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The Purpose of a University Education



This is the best summary that I have ever seen, of what I believe a university education should be all about.  Having been deeply troubled, of late, to see how universities are increasingly forced to offer nothing but apprenticeships for business, technology, and the professions, these paragraphs come like a breath of fresh air. – Tony


It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains.  They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present.  They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives.  They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat.  They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law.  They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.

On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature.  Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech.  They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom.  They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable.  They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence.  They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil.  Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.

I believe (and believe I can persuade you) that the more deeply a society cultivates this knowledge and mindset, the more it will flourish.



Excerpted from “The Trouble With Harvard” – a September 4, 2014 article, by Steven Pinker, in the New Republic.