Our colleges and universities aspire to help students to find what John Dewey called "the large and human significance" in their lives and work. This requires not just teaching to the test and not just parroting critiques. It requires learning to think with contexts and concepts, deploying cooperation and creativity.
As a college president, I'm usually saying that our nation's colleges and universities help students come to know the unknown, and to grasp the vital importance of knowing. Yet there is something in "Everything important in life is unknown" that clarifies the proper role of colleges and universities.
On this July 4 we should dedicate ourselves to recovering the American promise that education should increase our independence. Since the founding of this country, education has been closely tied to self-reliance, to declaring one's independence through one's ability to think for oneself and creatively contribute to society. In a quickly shifting economic landscape, it is understandable that some parents and pundits are calling for streamlined learning to train people quickly. But gearing education only to meeting current economic conditions is a ticket to conformity -- and also to economic and cultural mediocrity.
Despite their many differences, we can see in Jefferson and the Obamas a common commitment to a broad, open-ended education as a vehicle for disrupting entrenched elites. When the best educational resources are dominated by the wealthiest, they become an elite bent on cultivating their pleasures rather than on extending knowledge and cultural vitality.
Conformity, whether rationalized or simply imposed, undermines our government, our press, and our educational systems. We've had to learn some hard lessons about this in the last 10 years. Surely one of them is that we must defend diversity as a tool for innovation and for responsible decision-making.