The Goals of a University Education

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

What are the goals of a university education?, Steven Pinker asks:

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. The conviction that they are teachable gets me out of bed in the morning. Laying the foundations in just four years is a formidable challenge.


  1. Carl says:

    Academia does not select for teachers who inculcate those traits. Instead we have rigid, if ever shifting, ideological standards. Interestingly, the Cathedral agrees that four years is not enough; so they start instilling “liberal” values with children’s television.

  2. Bub says:

    I agree with Carl and, also, if the colleges started ever teaching the curriculum Pinker describes, they’d have a hard time with their affirmative action goals, and the faculty know this, though it dare not be spoken.

    Don’t miss Steve Sailer’s recent article about a Hispanic lesbian NYU journalism grad student who was picked to write for the NYT and didn’t know what an editorial was. She didn’t realize how ridiculous it was that she didn’t know this, either. “Nobody ever told me!”

  3. Lucklucky says:

    Universal education is by definition a socialist proposal if each alumni can’t go at their speed.

    So what we have today in schools is giant sacrifice of best children for the teacher and ideology.

    As things are this i defend that the best students should be paid a % from teacher salary.

  4. Spandrell says:

    “Laying the foundations in just four years is a formidable challenge.”

    What are the 12 years before that for again?

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