How to thrive in college

August 10, 2012, 3:37 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Some very good books are worth reading for a few splendid pages alone. Ken Bain’s What the Best College Students Do is one such book. His interview with the TV satirist Stephen Colbert is revealing both for its insight into Colbert and for its ideas on how higher education ought to work.

Colbert grew up in South Carolina, as the youngest of 11 children in a family that prized curiosity and reading. When he was 10, his father and two brothers were killed in an Eastern Air Lines crash. “After that,” he told Bain, “I saw my job as making my mother laugh.” He did so with jokes and antics. When he went off to college — first Hampden-Sydney and then Northwestern — he immersed himself in philosophy, then theater and improv. Both taught him about “momentary” failure and disappointment, set against “the light of eternity.”

He told Bain, the provost at the University of the District of Columbia, that bad grades didn’t “control him” but were “feedback.” Aided by interested professors, Colbert’s world view “freed him to take risks, to explore, to probe deeply, to find self-motivation in what he liked to do, and of all that to find an outlet for his creative energies.” If you think about The Colbert Report’s putative buffoon as someone steeped in Shakespeare, Shaw, and “A Man For All Seasons,” you may never watch it in quite the same way again.

This inner drive also marked the engineers, economists, and other successful, innovative professionals whom Bain interviewed for the book. “They sought not just material advancement or fame,” he writes, “but an inner growth, a curiosity about the world that led them to explore the humanities, the arts and the world of ideas.”

What the Best College Students Do combines interviews with a review of academic research on university learning. The book builds on Bain’s 2004 bestseller, What the Best College Teachers Do. To some extent, both books state what we already know — that straight A’s are nice, but hardly guarantee a happy or productive life. Instead, it takes a personal sense of purpose. The “best” students are curious risk-takers who make connections across disciplines. By following those instincts — rather than simply chasing “success” — the best students achieved it. Bain’s new book is a wonderful exploration of excellence.

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