of functioning, the way things were. But through the work I’ve done with a colleague, Michael Hogue, I have come to the conclusion that what’s more necessary is a different kind of resilience, a resilience that takes you beyond the way things were so you are stronger going forward. We call this complex resilience. Those entering the adult and professional worlds are faced with significant and accelerating social and technological changes along with an increasingly polarized society. Learning the capacity for complex resilience provides ways to grow from such challenges.

Complex resilience isn’t innate. It can—and should—be taught. It encompasses four qualities: vulnerability, intentionality, trust and awareness. We usually think of vulnerability as susceptibility to being wounded or harmed, but vulnerability is also about how you react to change. There’s a Talmudic passage that compares reeds and cedars. Reeds are pliable and connected through underwater networks that allow them to be very flexible. Cedars are dense and strong, but if there’s a really strong wind, a cedar can be knocked over. So there are blessings in both. There’s something important about being open and flexible and there’s something important about being rooted and strong. Students need to know how to reflect and ask themselves difficult questions. They also need to understand and appreciate different perspectives. They need to be both flexible and strong.

The second piece of resilience we call intentionality. You need to develop a process for thinking things through, evaluating and then acting. The third part is trust. It includes developing a network of colleagues, peers and friends, as well as a network of information and resources. When we think about resilience, we often think about resources that we can tap into when we need them. These need to be ongoing and trustworthy. The final part of complex resilience is awareness—constantly evaluating what’s going on, both within yourself and in the world.

The good news about resilience is you can learn it through practice and reflection. Which is why it ties in nicely to the traditional ways we think about education, about developing critical thinking skills and reflection and communication. A key part is asking questions. This is a very Jewish concept, the idea of asking questions of yourself and of others. We see this in many rabbinic writings, which quite often feature two different opinions in conversation with each other. It is an exercise in understanding each other’s position. That’s an important skill that a lot of students don’t end up getting. They end up leaving school with a body of content knowledge, but not really knowing how to inquire—to cross-examine their own ideas and to be open to others’ beliefs, even when those beliefs don’t seem to resonate with their own.

Embracing the Jewish tradition of lifelong learning, students find that learning doesn’t end when they leave school. They need to cultivate the ability to understand and adapt to rapidly changing conditions. They need to continually ask questions of themselves and of those around them. They need to process and reorient and think differently. They need to grow resiliently to face challenges with strength and flexibly to create positive, meaningful change.

Dean P. Bell is the president and CEO of the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. His new book is Interreligious Resilience: Interreligious Leadership for a Pluralistic World, coauthored with Michael Hogue.

SHULAMIT REINHARZ

Attending a traditional four-year college is a very expensive affair, starting with the ever-rising price of tuition. Some of that cost is usually taken on by the student’s parents (or one parent or grandparents). I suggest that learning the whole story of how the student’s education is being paid for is step one of what college students should learn before graduating.

 According to the Torah, parents are responsible for educating their children (Deuteronomy 11:19). This parental obligation (technically applicable only to male children) refers to a child learning “mitzvot” and learning a trade. I find it interesting that we are not told what children are supposed to do specifically for the parents in return for this education except to honor them in general (Commandment 5). Connecting “educating your children” and “respecting your parents” with the idea of how expensive college has become leads me to think the following: Students should learn to thank their parents [and/or grandparents] explicitly for financing their education in part or in full. They should learn to tell their parents how much they appreciate what has been done for them.

 Students and parents could have an informative conversation about how the funding for the student’s education was put together. This communication could guide the student for the rest of her/his life as a way to relate to people who have done something kind for them and have empathy and appreciation for the people around them. If the student’s grandparents are helping to pay and don’t live nearby, the student might talk to them about it on Zoom or write a letter once a year or at the end of each semester telling them what courses they took, why these are the ones they chose and  perhaps, what they learned. If the letter is well written, the grandparents will have evidence that the student has learned to write well. (I bet the grandparents will keep that letter forever.)

 Students can apply this lesson of expressing gratitude to thanking professors for a good class; or thanking deans for something they have done; sports coaches for their help and many more. “Learning to thank” will make the student  a “mensch” or “menschit” (I made that up) in many future situations. How about this? If a person doesn’t want to continue dating someone, instead of ghosting them, the soon-to-be-ex can thank the soon-to-be-disappointed for the great times they had together, and then explain that it is now time to explore other relationships. No “thank you” is ever wasted.

Shulamit Reinharz is professor of sociology emerita at Brandeis University and founder of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

SHAI FELDMAN

For college-age students who come from  underprivileged backgrounds, the first goal is to provide them with the “gateways” to upward mobility—the core skills necessary to learn in an academic setting. We cannot forget that more than one third of all U.S. undergraduates are attending community colleges, many of whom have  parents with little or no education and living close to or in poverty. We need to provide basic and remedial courses to these students to improve their reading, writing and mathematics knowledge and to teach them  how to study and learn in an academic setting. Underprivileged students worldwide, including in Israel, where I teach also need knowledge of the English language as a fundamental prerequisite for academic and occupational success.  

