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Posted at 11:35 AM ET, 09/10/2009

TRACHTENBERG: What Is a College Education For?

By Valerie Strauss

The Answer Sheet will frequently host guests writing on a range of education topics. Today we hear the voice of Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University, a professor of public policy and a man with many informed and sometimes unorthodox ideas about higher education

By Stephen Joel Trachtenberg
After 30 years as a university president, I know the signs that signal the beginning of a new academic year. Labor Day has come and gone, students may be seen sparkling across campus in flip-flops, shorts and halter tops, professors appear looking well rested and tan. And in Foggy Bottom, once again, it is impossible to park or ignore the sounds of courtship.

At GW caffeine-fueled young people, carrying backpacks, flirt their way from the Gelman Library Starbucks to Pennsylvania Avenue passing Alexander Pushkin on their way.

“Who is Alexander Pushkin and why do we care?”

He is arguably to Russian what Shakespeare is to English: a poet, playwright, artist, who lived fast, died young and left a good-looking widow; the author of great lasting works such as Eugene Onegin and Boris Godunov.

A few years ago the mayor of Moscow, in a gesture of hands across the seas, gifted a 10-foot tall statue of Pushkin to the District of Columbia. Washington could not decline this symbol of friendship without risking an international incident.

But as the then-DC Mayor Anthony Williams explained to me, "The statue is on the high seas, heading towards America, and we have no place to put it. The designation of an approved site following District of Columbia regulations will take two bureaucratic years even if I, the mayor, and the City Council were to intervene. You have to help me out."

So it came to pass that, what I am told is the only physical rendering of Pushkin in North America, rests on perpetual loan from the people of the District of Columbia to GW on the corner of H & 22nd Streets, NW.

One of my pastimes is to stand in front of this statue, which is double-life-sized (if you count the plinth) and ask passersby who Pushkin was.

I know it is a random and unscientific test, but so far I am batting 1000. I get shrugs, people will read the name off of the base and furrow their brows, but no one has been able to tell me who he was. One student said that if Pushkin was really important he’d have a rest stop named for him on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Advancing technology has recently changed the rules of engagement. Sometimes somebody will whip out a PDA, look up "Pushkin," and, before going on their way, say to me in their best Wikipedia prose, “Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin. Born June 6, 1799 in Moscow. Died February 10, 1837, at the age of 37 in Saint Petersburg. Occupation: Poet, novelist, playwright.

But I’m not writing about Pushkin, I’m writing about curiosity. What should universities be doing to inspire and maintain a sense of wonder in undergraduates?

In an era of information and data overload, when the only use for a classic encyclopedia is to prop up a table with a missing leg, students come to campus to learn. Do we teach them that they are going to have to keep learning for the rest of their lives; that since a lot of today’s knowledge was obsolete yesterday they need to acquire the skills of scholarly process as well as the seeming comfort of content and false security of facts?

Or, are they lead to believe that when, BA degree in hand, they are welcomed into the company of educated men and women, they will never have to pick up a Kindle again? We must satisfy them and keep them thirsty at the same time; both hydrated and parched, concurrently.

And, along with reading, writing and arithmetic we must instill character and responsibility for themselves and for their community.
The public service opportunities now encouraged by some curriculum and legislation are fine as far as they go.

But there is nothing that beats hands-on experience, like the one I got in 1950 at Brooklyn’s P.S. 254 where all the boys took shop in the 7th grade. We were exposed to the wonders of woodworking. And taught to tell the difference between a male screw from a female screw, a crosscut from a rip-saw and other comparable information likely to be useful in adult life.

Our carpentry instructor was Mr. Vogel. A lovely man, an artisan and an educator, he welcomed the opportunity to share his craft with young people. I was a source of despair for him: better I should have been with the girls studying home economics. Everything I touched seemed to splinter.

But I came away from the experience informed in at least three ways. I developed a lasting regard for skilled workers. I learned to avoid hammer, chisel and vise. And, I remember what Mr. Vogel told me when I showed him my project in pieces, and said, "Look, Mr. Vogel, it broke."

"Trachtenberg," he replied, "It didn’t break, you broke it."

Can we promise this year’s entering freshmen that when they graduate in 2013 they will be both curious and responsible?

By Valerie Strauss  | September 10, 2009; 11:35 AM ET
Tags:  College Education, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg  
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Oh, bless you, Mr. Trachtenberg! Undergraduate education has been treated as white collar trade school for so long now, I despaired of anyone still understanding that it's purpose is to give one a thirst for knowledge and the tools with which to continue the pursuit thereof.

By the way, those of us who love opera, particularly Russian opera, do know Pushkin.

Posted by: johnsondeb | September 10, 2009 1:41 PM | Report abuse

Those aged 18-20 are adults and not otherwise. The purpose of a university education is to delve into the mysteries of the world and gain knowledge in their perspective field. There is material in university which seems irrelevant to students, but those are the wonders which the world holds. A university education means scholarly work and firsthand knowledge for Bachelor degrees.

Posted by: LibertyForAll | September 10, 2009 7:51 PM | Report abuse

We need to find ways to encourage students to develop situational awareness -- for the campus and the community. One can imagine an introductory course that would explore the campus and its environs together with appropriate readings and site visits to cultural landmarks. Attendance at concerts, visits to museums, explorations of neighborhoods, and more could be included to enrich the experience. Today's students have a cellphone in one ear and an earbud in the other; they create an internal reality that replaces apprehension of the world around them.

Posted by: collegeprof | September 11, 2009 10:55 AM | Report abuse

Indeed, the job of a undergraduate education is not necessarily to specialize, but to "learn how to learn" in the best tradition of a liberal arts education.

Our only hope as a nation is to create life long learners. It starts at GW and a host of other good schools around the country. Thank you Mr. Trachtenberg.

Posted by: morgangale | September 12, 2009 2:47 PM | Report abuse

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