The esteemed scientist and Harvard professor, Steven Pinker, on what higher education should accomplish (ht Farnam Street):
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.
Pinker wrote that a couple of years ago, but it’s a sentiment in need of repeating regularly now.
Make America think again.
I met Kyle Maynard briefly when he came to his freshman orientation at my university ten years ago. I was running the program at the time and have met thousands of students over my twenty-plus years working in higher education. But Kyle remains one of the most memorable and remarkable students I have encountered. He wouldn’t remember me, but he is unforgettable.
I knew of him even before he arrived on campus. I had read his admissions application and knew he had lived a remarkable life already at such a young age. Kyle was born without full arms and legs. Yet he had an extraordinary record of accomplishment throughout high school, including success as a member of his school’s wrestling team.
College orientation is filled with self-conscious freshmen nervously finding their way. Awkward moments abound. However, I watched Kyle light up every room he entered that day. He was gregarious and confident and eager to put others at ease. He moved in and out of his wheelchair and was the center of attention at the orientation dinner party. This young man, born without arms and legs, seemed more able and mature than his peers.
I sat next to Kyle at one of the orientation lectures. The speaker was the head of food services, and he was explaining the biometric scanners that controlled access to the dining halls. He launched into his usual joke that with the hand scanners, students would always have access to enter the dining halls even without their ID card, and he’d never heard a student complain that he had “forgotten his hand”.
Kyle leaned over to me and said, “Well, I guess he’s never met me.” And then he smiled and laughed.
Kyle has gone on to become an author and speaker and life adventurer. I was reminded of him recently when Tim Ferriss shared this amazing video about Kyle’s attempt to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
Most of us cannot imagine living Kyle’s life. Watch this video and let the petty complaints we have and lame excuses we make get crushed by the remarkable life Kyle is living. Thanks for being awesome, Kyle!
I met with a group of university freshmen yesterday. They were part of a leadership program that required them to interview faculty and administrators to collect advice on how to have a great college experience.
One of the students asked which college activities I recommend. Several organizations came to mind, and I shared a list of the ones that seem to have strong reputations and offer worthwhile experiences.
But I cautioned them not to spend their college years trying to build a long and seemingly impressive resume. There’s some merit to trying a lot of activities early on. But the most remarkable students I’ve known were those who focused on depth over breadth, who invested deeply in a few activities they genuinely cared about
These college superstars invariably chose their pursuits, academic and extracurricular, for their intrinsic worth, not necessarily as a means to an end or for their potential to move them up the ladder of accomplishment. And their focus allowed them to shine in ways that those who spread themselves across more obligations did not.
Explore possibilities thoroughly and “try on” a variety of pursuits to see what might fit well. But commit to only those activities that resonate and are most worthy of your limited time. And then go be awesome there.
This is not just a strategy for college success. I need this in real world life. Do less, but do it better. I need to say “no” consistently to inessential opportunities and commitments, even noble ones, in order to give my best effort to the few, key priorities I’ve chosen to build my work and my life around.
“If you seek tranquillity, do less.” Or (more accurately) do what’s essential—what the logos of a social being requires, and in the requisite way. Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better.
Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?”
But we need to eliminate unnecessary assumptions as well. To eliminate the unnecessary actions that follow” –Marcus Aurelius