The second important goal is to give students the specific skills they need to be prepared for the amazing but unknown changes that will occur over the next 20-25 years. Sure, we have to prepare them to master today’s digital world. But what about the “next world”? We don’t know what this world will be like. How can we find the right mix of learning as well as installing attitudes of innovation, rigor and resilience? “Majoring” in some academically defined field is no longer as relevant as it was in the past. For the next world, our graduates need to have a wide variety of skills, not just technology, but also sociology, law, business management, marketing, investment, writing, etc.

Finally, a graduate is not just a skilled person who can navigate the modern economy, but also a human being. So, the third goal is to instill values in college graduates. We want them to care for their neighbors and for the world at large. Not only should  they be committed to  helping individuals and local groups, they should also  develop skills to influence social and environmental  policy decisions at the macro level. To a great extent, elite universities live as detached islands with little or no direct connection with the world around them. This is not my vision. As a way of achieving this goal, students should be involved in real outreach to their community. Law students can provide legal services to the local underprivileged. Artists, writers, film producers, etc., can study the uniqueness of their local society. Schools of social work can help relieve trauma in families living near a combat zone or in high crime locales. 

Shai Feldman is president of Sapir College, the largest public college in Israel, serving low-income students in the Negev.

WENDY FISCHMAN

and

HOWARD GARDNER  

Let’s take a step back. Nowadays, almost all of the factual information that students need, and all the routes students need to follow (recipes, driving directions, solving a quadratic equation) are available online. And certainly, by the time students get to college, they will know how to navigate a variety of search engines. Accordingly, we ask what should students know how to do, not what students should know. 

Today’s college students face a plethora of problems and dilemmas on
campus—navigating relationships with other students (and faculty) with different political beliefs, different interpretations of a reading for class, issues of academic dishonesty. And they face global challenges as well—a pandemic, deciphering truth from fiction in the news and on social media, and climate change. To prepare students to tackle these challenges—and those that we can’t yet imagine or predict—students need to be equipped with five important skills. First, the ability to
attend, to pay attention to facts, information and data, however presented. Second, the ability to analyze, to probe deeply into the information, ask good questions, reframe the problem. Third, the ability to reflect, to step back, note what one has understood, consider what questions to ask and think about what new data or procedure would be relevant. Fourth, the ability to connect, to tie together the information elicited, investigate interrelationships of ideas, try out various syntheses. And fifth, the ability to communicate, to ultimately convey decisions, ideas, and conclusions as well as possible—be it in written language, orally, through a work of art—perhaps even creating a new synthesis.

 One can acquire these five skills through any rigorous curriculum in any subject—a good teacher, a good institution or good study habits can help to nurture and increase them. It’s also possible to continue to acquire them throughout life. Importantly, however, we need the sector of higher education to focus squarely on helping students to develop these intellectual capacities. College is one of the last formal opportunities for most young people to learn, and the years of late adolescence and early adulthood are the times when the mind and the brain are particularly ready to accumulate and demonstrate such skills. The health of our society may be determined by students’ abilities to develop and then deploy these tactics to solve the problems of the “real world.” 

Wendy Fischman is a project director at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Howard Gardner is the Hobbs research professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. They are authors of The Real World of College: What Higher Education Is and What It Can Be, based on a ten-year study of higher education in the United States.

MICHAEL PHILLIPS

I recently talked to a few college students who graduated in 2021 and have no clue as to what they want to do, where they want to go. And my first questions to them were, “What are you passionate about? What gets you up in the morning? What excites you? What do you want to affect? What do you want to change?” And the answers vary. What would be best for our children is if we had a system that really helped cultivate and develop all their innate gifts and talents. Because that’s what education means: It means to pull out. It’s not to fill you with knowledge, it’s to show you who you are. 

Education is really about the power to choose, the freedom to grow and the ability to navigate life. Oftentimes, schools give students knowledge without education. Schools should prepare our children for life and give them the ability to navigate all of the ebbs and flows of it. And that is going to have a lot of different looks, even in one person’s life; because purpose is not static, it’s dynamic. You might be a tech analyst for five years, and then all of a sudden, you might have an epiphany and decide, “I want to impact the world this other way” and start your own nonprofit.

School should help you to learn skill sets for any particular profession you want to go into, but more importantly, to discover those innate talents and abilities that can propel you into any career. It’s kind of an oxymoron, but self-discovery requires other people. You can’t discover yourself without the help of different perspectives. That’s why diversity is so powerful. Exposure is everything. You can’t see yourself; it takes somebody else to show you who you are. Because of all the pain and trauma that I went through, it took me a long time to learn that. It took me getting locked up. It took me making a lot of mistakes to fully realize I have a choice in this matter of what I want to do, and no system of oppression or outside opinion really has true power over me, if I make up  my mind what I want to accomplish. 

What is the one thing our children should leave college knowing? That they can make it. If they choose to, they can make it. Whatever “it” is.

Michael Phillips is an advocate for education reform, a pastor and the author of Wrong Lanes Have Right Turns: A Pardoned Man’s Escape from the School-to-Prison Pipeline and What We Can Do to Dismantle It.

