What Must an Educated Person Know?

“If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?"

John Wooden, basketball coach

John Taylor Gatto, a renowned education historian and critic of modern industrial schooling, wrote an essay titled The Curriculum of Necessity or What Must an Educated Person Know? Here’s how the essay begins:

A few years back one of the schools at Harvard, perhaps the School of Government, issued some advice to its students on planning a career in the new international economy it believed was arriving. It warned sharply that academic classes and professional credentials would count for less and less when measured against real world training. Ten qualities were offered as essential to successfully adapting to the rapidly changing world of work. See how many of those you think are regularly taught in the schools of your city or state…

Here’s Harvard University’s list of skills that make an educated person

  1. The ability to define problems without a guide.
  2. The ability to ask hard questions which challenge prevailing assumptions.
  3. The ability to quickly assimilate needed data from masses of irrelevant information.
  4. The ability to work in teams without guidance.
  5. The ability to work absolutely alone.
  6. The ability to persuade others that your course is the right one.
  7. The ability to conceptualize and reorganize information into new patterns.
  8. The ability to discuss ideas with an eye toward application.
  9. The ability to think inductively, deductively and dialectically.
  10. The ability to attack problems heuristically.

After listing these skills, Gatto continued:

You might be able to come up with a better list than Harvard did without surrendering any of these fundamental ideas, and yet from where I sit, and I sat around schools for nearly 30 years, I don’t think we teach any of these things as a matter of school policy… None of the schools I ever worked for were able to provide any important parts of this vital curriculum for children. All the schools I worked for taught nonsense up front. And under the table, they taught young people how to be dumb, how to be slavish, how to be frightened, and how to be dependent.

I found Harvard’s list fascinating. A while back, I drafted a list of this type in my own post, Do You Have These Core Human Skills?


Here’s my list of Core Human Skills

  1. Information-Assimilation – how to find, consume, and comprehend information and identify what’s most important in the face of a problem or challenge.
  2. Writing – how to communicate thoughts and ideas in written form clearly and concisely.
  3. Speaking – how to communicate thoughts and ideas to others clearly, concisely, and with confidence.
  4. Mathematics – how to accurately use concepts from arithmetic, algebra, geometry, calculus, and statistics to analyze and solve common problems.
  5. Decision-Making – how to identify critical issues, prioritize, focus energy/effort, recognize fallacies, avoid common errors, and handle ambiguity.
  6. Rapport – how to interact with other people in a way that encourages them to like, trust, and respect you.
  7. Conflict-Resolution – how to anticipate potential sources of conflict and resolve disagreements when they occur.
  8. Scenario-Generation – how to create, clarify, evaluate, and communicate a possible future scenario that assists in decision-making, either for yourself or another person.
  9. Planning – how to identify the necessary next steps to achieve an objective, account for dependencies, and prepare for the unknown and inevitable change via the use of contingencies.
  10. Self-Awareness – how to accurately perceive and influence your own internal states and emotions, including effective management of limited energy, willpower, and focus.
  11. Interrelation – how to recognize, understand, and make use of key features of systems and relationships, including cause-and-effect, second and third-order effects, constraints, and feedback loops.
  12. Skill Acquisition – how to go about learning a desired skill in a way that results in competence by finding and utilizing available resources, deconstructing complex processes, and actively experimenting with potential approaches.

A bit of research led me search for other lists of “what an educated person must know." Oliver Demille’s A Thomas Jefferson Education included Harvard’s list, in addition to two others.


Here’s Princeton University’s list of skills that make an educated person:

  1. The ability to think, speak, and write clearly.
  2. The ability to reason critically and systematically.
  3. The ability to conceptualize and solve problems.
  4. The ability to think independently.
  5. The ability to take initiative and work independently.
  6. The ability to work in cooperation with others and learn collaboratively.
  7. The ability to judge what it means to understand something thoroughly.
  8. The ability to distinguish the important from the trivial, the enduring from the ephemeral.
  9. Familiarity with the different modes of thought (including quantitative, historical, scientific, and aesthetic.)
  10. Depth of knowledge in a particular field.
  11. The ability to see connections among disciplines, ideas and cultures.
  12. The ability to pursue life long learning.

Here’s George Wythe University’s list of skills that make an educated person:

  1. The ability to understand human nature and lead accordingly.
  2. The ability to identify needed personal traits and turn them into habits.
  3. The ability to establish, maintain, and improve lasting relationships.
  4. The ability to keep one’s life in proper balance.
  5. The ability to discern truth and error regardless of the source or the delivery.
  6. The ability to discern true from right.
  7. The ability and discipline to do right.
  8. The ability and discipline to constantly improve.

There are four major lessons to learn from these lists:

  • There’s a remarkably strong consensus from independent sources (inside and outside academia) about what it means to be an “educated" person. An “educated" person is one equipped to deal with most common life situations. Skills related to these areas are the skills that will be most useful throughout the course of life.
  • “Education" is an ongoing process that is not synonymous with credentialing: credentialing programs almost universally skip teaching these “fuzzy" skills in favor of other skills that can be assessed more easily. “Education" does not end when schooling ends. The true test of these skills is how an individual responds in situations that call for them.
  • Existing schooling / credentialing processes have little to no overlap with these major areas, and may actually be counterproductive, either by over-complicating the theory related to these skills or consuming time/attention in teaching areas unrelated to these skills. Current trends in credentialing are leading to less overlap in these areas over time, not more.
  • If you intend to improve in each of these areas, you must invest time, energy, and resources learning these skills on your own. Investment in learning skills related to these areas is most likely to pay dividends in real-world situations, either in money or overall life satisfaction.

What are you practicing right now? What skills are you actively developing? Are these efforts contributing to your development as an “educated" person, or are they interfering?


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