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Defining the Educated Person

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 Fernando Reimers, 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.”