There is a passage in Aristotle’s book The Nicomachean Ethics that has always struck me as profound. Aristotle says that if you are an archer, you’re unlikely to hit your target if you don’t know what you are aiming for. In the same way, Aristotle suggests, you can’t achieve your goals unless you know what they are.
That idea is highly relevant to the subject I want to talk about—what it means to succeed in college.
In the United States, we spend a massive amount of time and energy figuring out where our kids should go to college. We start worrying about it their sophomore year of high school and never really stop until we write the first tuition checks. We read guidebooks, consult counselors, pay for test prep, visit campuses, and even—in extreme cases—hire college search consultants.
But after all this effort to find the perfect college, we spend virtually no time talking about what students should do once they get there. We equip them with bows and arrows but identify no targets.
I think we should spend more time thinking about the purpose of college. You can decide this for yourselves, but I would like to suggest that a successful college education consists of five fundamental elements:
The most important thing that should happen in college is the development of core intellectual capabilities. I’ll list a few. Thinking critically. Learning to read quickly, carefully, and efficiently. Learning how to write—not just to write well, but to write with confidence, to write with joy. Speaking effectively, clearly, and persuasively when you’re in a group of your peers. Learning how to experiment in a lab. Speaking a foreign language. Knowing how to make art, and having the courage to make art. Learning to criticize art: to know what kind of art you love, and what kind you do not. Analyzing problems quantitatively and statistically. Thinking algorithmically. Working effectively within teams of diverse individuals. And finally, developing a deep appreciation for the diversity of human practices and values across time and place.
Does a student need to have all twelve skills? No. Indeed, you might want to think of this list of intellectual capabilities as a flexible menu of options. It might be better if they can do six of these things really well than if they can do all twelve in a cursory fashion.
Your students will graduate into a radically changing world. They will be better prepared to face that world if they have these skills. These capabilities are also the key to leading a life of meaning and purpose. They give students the ability to think critically about the world we live in and to imagine how that world could be better. They are the tools we need to narrow that gap between the world as it exists and the world as we want it to be.
The second element is the development of certain character dispositions. This suggestion is, I think, a bit controversial today. When colleges were first founded in the United States, starting with Harvard in 1638, they were explicitly Christian institutions. Their primary goal, at least up until the 1880s, was to promote a certain model of Christian character. Reed was founded in 1908, at the beginning of a different era, when people wanted to offer a secular education open to all kinds of faiths, backgrounds, and beliefs. These new institutions decided not to focus on character, but on knowledge: on the creation and transmission of knowledge and the development of those intellectual capabilities I outlined a moment ago. That was a powerful idea, and it was adopted by practically every college in America.
Unfortunately, we threw the baby out with the bathwater. When colleges stopped promoting Christian values, they stopped promoting any ethical values. We made knowledge more important than character. This seems to me a dangerous trend. Most students are between 18 and 22 years old. They are in a critical developmental phase. Their brains remain, for a relatively brief period of time, in a plastic state. In a few years, that window will close. This is why it’s so critical that we throw all this difficult intellectual material at them now.
But this is true in the sphere of ethics as well. Your students’ character is taking shape. The habits and values they develop in college—their sense of what is important in life, what kind of person they want to be, and how they will treat other people—are likely to stay with them for a long time. This is, in short, a critical period not just intellectually, but ethically.
Of course, people continue to evolve over the course of their lives. We can improve. We can learn from our mistakes. We can work to make ourselves better. But certain core ways of looking at the world, of interacting with other people, get fixed early in life. For the most part, adults are recognizably the people they were when they turned 25 or 26.
At Reed, we do not engage in ethical indoctrination. But we do, I think, teach students to value certain things. One is usually portrayed as an intellectual value: a belief in rigor, precision, and excellence. Reedies learn to approach problems in a comprehensive and aggressive fashion. Don’t read one article—read 27 articles. Don’t just parrot back the assignment—figure out what’s wrong with those articles, develop your own hypothesis, imagine what you could do to test out your ideas. Don’t be satisfied with incomplete data—go back to the lab, try something different, develop a better foundation for your thinking.
But this way of looking at the world has profound ethical dimensions. It implies a commitment to getting it right, to being precise in your thought and language, to mean what you say. It produces graduates who carry these values out into the world. That makes Reedies a force for change and innovation.
Another value I want to talk about is kindness. I don’t think we have a very kind society. We often treat each other atrociously. At Reed, the Honor Principle forces us to reflect concretely about how we interact with other people, what kind of an impression or impact we’re making on the people around us, and what we can add to the community. Honor is not just a list of things Reedies cannot do, but a permanent and affirmative obligation to think constantly about what they can do to help their fellow Reedies and build a stronger community. That, in the end, is a very powerful tool of ethical development.
A third virtue we promote here at Reed is the ability of students to challenge themselves. Education is not about being comfortable. It is not about being easy. It is about challenging yourself by taking on intellectual and artistic projects that are probably beyond your capability. You see this most clearly at Reed in the senior thesis. In some ways, the ideal thesis is one where the student selects a problem that is so important, so complex, so difficult, that it requires them to stretch and struggle. That ability to challenge oneself, to be willing to try and fail, is something that our society does not actively promote. It is one of the things a student really needs to develop while she or he is in college.
I am sure you can imagine a long list of character traits that you want your students to develop in college. I won’t try to suggest today what that list should be. Every student, every family, should develop its own list. I do, however, believe that developing character is a vital part of a successful education.