The Most Essential Takeaways - Jewish and Otherwise - of a College Education

September 5, 2014Joy Weinberg

What do you believe is the most essential takeaway from a college education?

An old quip says that if you ask five Jews a question and you’ll get more than five answers – and it holds true for the five Jewish presidents of American universities who responded in Reform Judaism magazine’s Insider’s Guide to College Life. Here’s how they’ve responded over the years:

  • “College is a critical time for growth and development, and this growth should be intellectual, personal, and professional.” (Elliot Hirshman, President, San Diego State University, RJ College Guide, Fall 2014)
  • “Finding your purpose in life…The best colleges help students find that passion.” (Mitchell B. Reiss, President, Washington College, RJ College Guide, Fall 2013)
  • “How to communicate, to analyze, to problem-solve, and perhaps most importantly, to turn millions of pieces of undifferentiated information into knowledge that can help [you] determine the best way to understand and change our world. In short…to acquire the skills necessary to turn information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom.” (Frederick Lawrence, President, Brandeis University, RJ College Guide, Fall 2012)
  • “To enrich [your] capacity to think, to learn, to act, to lead with integrity and wisdom, and to develop the habits of the mind and heart to become advanced citizens of the world.” (Dr. Scott Cowan, President, Tulane University, RJ College Guide, Fall 2009)
  • “To develop a love of learning and to discover what you want to do with your life through in-depth pursuit of your interests. (Leon Botstein, Bard College, RJ College Guide, Fall 2007)

All are worthy answers – but if you ask me, and you’ll get a very different takeaway that changed my life.

It wasn’t becoming a citizen of the world. Such global scope of thought could not have been imagined in the pre-Internet world of the mid 1980s, when I graduated.

It wasn’t career-oriented learning, which did encapsulate the high-intensity experience of some of my pre-med/pre-vet friends at Cornell University.

And it certainly wasn’t discovery of my “purpose in life.” As editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper, I’d started school as an English/journalism major, but the university curriculum was a rude awakening. In those less culturally diverse years, coursework aimed at strengthening students’ abilities to analyze Christian symbolism in classic literature, obliging students to draw from reserves of knowledge I’d never been exposed to in childhood. By my junior year, I switched to psychology (with an English minor). Luckily, life circumstances intervened, and a couple of years later, I became managing editor of Reform Judaism magazine.

How, then, did college change my life?

Flash back to junior year. I was taking a sociobiology course, studying theories that social behavior had resulted from a natural selection process whereby animals evolved to exhibit preferential traits for continued existence in their environment. Another course that semester, taught by pioneering psychologist Sandra Bem, stressed and questioned the strong cultural milieu that had led to archetypical patterns of male and female behavior.

In short, the two classes embodied the nature/nurture divide.

We learned the scientific studies that supported their points of view – and it just so happened that both professors cited the same study as a quintessential, fundamental proof of their individual theories.

One day, I had midterms in both classes, and both tests required analysis of the same study – but with opposite conclusions! I knew how to play this game: I elucidated nature arguments for test one, and nurture inferences for test two.

I ended up with A’s in both tests, but more importantly, I walked away understanding that social science, and by extension other fields, could potentially be interpreted in polar opposite ways. Therefore, if I wanted “truth,” going forward I would not be able to take someone else’s conclusions for granted a priori. Rather, I’d have to exercise discernment: to explore the matter deeply and make healthy questioning a lifetime habit.

I’ve since found discernment invaluable in decision-making. As one example, I had been taking calcium-magnesium pills daily for osteoporosis prevention when the media reported on a major long-term study of women that had found no additional preventative benefits for calcium supplementation over a placebo. Surprised, I dug deeper and read an interview with the study researchers. Unreported by almost all media covering the story was the fact that the study had been conducted with educated middle- to upper-class women, the great majority of whom were already taking calcium supplements. Since the researchers did not wish to ask study participants to stop taking calcium – which might result in harm to those who received the placebo – they just proceeded with their study as-is.

In other words, all this study really told us was that taking double doses of calcium supplements is no better a preventative than taking an average dose. I still take my moderate dosage.

And so, although none of the college presidents’ perspectives fully encapsulates my own experience, I believe Dr. Scott Cowan got it right when he observed that college enriches your capacity to think. Of the many gifts I got out of school, practicing discernment has been the greatest of all.

What is the most valuable lesson you learned - Jewish or otherwise - in college?

Related Posts