- Many university mission statements do not live up to their promise, writes Ben Nelson, founder of Minerva, a university designed to develop intellect over content memorization.
- The core competencies that students need for success—critical thinking, communication, problem solving, and cross-cultural understanding, for example—should be intentionally taught, not left to chance.
- These competencies can be summed up with one word: wisdom. True wisdom is the ability to apply one's knowledge appropriately when faced with novel situations.
If you approach almost any university president and ask “What is the purpose of your university?”, the response will likely be “the creation and dissemination of knowledge.” This speaks to two core aspects of most institutions: a research capacity that is core to the advancement of human knowledge, and transmitting that information to the world, be it through publishing or in a classroom setting. The latter, oftentimes delivered via lectures, are demonstrably ineffective at conveying that knowledge.
If you ask that same university president, “What does an undergraduate student learn at your university”, they will almost never respond with “Physics, sociology, and comparative literature.” Instead you will hear of students learning to think critically, solve problems creatively, communicate effectively, along with a number of other laudable outcomes. When a third question is posed: “Where in your curriculum do you teach these skills?”, the answer to that is revealing. “Well, we teach physics, sociology, and comparative literature, and the students acquire those skills by osmosis.”
Instead of offering subject matter content that has become ubiquitous, why don’t universities listen to themselves and employers from around the globe and teach the courses and skills that really matter?
Empirically, this is a false statement as fundamental cognitive tools have been proven not to be picked up incidentally. Logically, it exposes the university as structured to do exactly what the first statement admitted to: the creation and dissemination of knowledge. The role of the university as a disseminator of information was invaluable before the printing press, and to a lesser degree, in the centuries that followed. Information was often of questionable validity, and a curation of that information was crucial. In the era of the internet, though, it is hard to argue that the principles of physics, sociology, or any other field are not easily accessible online—in many cases offered by these same institutions for free.
Instead of offering subject matter content that has become ubiquitous, why don’t universities listen to themselves and employers from around the globe and teach the courses and skills that really matter? The core competencies that students need for success—those espoused as goals by university presidents everywhere—should be intentionally taught, not left to be picked up haphazardly.
Universities know what they should be doing—just listen to what they say: critical thinking, effective communication, creative problem solving, and cross-cultural understanding are outcomes that are universally valued. We all want to see students emerging from their four years of undergraduate studies with these skills. These abilities and more can be summed up with one word: wisdom.
However, popular conceptions of wisdom are tied up with images of sage mystics and stoic elders, the keepers of ancient secrets and silent understanding. These associations suggest that wisdom is inaccessible, except through long meditative silences and lifetimes of experience. The reality is that true wisdom is the ability to apply one’s knowledge appropriately when faced with novel situations. We can teach that by introducing concepts and giving students many opportunities throughout their education to apply them in different contexts. It really is that simple.
Knowing what to do in a familiar situation is simply memorization. But knowing how to differentiate between a fact and a claim in a subject matter you have little familiarity with, understanding how to effectively negotiate a business deal in a culture you’ve never interacted with, or understanding how to apply principles under radically different constraints is wisdom. And wisdom can, indeed must, be taught. However, it cannot be taught by accident, as a byproduct of teaching subject matter. It requires identifying the principles that underpin wisdom and deliberately recontextualizing them, so students develop both a depth of mastery and a breadth of applications.
If universities are to be successful in their stated missions, they should focus on redesigning their curricula to impart wisdom. It is time for universities to live up to their promises, to be intentional about developing the skills students—and the world—need.