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What makes a good student?

Learning how to walk on their own feet, embracing action, and trying out new ideas — these are the tasks of the self-reliant student.

Jasmin Awad/cobaltstock/Adobe

As millions of students return to class and memories of summer fade, many will ask themselves what their school wants from them. Should they imitate the teacher? Should they do no less and no more than what is asked? Will that make them good students?

Those are age-old questions. In ancient China, the student Zigong showed himself perfectly capable of repeating the principles of Confucius, but the great teacher remained skeptical. Confucius saw Zigong as the kind of student who seeks to memorize the material but who lacks genuine insight and empathy — similar to the humanities student of today who knows how to write a good paper and how to get a good grade, but who hasn’t developed the inner strength to take to heart and really live the lessons read about. Imitation is certainly a phase of learning (we know that phonics, for example, is crucial for reading instruction), but students who only mimic the instructor — doing no less and no more than what is asked — are not readying themselves to learn on their own.


Some students will return to class with defiance on their minds. They will try to show how smart they are by being critical of everything the teacher has to offer — often with the not-so-subtle expectation that they will impress the teacher by doing so. Whether they know it or not, such students — the smart and the smart-ass — are in the tradition of Socrates, who mercilessly questioned his fellow Athenians to expose their misplaced confidence in their own beliefs.

This foundational figure in philosophy acknowledged his own ignorance and then went on to demonstrate that others knew even less. He showed that many who appeared to be wise didn’t really know what they were talking about. He called this his occupation and said young people around him “like to hear the cross-examination of the pretenders to wisdom; there is amusement in it.” The smart aleck in class today might agree, paying no mind to the fact that in the case of Socrates, not everyone was amused and he was sentenced to death.


I have been a professor and college president for decades, and I’ve seen the tension between imitation and criticism play out in young hearts and minds countless times. Eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophers expressed this tension as the linkage of learning and freedom — seeing learning on one’s own in the company of others as the highest aim of education. Not just economic independence and not just integration into society but discovering one’s own way.

Notice everything and imitate nothing, Ralph Waldo Emerson advised in the mid-1800s. Real students, he taught, must not confuse education with being trained to do one thing well so that you can sell that skill to another or fit a part of yourself into someone else’s enterprise. Students should learn how to be full human beings, not mere appendages, and this means continually questioning what they are doing.

Learning how to walk on their own feet, embracing action, and trying out new ideas — these are the tasks of the self-reliant student. “I unsettle all things,” writes Emerson. “No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker with no Past at my back.” Some of this sounds like Socrates, but the American philosopher is more affirmative, less ironic. He wants his audience not only to realize their own ignorance but also to embrace their appetites for adventurous experience. He imagined active, independent students for an active nation that would bolster its independence and maturity through rejecting the tutelage of the Old World of Europe.


Critics today say higher education has betrayed this legacy as freedom. When they rail against unfair access, woke campuses, or ideological professors who indoctrinate their students, they do so (or claim to) in the service of what we have come to value most about learning — the capacity to think for oneself while working with others. Those who criticize political groupthink or mindless grinding away to get grades and internships aim (or claim) to protect the integrity of learning as a path to freely thinking for oneself.

If going to college means participating in one’s own indoctrination by mimicking the views of professors — no matter how critical they seem to be — then one could find no enlightenment there. But even if there is (some) merit in these critiques, students are all the while discovering on-campus opportunities to explore the world and themselves in ways that are difficult to find anywhere else.

If one wants to explore cultural forms that have fallen out of favor, as did Confucius and his followers, schools offer resources to do exactly that. If one wants, like Socrates and his interlocutors, to challenge existing hierarchies by exposing the ignorance of others, a classroom can be a place to develop one’s skills. Discovering new subjects and developing critical thinking skills are core elements of education, and they point to a deeper goal shared by the critics of higher education and its defenders: All want it to live up to the ideal of being an opportunity for learning freedom.


From elementary school to the university, educators want to create engaged learners. This will include some imitative training, to be sure, but the aim is for the student to learn without having a teacher to please. The point of creating a classroom of active students — whether they are collaborating on a design project or working through a classic text together to see how it might be relevant to their lives — is to make progress toward the goal of learning freedom. Ideally, teachers have developed habits of paying attention, analysis, and openness that students want for themselves. But students shouldn’t merely learn to adopt their teachers’ criteria of judgment so that they can evaluate the world from their mentors’ perspective. Teachers should point students toward experiences and realities that will eventually dissolve the very need for a teacher. Great teachers help those they work with become better students, people who are free enough to learn on their own alongside others.

As students begin a new school year, they may feel like they’re giving up summer’s liberties, but they will also be developing capacities to think for themselves while working with others — learning freedom in ways that should endure for all seasons.


Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. This essay is adapted from his new book, “The Student: A Short History,” which will be published on Sept. 12.