09/10/2013 10:00 am ET Updated Nov 10, 2013

In Search of Thoughtful People: Educating for Thoughtfulness

"A man is not idle because he is absorbed in thought. There is a visible labor and there is an invisible labor. To meditate is to labor; to think is to act." -- Victor Hugo
(1802 -1855) Les Miserables, Book 7, Chapter 8

As we face the challenges of the future and work to ensure the continued and increasing success of future generations, we must carefully consider what the fundamental role of a university is.

Clearly we as educators strive to prepare individuals skilled in the myriad of technical, analytic, and professional expertise that a complex and competitive society requires. We should keep in mind that 60 percent of tomorrow's jobs will require a college degree, and many may be in disciplines quite different than what we offer today.

But I would argue that a most important task -- as educators, as mentors, as leaders, as an institution, a state, and a nation -- is to also produce individuals who have the capacity for "thoughtfulness."

How to define thoughtfulness? The American Heritage Dictionary tells us that thoughtfulness loosely refers to the use of careful thought or contemplation resulting in an individual who has or shows concern for the well being or happiness of others; and does so by trying to anticipate their needs or wishes, i.e., thinks ahead.

To me, more specifically, thoughtfulness reflects the ability of an individual to go beneath the surface of what appears obvious. The ability to comprehend that complex issues have no simple answers -- or simple questions. The ability to understand that every action has a reaction. That every plan has an unintended consequence. That every benefit has a risk. And the ability to predict these ... or at least attempt to predict them.

In short, thoughtfulness is the ability to comprehend, assimilate, and respond to the ethical, moral, spiritual, and cultural implications of actions and events within the context of a global, heterogeneous, multi-variegated environment.

Thoughtfulness is a capacity of critical importance as we address a future that moves at an ever-faster pace and provides an ever-greater quantity of data, forcing all of us to make split-second decisions on issues that have long-lasting consequences.

A future that speaks in pixels and petabytes, in 10-second sound bites, and 140-character tweets.

A future that requires us to ensure that our future generations do not mistake data with truth -- or worse, analysis. That they do not believe that a sound bite is the summary of all that is real. A generation that will have to learn to contemplate, to carefully consider consequences, and to heed the well being and happiness of others.

An often-told story in the business world speaks to the perceived difference in how the U.S. and Japan value contemplation, meditation, and thought. It is said that in the Japanese business culture, if someone enters your office and finds you gazing out the window, deep in contemplation, they will quietly retreat to allow you to complete your thoughts. In U.S. business culture, we are likely to view this time as "open" and feel free to interrupt since we assume the other person is "doing nothing." We are a nation of action. We are not always a nation of thoughtfulness. But as a colleague of mine contends, we all need more time to "go to Japan" -- to have uninterrupted time to think; to engage in creative, disciplined visualization; to simply slow down, step back, and ponder the meaning and significance of what we are doing and what is going on around us.

How do the educators of future generations do this? How do we create a culture that values the ability to think -- not simply study, retain, and regurgitate? This has been, and remains still, the great challenge of our nation's universities.

And herein lies one of the great values of the humanities and the liberal arts to the remaining disciplines. Science explains "The How," but it is humanities and the liberal arts that lead us to "The Why." And it is contemplation that stands at the heart of a liberal arts education.

Jean Gregorek, a literature professor at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., has described liberal arts colleges as "green spaces for the mind." She writes:

In terms of the elusiveness of their value they can be thought of in much the same way as parks and wild places. These educational 'green spaces' are equivalent to non-commercial space. Like literal green spaces, they are not profit-producing business enterprises, but they make vital--although hard to quantify--contributions to American life and communities nonetheless. Here are institutions which set aside four years for non-instrumentalized lines of inquiry--for silence, reflection, musings, experiment, practice, the gaining of knowledge, the trying out of ideas and art forms, the bumping up against Otherness and Other points of view, and always, for Questioning.

Universities must be communities of thought. Communities of contemplation and of determined action. And the institutions educating the future should focus on generating a thoughtful people.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post indicated that Jean Gregorek is a professor at Antioch College. She is currently a professor at Canisius College.