What Does It Mean to be an Educated Person?

08/10/2017 05:02 pm ET

I was shocked recently when a distinguished educator stated that all high school graduates did not need to learn algebra. Being brought up in British schools, I had to learn Latin and Ancient Greek starting at age 9 and 10, respectively. Initially I thought these were dead languages and a complete waste of time. But in retrospect I feel that these languages provided the foundations for current languages and helped “to train my mind.” It may be hard for non-Brits to believe that, until 1960, Latin was a required subject to get into a British university.

But skipping algebra? Math is truly food for the brain.

I think of an educated person as having two key characteristics: he or she thinks critically; and has a soulful character based on decency and humility.

When in doubt I go back to the ancients. One of my heroes in middle school was Marcus Tullius Cicero, a Roman statesman born in 106 B.C. He said the following: “Cultivation to the mind is as necessary as food to the body” and “A man's own manner and character is what most becomes him.”

So the value of character is an ancient concept. Jump two thousand years and Martin Luther King Jr. said: “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character -- that is the goal of true education.”

Woodbury University achieves “true education” by providing an innovative, engaged learning experience with a focus on student-faculty interaction. Critical thinking and character development are core values. For the third consecutive year, Woodbury has received a College of Distinction designation, which is a strong affirmation of these values. (Since 2001, Colleges of Distinction has been a trusted resource for guidance counsellors, parents and students. The colleges are selected by high school counsellors and educators).

On the importance of character, I had the pleasure of moderating a discussion with Charles Schwab a few years ago. Mr. Schwab is a very accomplished entrepreneur who has built a huge financial services firm in an industry characterized by large egos and a cutthroat culture. In answer to a question from the audience: “What is the most importance characteristic of leadership?” Mr. Schwab answered humility. He then went on to discuss the importance of ethical behavior, empathy and the ability to listen actively; and, importantly, to surround yourself with people smarter than you in order to learn from them. This is soulful character.

One of the giants of the twentieth century is an Englishman, Bertrand Russell, who is not well known in the U.S. He won the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950 “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.” As a kid I remember his book, In Praise of Idleness, that focuses on the virtues of leisure; but more importantly, it is a compendium of short, provocative essays on subjects ranging from sociology to philosophy to architecture and economics. It is a great example of critical thinking.

And then there was Sir Isaac Newton, perhaps the world’s greatest scientific mind, who wrote his famous laws of motion in 1687, in Latin: Principia: The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. One of his most famous quotes is: “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself now and then in finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” This is a great example of true humility. Let me also quote George Washington Carver, the famous American born-into-slavery botanist and inventor, who Time magazine in 1941 called the “Black Leonardo da Vinci.” He said: “Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.” As a university faculty member, “he was as concerned with his students' character development as he was with their intellectual development.”

So let’s not be crazy and skip algebra. Interestingly, Russell was also a distinguished mathematician who co-published a seminal work, Principia Mathematica in 1910; and also advanced a thesis of logicism, that mathematics and logic are one and the same.

In short, we need our middle and high schools to focus on mathematics, philosophy and literacy, not on dumbing down standards.

David Steele-Figueredo, Ph.D., is President of Woodbury University in Burbank, Calif.

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