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Knowledge for Its Own Sake

by Colin S. Diver, President Emeritus, Reed College

Diver, Colin. "Knowledge for Its Own Sake." In College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy, edited by Lloyd Thacker, 133–37. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005.

"Colleges and universities are evaluated and ranked, and indeed market themselves, primarily as stepping stones to some extrinsic goal…"

Why get an education? Most people answer that question instrumentally. They view education as a means to an end. The end might be to enter a particular profession, to earn a handsome salary, to accumulate power or influence, or to create things (including ideas) of utility or beauty. According to this instrumental view, education is a process of acquiring the knowledge, skills, credentials, or pedigree deemed as prerequisite for attaining a particular status.

There is another view, a radically different view -- one that sees education as an end in itself. According to this view, education is a process of self-fulfillment, self-realization, through the cultivation, cherishing, and love of knowledge. People who take this view rarely ignore instrumental thinking entirely. They, too, care about their careers, their respect or recognition in the community, even their pocketbooks. But those things are, to them, secondary. The assumption is that a life truly worth living is a life of inquiry and discovery -- a life of pursuing knowledge for its own sake.

There are many young people who hold this second view of education. They are the high school students who get intrinsic pleasure out of solving the puzzles of geometry or calculus, figuring out how to test a scientific or behavioral hypothesis, relishing the beauty, depth, and ambiguity of a great work of art or literature, digging deep into the historical record to explain an event or social phenomenon. If you have that kind of passion for exploration and understanding, this essay is addressed to you.

In today's competitive, consumerist educational culture, instrumental values predominate. Colleges and universities are evaluated and ranked, and indeed market themselves, primarily as stepping-stones to some extrinsic goal such as career success, wealth, or power. Indeed the emphasis on instrumental values has gone so far as to create the impression that there is no place in higher education for those who care about pursuing knowledge for its own sake.

That would be a false impression. There are colleges that care deeply about fostering the love of knowledge for its own sake. The question is: How can you find such colleges?

First, a word about how NOT to find such colleges. Don't rely on one-size-fits-all rankings. Those rankings are invariably dominated by instrumental values. They are primarily measures of institutional wealth, reputation, influence, and pedigree. They do not attempt, nor claim, to measure the extent to which knowledge is valued and cultivated for its own sake. Likewise, you should be wary of recommendations from counselors, relatives, or friends unless you are sure that those counselors, relatives, or friends share your values. If they view education primarily in an instrumental, bottom-line way, their advice is unlikely to steer you in the right direction.

What should you look for, then? Typically, colleges that celebrate knowledge for its own sake have several distinguishing characteristics that you can look for. No one of these characteristics alone is foolproof, but taken together, they can give a pretty good indication of a college's educational philosophy.

1. A common, unifying academic experience.

In an attempt to remain "relevant" or appeal to divergent student tastes, most colleges and universities have abandoned the required curricula of forty years ago. But a few colleges still require their entering students to take at least one common foundational course, such as Reed's Humanities course and Columbia's Contemporary Civilization course. The contents of such courses vary, but they typically promote the intrinsic view of knowledge in two important ways. First, foundational courses provide a common educational experience that enables students to build intellectual community. Such a community facilitates greater discovery through broader interchange of ideas and insights among students, and even alumni. Second, foundational courses demonstrate the way in which bodies of knowledge, almost like living organisms, build on themselves, stimulating further exploration and discovery. Thus they provide models for the very process of lifelong discovery glorified by the intrinsic model of education.

2. Distribution requirements.

One indicator of a college's educational philosophy is its approach to distribution requirements. A purely instrumental approach to knowledge tends to view all academic disciplines as essentially equivalent. In this view, unfettered curricular choice is a default position, if not a positive good. By contrast, a faculty that views education intrinsically is more likely to impose some sort of distribution requirement. The reason is simple: The search for truth often leads down unexpected pathways. One who loves knowledge for its own sake needs to be able to follow those pathways, wherever they lead. This requires at least a passing familiarity with the methods and assumptions of the great divisions of academic knowledge: natural science, mathematics, social science, literature, the arts, humane studies. Distribution requirements help to assure that students will gain that familiarity.

3. Inquiry-based instruction.

The lecture is the prototypical method of instruction in the top-down world of instrumental learning. The "conference" (or discussion-centered classroom) is the paradigmatic method of learning in the inside-out world of intrinsic learning. To cultivate a love of knowledge, students should be constantly engaged in exploration and discovery. Students must occupy the center of the educational process and play an important role in shaping, and even leading, the discussion of assigned readings in class. In introductory courses in the natural and social sciences, students should not simply read about research techniques; they should apply those techniques in the laboratory and in the field. In art courses, students should practice the techniques employed by the artists whose works they are studying.

4. Research thesis.

Scholarly research is the paradigm of intellectual inquiry, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Most colleges tout the availability of research opportunities for undergraduates and offer elective honors programs. Schools that are truly serious about research, however, require that all undergraduates engage in a thesis-length research project. Only through such an experience can a student come to appreciate fully the rewards, and challenges, of intellectual discovery. Likewise, by adopting a thesis requirement, a college signals that it has made a commitment to a four-year program of instilling in its undergraduates the skills, aptitudes, and perspectives requisite for engaging in sustained intellectual inquiry.

5. Cognitive evaluation.

A college's practices can be a very good indicator of its educational philosophy. Colleges taking a primarily instrumental view of education often emphasize letter or number grades that convey very little substantive information other than how one has performed relative to one's classmates. If education is merely a ladder to success, then all you need to know is what rung you are standing on. Colleges that value knowledge for its own sake, by contrast, emphasize cognitive evaluation. Faculty members provide substantive feedback on class work, detailing strengths and weaknesses, areas needing clarification or improvement, and opportunities for further exploration or development. In such colleges, what counts is how you are developing as a scholar, relative only to your own potential. Each student is his or her own ladder to success.

6. Instruction by full-time scholars.

Colleges can also reveal their educational philosophy by their choice of classroom instructors. Much of the knowledge prized by instrumentalists can be communicated adequately by part-time adjunct faculty or doctoral students. Hence instrumentalist schools often count a large number of such instructors toward their self-reported student-faculty ratios. Schools that value knowledge for its own sake, by contrast, want students to spend their time in the presence of full-time tenure-track faculty, persons who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of knowledge through intellectual exploration, and who can best model that activity for their students.

There are other indicators of the extent to which a particular college is committed to the intrinsic view of education: For example, the percentage of its graduates who go on to get Ph.D.s, the percentage of its students who win highly competitive national fellowships, or the relative lack of emphasis on nonacademic activities such as varsity athletics, fraternities, sororities, and the like. Not surprisingly (given the position I occupy), the characteristics that I have listed describe Reed College very well. Reed is a paradigmatic example of a college committed -- and committed solely -- to the cultivation of a thirst for knowledge among undergraduates. As such, it illustrates a relatively small, but robust, segment of higher education whose virtues may not always be celebrated by the popular press, but, as this essay demonstrates, can still be found by those who truly seek them.