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Perspective 100: Developing the Skills for a Successful Life

Q: You’ve said, “We are in danger of losing our competitive edge as a nation through excessive self-satisfaction and toleration of a love of ignorance that will doom us.” How does this strong advisory relate to today’s students?

Leon Botstein: The danger I’m talking about is rooted in complacency, laziness, and absence of the love of work, not only for its own sake but for the pride many Americans feel in their own achievement. With our society’s emphasis on fame and glorification of conspicuous consumption, we have lost the thread of what I would call modest desires for freedom, security, and comfort, what we used to call middle-class values, where we don’t need two houses and two cars and five vacations and five-star restaurants. Many of us seem to have forgotten that wealth is not a key to happiness. The key to happiness is a sense of self-worth, which often comes from a sense of how we as individuals contribute to the well-being of our society in our daily lives and work. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult nowadays to persuade young people that quality of life is not contingent on money.

Q: But surely these concerns don’t apply to the Jewish community, given its longstanding emphasis on higher education, achievement, and advancement?

LB: It’s my belief that the exceptional nature of the Jew in terms of achievement is vanishing. One hundred, sixty, even fifty years ago there was a significant segment of the Jewish community within America’s working class. Now that the American Jewish community has realized economic and social success by any reasonable standard, it is consequently beginning to suffer from the same complacency in learning, and descending to the same mediocre level of ambition that tends to affect privileged Americans.

Hopefully, today’s Jewish young people will seek out learning that will develop and intensify their motivation, discipline, hard work, and ambition—values that are developed during the high school and college years.

Q: How can high school students best prepare themselves to thrive academically and in the work force later in life?

LB: I would say, if you want to gain the most from your high school years, arrange for extracurricular instruction in subjects that intrigue you, such as music, art, or a foreign language. Look for available courses at colleges within commuting distance of your high school. This will at least temporarily take you out of the artificially age-segregated high school environment and place you with other students intent on developing the intellectual and core skills necessary for a successful life. Also, see if you can graduate from high school early and enter a college or university as quickly as possible. It’s a rather strange anomaly: although we have a less than stellar secondary school system, the university system in the United States is remarkably good; regardless of college location and course subject, you will be taught by an expert in the field and can get a first-class education.

Q: If one can get a first-class education at practically any college, how should a student select a specific school?

LB: First, keep in mind the goals of a college education: to help you develop a love of learning and to discover what you want to do with your life through in-depth pursuit of your interests. So you will want to look for the college that will provide you with the greatest opportunity to develop ambition, discipline, and motivation—and that’s not the same for everyone. Some young people thrive in an environment that emphasizes grades, rapid facility, and competition in the student body; others are overwhelmed by that environment. Some people feel more comfortable in an urban university with large lecture halls; others like personal attention and might be better suited for a small campus.

These differences aside, be sure to select a campus environment where you’ll find peers who value learning for its own sake. The quality of teaching is also important. In my opinion—and I say this, of course, with prejudice—the very best teaching goes on in our free-standing liberal arts colleges. A study from more than ten years ago showed that large universities with big research science operations such as MIT and Johns Hopkins produced fewer scientists, per capita, than Swarthmore, Bowdoin, Amherst, Williams, Bard, and Vassar—the better of the small colleges. I believe that’s because the undergraduate teaching at these smaller institutions is less standardized. While research universities have the advantage of employing researchers of prominence, these professors may or may not instruct undergraduates. Also, look at the caliber of instruction in fields that do not obviously relate to your area of interest. Most of our knowledge is acquired because of a need to know. So if you’re interested in the fate of the environment, you’ll need to know a lot of science and a lot of politics; if you’re interested in disease, you’ll also need to know about the workings of human societies.

In summary, a high school student has to make the decision where she or he is most likely to develop the self-confidence and knowledge to excel in life. The big difference between high school and college is that in college you become the agent of your own education. There’s no one to take responsibility for whether you get a good education except yourself.

Q: When my sons went to Simons Rock of Bard, tremendous emphasis was placed on writing well. Why is writing so important?

LB: Writing—an active skill—is a critical instrument for the discovery and clarification of what we think. I know of no great illiterate scientist or great illiterate artist. Every scientist has to keep a lab book describing and analyzing experimental findings. For an artist, language is crucial to understanding what it is one wants to do and communicating that intention to others.

Learning to think critically, delving deeply into subjects, and writing well are the core of an effective undergraduate education, setting the basic level of skill required for continuing self-education throughout our lives.

—Professor Leon Botstein is president of Bard College, principal conductor of the American and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestras, and author of Jefferson’s Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture. He was interviewed by RJ editor Aron Hirt-Manheimer.

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