Askwith Forums

Defining the Educated Person

By Jill Anderson
04/26/2012 8:00 AM

The question of what defines an educated person is not necessarily easy to answer, but it’s important to try. However, the panelists at an Askwith Forum last week agreed that educators often don’t consider that question and, when they do, the answers aren’t what one might expect.

“I find the question to be simultaneously heartening and disheartening,” said Deborah Delisle, nominee for assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, U.S. Department of Education and former Ohio State Superintendent. “Disheartening in that it is a rare conversation at the local, state, or federal level…. We don’t craft our schools around [that question].”

Delisle was one of five panelists – also including Tufts University President-Emeritus and HGSE President in Residence Lawrence S. Bacow, Harvard Kennedy School Professor and Director of the Center for Public Leadership David Gergen, Harvard University Professor Emeritus Henry Rosovsky, and Vermont Department of Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca – who discussed the goals and means to educating students in our times at the forum, “Defining the Educated Person.” The forum was cosponsored by the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard (ALI) – which is designed to enhance and leverage the skills of highly accomplished, experienced leaders dedicated to solving significant social problems.

To be considered educated, said the panelists, students should leave school with a deep understanding of themselves and how they fit into the world, and have learned what some call “soft skills” – complex problem-solving, creativity, entrepreneurship, the ability to manage themselves, and the ability to be lifelong learners. As Professor , who moderated the panel, summarized, there is a disconnect between how education gets delivered in the classroom and the common desire for students to become good, well-rounded people.

Delisle pointed out that educators often lose sight of creating well-rounded students because they are busy fighting over accountability and who is at fault in the classroom. Then, educators tend to focus more on “silver bullets” and “best practices” as a means to solving educations problems, she said.

Over the years, Bacow noted that part of the problem could be how education’s goal had somehow become more instrumental. Gone are the days where going to college was more about expanding your mind versus landing you a job.

While there are many things in education that could be changed, Rosovsky said he likes to ask people what doesn’t need to change. While Rosovsky said many people cannot answer that question, he once received a memorable response: meaningful human contact.

Rosovsky also wondered whether the creation of technology added to the disconnect between what makes an educated person and how that education is being delivered. Panelists had mixed views on this. Vilaseca, for one, views technology as a tool that won’t replace people. “I don’t think relationships are going away…relationships are the most important thing,” he said.

However, some argued that technology hinders our contemplative nature. According to Bacow, technology has significantly decreased the amount of time people actually think about things. “We need to find more time for reflection and contemplation,” he said.

Despite the immediate gratification of technology, Gergen added that students really do understand the need for solitude and reflection.

“What do we want an educated person to be?” Bacow said. “We want them to be wise, creative, empathetic, engaged. There are many processes by which we can to bring students to that state of being and there is a role for family, a role for teachers, and a role for contemplation and reflection to get there.”

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  • Newseditor

    The following comment was submitted to the news office via email:

    “Soft skills are important but should they be the goal in and of themselves? Should they not be tied to demonstrated competency in a discipline? To have a discipline in and of itself allows one to advance society through competency of a profession. This kind of educated person could abuse their scholarly responsibilities. Therefore, “soft skills” are definitely needed but could infused at the point where abuses could occur in the application of their competency.

    To be considered educated, students should leave the university with the ability to demonstrate their deep understanding of themselves and how they fit into the world, managing themselves, complex problem solving, etc. as indicated in the article.

    Solving social problems is important but is accomplished in the unique field of their discipline. I wonder if solving social problems as the goal, in the universal sense, has a detrimental result with only a few bright spots here and there. If so, is that truly beneficial to society in the universal sense.

    Forgive me for jumping ahead but “good” duplicated research is needed to address the research problem within a discipline and disclosing implications for social problems within a discipline. Recommendations for addressing the social problems where the potential occurs should be addressed as part of the research.

    I would like to say more, but I must get back to work. Thanks for the opportunity to participate.

    Thanks for your support

    Frederick Van Wert

    Dr. Frederick Van Wert
    Center for Distributed Learning”

  • Lynn Comstock

    The place of religion, values and morality are notably missing from the above descriptions of an educated person. Lincoln had merely 50 weeks of schooling but he clearly exhibited the marks of an educated person.

  • Lena

    An educated person bears the brunt of the responsibility. Individuals are responsibility to uphold themselves in a moral manner and conduct themselves with intellect and integrity. However, additional support is from those who students interact and engage with. The American society has a lot of individuals with degrees yet what is lacking is an educated intellect.

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