Cornell University’s Ithaca campus. (Courtesy of Cornell University Photography)

In this post, Gretchen Ritter, the dean of arts and sciences at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., writes about what she believes the purpose of college should be. Ritter is scheduled to speak in Washington on Monday, discussing the role of higher education in training and preparing future public servants and government leaders, as part of a free event sponsored by the Cornell in Washington program.

Ritter, who graduated from Cornell in 1983, was vice provost for undergraduate education and faculty governance and a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. She also has taught at MIT, Princeton and Harvard.

By Gretchen Ritter

What is the purpose of college? Certainly it prepares students for careers and offers opportunities for learning and personal advancement that they may not get otherwise. But what other purpose does college serve?

Like many leaders in higher education, I believe that we also have a responsibility to foster good citizenship, and I think that’s one of the most important contributions college can make to society.

Gretchen Ritter. (Photo courtesy of Cornell University.)

I want our graduates to be thoughtful, informed participants in debates over key public issues like immigration reform, the threat of militant religious fundamentalism, and the emerging opportunity gap in American society. I believe good citizenship entails a commitment to some shared principles and a willingness to search for common ground in areas where opinions are sharply divided.

Abraham Lincoln once said that in the face of political divisions, it is beholden upon all of us to come together by invoking the “better angels of our nature.” I hope that some of our graduates will be leaders in these debates and will devote some part of their professional lives to public service.

How does college foster these attributes of good citizenship? There are three things that matter deeply here: knowledge, public orientation, and human understanding.

The classic model of a liberal arts education is one that cultivates a breadth of knowledge, through studies in the arts, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and math, as well as a depth of knowledge in a particular area. It might be easy to comprehend why a knowledge of history is important — as France struggles in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, knowledge of the Dreyfus affair and the Vichy regime provides important context for the public reaction to the reemergence of anti-Semitism in Europe today.

But history is not all that matters. Science literacy is essential to the creation of thoughtful citizens who can dissect the debates over climate change. Familiarity with the principles of macroeconomics provides a good entry point for discussions of long-term unemployment, the deficit, and tax policy.

More generally, in the era of big data, I want all of our graduates to be statistically literate in ways that allow them to access quantitative claims being made in policy debates (are illegal immigration rates up or down? Has Obamacare driven up the cost of health care or held it in check? Does campaign spending impact electoral choices?).

Beyond these specific forms of knowledge, a liberal arts education should equip graduates with an orientation to knowledge and learning that prompts them to venture into new knowledge areas with a critical acumen that will allow them to keep abreast of issues in a changing world.

Second, college should cultivate a public orientation in its students.

I hope all our students come away from college with the realization that we live in a larger world, and that support for education represents a commitment to future leadership in our society. Some students may finish college with a direct commitment to addressing the grand challenges of our day — whether they be the ones outlined by the National Academy of Engineering, such as the need for clean water and cybersecurity, or ones that would benefit from a deeply humanistic perspective such as the erosion of a shared social discourse, or the threat of militant religious radicalism.

Just as colleges and universities are the beneficiaries of a public trust that represents a broader investment in our shared future, so, too, should our students appreciate the responsibilities that are borne out of opportunity, since anyone who attends a good college or university has been afforded an amazing opportunity.

Finally, whatever students study in college, we are remiss if we do not actively inculcate a sense of human understanding in our graduates. While we rightly care about the level of science and mathematical literacy within our population today, we should be equally committed to humanities education. The humanities challenge us to see the world through other perspectives. That experience fosters empathy, compassion, creativity, clarity of expression, and deep understanding, qualities that must be in play when working to solve the world’s great problems.

Colleges do this not only through what we teach but also through who we admit.

In my college, more than a tenth of the freshman class grew up outside the United States. We have students at Cornell from every state in the country, and every class, religious, or social background imaginable. That uncommon diversity can create challenges at times in competing understandings of what constitutes justice, opportunity or social good, or when religious differences spill over into foreign policy debates. But learning to navigate discussions that entail deep, passionate, and sometimes opposing commitments is an essential skill for all of us — not just in the public sphere, but in our work lives and home lives as well.

In all of these ways, a commitment to the role of college in fostering good citizenship correlates to the view that knowledge and human understanding provide us with a pathway to a better future.