06/24/2014 04:15 pm ET Updated Aug 24, 2014

Education That Makes a Difference

"Education does not exist to give you a job. . . . Education is here to nourish your soul." Dr. Ruth Simmons, the former president of Brown University, declared years back. Can this notion possibly hold true in the midst of a refugee crisis?

Education, according to many, is about exploring new ideas, thinking critically and independently, and solving problems of any size. Through this lens, education, then, is about values, discipline, and flexibility.

But, in the context of a refugee crisis, this notion of education seems lofty and wonderfully idyllic.

Here, in Jordan, home to some 600,000 Syrian refugees, we focus on the basic, not the lofty. Walk into any school at one of the three refugee camps or a school in an urban setting, you will find Syrian students doing their best to adjust to a new curriculum and fresh expectations. Regardless of the grade level, though, the focus across the board is ensuring that these students grasp the fundamental basics that all educated people should possess: literacy and numeracy.

Beyond primary school, literacy and numeracy gradually transitions into imparting skills necessary to find a job. Given the high levels of unemployment in Jordan, particularly among young people, this makes perfect sense.

Recently, I visited a community college in East Amman, an impoverished neighborhood with a high concentration of Syrian refugees. While touring this school and speaking with administrators, I was struck by the almost singular emphasis on teaching skills necessary to secure a job. The business program, the health care curriculum, the information technology courses, all of them focus on teaching tangible skills that might make students more attractive to employers. And, to be sure, this focus on jobs is not confined to Jordan. It seems nowadays many are struggling with the nagging existential question of "is college worth it?"

For Syrian youth, though, what is their role in helping resolve the crisis and what about when the conflict ends? Is it enough for them to learn marketable job skills?

Syria is falling apart. About 700,000 homes have been destroyed or damaged, hospitals have also been ravaged, and schools are now safe havens for those seeking refuge from violence. When this comes to an end--whenever that may be--Syria will need to be rebuilt. Surely, it will need clerks, medical assistants, and computer technicians. After all, what developing or developed country can do without a skilled-trade workforce?

The question here, however, is might Syria need more? Education that challenges the mind and provokes critical thinking can equip these students with more.

Outside of Amman sits a private, co-ed high school called King's Academy. The King of Jordan, having attended boarding school in Massachusetts when he was younger, looked to establish a similar school in Jordan. In 2007, this elite high school opened its doors. King's Academy now draws students from all over the world.

During my visit, I had the privilege of observing several classes, including Comparative Government, World History, and World Literature. Socrates, the classical master of inquiry, would have been proud. Each question that the teachers posed gave birth to another. The students stumbled, they recovered, and, eventually, they responded--sometimes with questions of their own. Together, teacher and students discussed, distilled, and discovered. This wasn't instruction; this was the nimble, unvarnished embrace of questions. It just happened to take place in a classroom.

This type of learning is the exception in a crisis situation. This type of learning is intense and quite far from easy. It falls by the wayside in the name of expediency.

Once the crisis settles into what looks like the long haul (and we're there), this type of learning needs to reappear. It needs to reappear now because it is this sort of learning that allows students, and perhaps societies recovering from conflict, to flourish. It needs to reappear now because this sort of learning can start to incubate today the thinkers and leaders of tomorrow.

Societies in conflict need dynamic thinkers and leaders to help resolve and recover from that conflict.

Two years ago, Jim Kim, took over the World Bank. Dr. Kim is a physician, who became an international tuberculosis expert, and then rose to the presidency of Dartmouth University. How does a global health expert become head of an international bank that provides loans to developing countries? Could it be that his educational foundation set him up to flourish?

How does the youngest of twelve children, the daughter of a sharecropper in East Texas grow up to be the first African-American president of an Ivy League institution? Dr. Ruth Simmons's main aspiration growing up in East Texas was to not become a maid. Through the experience of learning, she found her voice, "her rebellion," as she puts it.

The education that allowed Drs. Kim and Simmons to flourish leans away from teaching skills and toward enabling thought. It is non-linear, it is premised on questions, and it is trial-and-error. We cannot expect students who are all too familiar with upheaval to follow their passion. Upheaval robs one of resources, structure, and mental energy. Our best bet, to paraphrase Duke University's president recently, "is to give passion a chance to find" them.

Syria will need its Dr. Jim Kims and Dr. Ruth Simmonses at some point down the road. Education that focuses solely on attaining employment will feed bodies. Syria, though, might need the sort of education that nourishes a recovering soul.