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
- 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:
- 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?