Commentary

 
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Academia’s Other Mission: Making Students Interesting

  Dr. Nannerl Keohane

Dr. Nannerl Keohane

In an interview with Charlie Rose, Dr. Nannerl Keohane, the former President of Duke University, was asked what she thought was the real mission of her university. After some reflection, Dr. Keohane responded that she saw the mission of Duke as one of making each student a more interesting person. At first, her answer may seem a bit simple (more elegant and practical mission statements can certainly be found on Duke’s Website). Academia does educate and train society’s future doctors, lawyers, scientists, teachers, and engineers, but through instilling knowledge, developing math or logic skills, enlightening a student’s feelings and sensitivities, and most importantly developing depth to their understanding of subjects, academia also makes students more interesting.

The writer Herbert Stein commented that today’s students seem “to know a lot, but understand very little.” Today, with a media-influenced society, developing depth in students’ understanding of a subject has become more of a challenge in the halls of academia. A relevant question is: How does academia develop depth in our students’ knowledge and understanding of subjects?

  Descartes

Descartes

First, intellectual depth is often the product of mastering seminal works. Whether it is Keynesian economic theory, a work of Shakespeare, Einstein‘s theory of relativity, or the philosophy of Descartes, a student who studies such intellectual works inevitably learns how great minds work, the subtleties inherent in great ideas, the power of logic, and the beauty of thoughts and ideas. In many finance classes, for example, students are required to study the Nobel Prize-winning works of Modigliani, Miller, Markowitz, Sharpe, Scholes, and Fama. Mastering these influential works undoubtedly brings depth and quality to finance majors’ understanding of the subject.

Intellectual depth is also fostered when students learn to express concepts in different ways. In economics, for example, students are often required to explain a theory, strategy, or idea mathematically, graphically, and intuitively. By doing this, a student’s understanding and retention of theories and ideas is enhanced. A professor teaching an executive MBA class once related a story about how a lawyer in his class acknowledged the value she found from his insistence that she focus more on expressing the concepts mathematically rather than verbally. On the other hand, an engineer expressed his thanks to the professor for urging him to focus more on explaining concepts verbally rather than mathematically. Both the lawyer and the engineer gained depth to their understanding of business by learning how to express business concepts in more than one way.   


  Tom Robbins

Tom Robbins

Finally, intellectual depth is achieved when students are able to relate their subjects to other areas. In writing about the differences between science and the humanities, the novelist Tom Robbins wrote that “the scientists needs the humanists to keep the scientists human, and the humanists needs the scientist to keep the humanists honest.” Economic students, for example, gain depth when they see not only an abstract concept, a statistic, or a dollar sign, but also when they are able to connect the idea to what is real. The U.S.’s gross domestic product grew from $8 trillion in 1984 to over $18 trillion today and the Dow Jones Average increased exponentially from 700 in 1982 to over 20,000 today. Behind the statistics, though, is an economy that has evolved: Paperwork that once filled an entire office could now be put in a small computer chip and instead of a trip to the library, data and information can be accessed in seconds via satellites and the internet.  

In the 1960s, the late historian Richard Hofstadter wrote about anti-intellectualism in America. Evaluating various historical periods in terms of their literature, court decisions, religious movements, and other social indicators, Hofstadter defined different historical periods as being either intellectual or anti-intellectual. Today, when we look at how vulnerable our society is to media and political spin, we might be inclined to conclude that we are living in a period that Hofstadter would define as anti-intellectual. If so, in a very fundamental way, the role of academia may well be one of countering the spin of society by promoting intellectualism. In addition to turning out the next generation of professionals, academia by enlightening students’ intellectual curiosity, exposing them to great thinkers, and helping them master complex theories and concepts, promotes intellectualism. In the end, the final product is a deeper, more intellectual, and hopefully, a more interesting person.