Our stunted schol­ars

The Washington Post Sunday - - OPINION - BY HEATHER WIL­SON The writer rep­re­sented New Mex­ico in the U.S. House from 1997 to 2008. She is a grad­u­ate of the Air Force Academy and a Rhodes scholar.

For most of the past 20 years I have served on se­lec­tion com­mit­tees for the Rhodes Schol­ar­ship. In gen­eral, the ex­pe­ri­ence is an an­nual re­minder of the tremen­dous prom­ise of Amer­ica’s next gen­er­a­tion. We in­ter­view the best grad­u­ates of U.S. uni­ver­si­ties for one of the most pres­ti­gious hon­ors that can be be­stowed on young schol­ars.

I have, how­ever, be­come in­creas­ingly concerned in re­cent years — not about the tal­ent of the ap­pli­cants but about the ed­u­ca­tion Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties are pro­vid­ing. Even from Amer­ica’s great lib­eral arts col­leges, tran­scripts re­flect an un­der­grad­u­ate spe­cial­iza­tion that would have been un­think­ably nar­row just a gen­er­a­tion ago.

As a re­sult, high-achiev­ing stu­dents seem less able to grap­ple with is­sues that re­quire them to think across dis­ci­plines or re­flect on dif­fi­cult ques­tions about what mat­ters and why.

Un­like many grad­u­ate fel­low­ships, the Rhodes seeks lead­ers who will “fight the world’s fight.” They must be more than mere book­worms. We are look­ing for stu­dents who won­der, stu­dents who are read­ing widely, stu­dents of pas­sion who are driven to make a dif­fer­ence in the lives of those around them and in the broader world through en­light­ened and ef­fec­tive lead­er­ship. The un­der­grad­u­ate ed­u­ca­tion they are re­ceiv­ing seems less and less suited to that pur­pose.

An out­stand­ing bio­chem­istry ma­jor wants to be a doc­tor and sup­ports the pres­i­dent’s health-care bill but doesn’t re­ally know why. A stu­dent who started a chap­ter of Global Zero at his uni­ver­sity hasn’t re­ally thought about whether a world in which great pow­ers have di­vested them­selves of nu­clear weapons would be more sta­ble or less so, or whether nu­clear de­ter­rence can ever be moral. A young ser­vice academy cadet who is likely to be serv­ing in a war zone within the year be­lieves there are things worth dy­ing for but doesn’t seem to have thought much about what is worth killing for. A stu­dent who wants to study com­par­a­tive govern­ment doesn’t seem to know much about the im­por­tant fea­tures and lim­i­ta­tions of Amer­ica’s Con­sti­tu­tion.

When asked what are the im­por­tant things for a leader to be able to do, one young ap­pli­cant de­scribed some tech­niques and per­sonal char­ac­ter­is­tics to man­age a group and get a job done. Nowhere in her an­swer did she give any hint of un­der­stand­ing that lead­ers de­cide what job should be done. Lead­ers set agen­das.

I wish I could say that this is a sin­gle, anoma­lous group of stu­dents, but the trend is un­mis­tak­able. Our great uni­ver­si­ties seem to have re­de­fined what it means to be an ex­cep­tional stu­dent. They are pro­duc­ing top stu­dents who have given very lit­tle thought to mat­ters be­yond their im­pres­sive grasp of an in­tense area of study.

This nar­row­ing has re­sulted in a cu­ri­ously un­pre­pared and su­per­fi­cial pre-pro­fes­sion­al­ism.

Per­haps our uni­ver­si­ties have yielded to the pres­sure of par­ents who pay high tu­ition and ex­pect stu­dents, above all else, to be pre­pared

We look for stu­dents who won­der, who read widely, who are driven to make a dif­fer­ence.

for the jobs they will try to se­cure af­ter grad­u­a­tion. As a par­ent of two teenagers I can un­der­stand that ex­pec­ta­tion.

Per­haps fac­ulty mem­bers are them­selves more nar­rowly spe­cial­ized be­cause of pres­sure to pub­lish orig­i­nal work in ever more ob­scure jour­nals.

I de­tect no lack of se­ri­ous­ness or am­bi­tion in these stu­dents. They be­lieve they are ex­cep­tion­ally well-ed­u­cated. They have jumped ex­pertly through ev­ery hoop put in front of them to be the top of their classes in our coun­try’s best uni­ver­si­ties, and they have been lav­ishly praised for do­ing so. They seem so sur­prised when asked sim­ple di­rect ques­tions that they have never con­sid­ered.

We are blessed to live in a coun­try that val­ues ed­u­ca­tion. Many of our young peo­ple spend four years get­ting very ex­pen­sive col­lege de­grees. But our uni­ver­si­ties fail them and the nation if they con­tinue to grad­u­ate stu­dents with ex­per­tise in bio­chem­istry, math­e­mat­ics or his­tory with­out teach­ing them to think about what prob­lems are im­por­tant and why.

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