Preposterous Universe

Sunday, February 13, 2005
Pushing back

Brad DeLong has a nice post about receiving a challenging undergraduate education. He was prompted by an article by Ross Douthat in the Atlantic Monthly, which apparently whines about how it is possible to skate through Harvard without working very hard or learning very much. DeLong points out that it was, and still is, also possible to receive an extraordinarily rewarding education at a place like Harvard -- it's in the hands of the student to go out and get it.

I would just point out that this lesson is completely universal, not specific to Harvard. At almost any university in the United States, it's possible to graduate without being challenged very much, if that's your major goal (perhaps places like MIT and CalTech are exceptions). And at the same time, any halfway-decent institution of higher learning can provide a fantastic education to a student who makes the effort to get it. In my experience, students consistently underestimate the extent to which the quality of their education depends much more on themselves than on the place they are studying. The same is even true, albeit to a lesser extent, in graduate school: students who go beyond their coursework, who go to seminars and try to catch on with what is being discussed, who knock on professors' doors to talk about research, who speak up in meetings to politely ask questions -- these students will learn a tremendous amount no matter where they are.

I was an undergraduate at Villanova, a middle-class Catholic school most notable for winning the NCAA men's basketball championship my first year. While many of my classmates were biding time until the weekend, I was being constantly challenged and amazed by faculty in astronomy, physics, mathematics, biology, philosophy, English, sociology, religious studies, political science, history, and elsewhere. So, to Edward Guinan, Frank Maloney, Mike Burke, Jack Doody, Colleen Sheehan, Peter Knapp, Felix Beiduk, Tony Godzieba, Bill Werpehowski, Earl Bader, John Caputo, Bill Marks, Bill Fleishman, and many others who inspired me to be a better thinker and person -- thanks.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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