JAY MATHEWS

The most important thing to take away from college is a grasp of what it will be like to go into a field where you want to make your living—as an artist, or an engineer, or whatever you’re considering. The nice thing about American colleges is that most of them are very large. There are small schools, but the majority of students are enrolled in large state universities and community colleges, which are big places with lots of different activities going on. There are likely to be clubs to give you a taste of whatever interests you, and if you’re thinking of one of the technical fields, math and science courses in large universities can give you a sense of it. That’s what you should focus on. 

In my case, as a journalist, I essentially learned the answer to my question from a club that wasn’t even a part of the university: the independent student newspaper. All you need, to learn to be a journalist, is a good newspaper that publishes five days a week. Mine was fancier than normal, but a newspaper colleague of mine who’d gone to SUNY Buffalo also got terrific experience on the paper there. In a big university, that kind of stuff is everywhere. And if you don’t find it, you can transfer. Several U.S. presidents have been transfer students, including both Barack Obama and Donald Trump. You have to think bigger than the course catalog. 

You can encounter negative things in college, too, and that’s fine. When I first got to college, I wanted to be the first U.S. ambassador to China, although journalism was in the back of my head because my father had been a journalist. The first day, I signed up for a session with a retired ambassador for people interested in diplomacy. At this event, all the kids who turned up were reamed out for not having made formal written replies to his invitation. So I thought, well, maybe I’ll try journalism then. 

Of course, there’s classwork, too. Certainly that’s part of fulfilling your parents’ dream of what you should be doing. You should go to class, do the reading, do your homework—but that’s not the most important thing unless you want to be a college professor. There are people at all these universities who have already gotten into fields you want to get into, and there are alumni networks. Lots of people think only Ivy League schools have important alumni, but that’s really not the case. Kids who are somewhat serious about their lives and do their homework and have a dream, a small dream or a big dream, can go to any school and make great progress toward what they want to do in life, as long as they keep their eye on the big picture. 

Jay Mathews is an education columnist for The Washington Post, his employer for the last 50 years, and author of nine books, including five on education. He created and supervises the annual Challenge Index rankings of American high schools. 

STEPHEN JOEL TRACHTENBERG

The one thing our children should leave college knowing, if there is one thing, is how to read and write. All else may be just data collection; if one cannot communicate what one knows and values, perhaps one knows and values little. Since “facts” are now easily available online, it is an indulgence of time and money to spend four undergraduate years harvesting bits of information accessible to anyone with a computer, and indeed, without an ability to think, college graduates bring little added value.

It is the ability to take inspiration from material and use it to create, to innovate
ideas—in other words, to explain the old and birth the new—that makes a college education worthwhile. Our alumni leave our university with expertise and an appetite and a passport that opens the frontier of knowledge. History that fills one with dates and names is of little utility in understanding the past. What matters is the why. When Columbus sailed the ocean blue (1492 rhymes) is less important than why he set out and what he found and did—and how he did it. Controversies over dates matter less than disputations over values and inspire academic food fights more than sober reflections. 

A critical public has legitimate demands on higher education. Simply put, it asks what higher education is higher than. The answer is that higher education should foster decency and respect, as well as the actual engagement necessary to truly know, to understand and explain the working of one’s own mind.  

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg was president of The George Washington University from 1988 to 2007. He is now University Professor of Public Service at the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration.

Sandy Baum

Much discussion about the value of college, and the quality of individual colleges, focuses on graduates’ earnings. This is not surprising, since earnings are easier to measure than most other outcomes of higher education. And being able to earn a good living is a widespread and reasonable aspiration for college students. 

The typical four-year college graduate earns about 70 percent more than the typical high school graduate in the years after college, with the gap growing over time. But there is wide variation in earnings, and there is well-placed concern about students whose investment leaves them worse off financially than they would have been without college. 

We should ask more fundamental questions about how students benefit from their college education. Can college graduates solve problems? Can they communicate effectively both orally and in writing? Can they work and live successfully with people from different backgrounds? Can they make sound judgments in their personal and professional lives? Are they interested in the world around them and dedicated to making the lives of others better, not just to making money? Are they equipped to make decisions that will make their lives satisfying? College should help students develop into mature, thinking individuals with values and ambitions that will help them to build lives that are successful for them, their families and their broader communities.

College plays a wide range of roles in people’s lives. A quarter of college students are over the age of 24. Many are parents themselves. About half of the undergraduate credentials awarded are not bachelors’ degrees but two-year associate degrees or short-term certificates. But if we are talking about bachelors’ degrees, in particular, we should think beyond the jobs they will get when they graduate and instead ask how college changes them as people and prepares them for life’s challenges. Education is about far more than immediate financial gain, and it creates value for both individuals and society. In addition to providing financial security, what students learn in college can change their lives and the lives of those around them. 

Sandy Baum is a nonresident senior fellow at the Urban Institute Center on Education Data and Policy. She is the author of the forthcoming  Can College Level the Playing Field: Higher Education in an Unequal Society, written with Michael McPherson.

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