What’s an undergraduate education for?

I like the way Tim Lee, a CATO Institute scholar, thinks about undergraduate education:

[T]he primary function of an undergraduate education is to allow the student to join a scholarly community, and in the process to soak up the values and attitudes of that community. There are a variety of character traits—intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, self-direction, creativity—that are best learned by being immersed in a community where those traits are cultivated and rewarded. They’re not on the formal curriculum, but they’re implicit in much of what happens on a college campus.

Spending four years at a good college makes you a certain kind of person. A college graduate is more likely to read books in his free time, pay attention to spelling and grammar, know how to recognize and fact-check dubious statements by authority figures, juggle multiple deadlines, and so forth. And for a variety of reasons, people with these character traits tend to be good choices for white-collar jobs.

This kind of cultural transmission is really hard to accomplish via the Internet. An online course can probably teach you facts about history as well as a flesh-and-blood professor could do. But a website won’t exhibit the kind of infectious enthusiasm that turns students into lifelong history buffs.

Here’s his list again of the habits that an undergraduate student should be cultivating:

  • intellectual curiosity
  • critical thinking
  • self-direction
  • creativity
  • book reading
  • careful attention to language
  • the ability to juggle multiple deadlines
  • doubt (toward those putting forth evidence, facts, and assertions of authority)

To his “and so forth” I would add these habits:

  • research
  • the practice of reading texts closely
  • self-assertion (“Here’s what I think . . .”) 
  • Socratic dialogue
  • thinking and theorizing in solitude
  • Keats’s negative capability (being comfortable in doubts; imaginatively walking in the shoes of others)
  • building cultural capital by having a passport (and using it), visiting museums, attending live lectures and the theatre, etc.

Are there some others that are key, but aren’t caught above?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to What’s an undergraduate education for?

  1. TomH says:

    It’s for redistributing hypothetical future earnings from the students to the school administrators and professors so that the students end up heavily indebted with no earnings prospects.

    • santitafarella says:


      A simple question: in a recession would you like to be in the 25% cohort of Americans with a four year college degree or the 75% cohort without a four year college degree?

      If I’m not mistaken, those with a college degree have an unemployment rate right now substantially under 5%. And (from what I understand) those in the college cohort never saw their unemployment climb above that 5% (even at the lowest point in the recent downturn).


  2. Perhaps to learn how to write a sentence without ending it with a preposition?

    • santitafarella says:

      I know that’s a hobby horse of yours, but there really is no hard and fast rule about never ending sentences with a preposition.


      • In many cases, refinement of language skills is placed below that of obtaining a scholarship for the sake of an athletic advancement. And even then, most basketball courts (all that I have seen) don’t give adequate room to enjoy the game as originally intended. But the show must go on.

        Then there are the languages that are over-refined, having onerous contraptions of gender to articles and nouns. But the show must go on.

        But really, I know where you’re comin’ from.

        That’s show biz.

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