Throughout the last couple of weeks I have pondered back and forth on what would be required to “reboot” higher education without the problems we are currently facing. I have come to realize that it is impossible to solve one issue at the time, but rather the challenges call for a systematic reevaluation of the structure and purpose of higher education.
One of the criticisms heard often about higher education is that we apparently don’t prepare students for the complex world they are facing once they leave our hallowed halls behind. Our world calls for critical thinkers; for people who can communicate with people from around the globe, regardless of what discipline they identify with; for people who can connect ideas and solve issues that transcend disciplinary boundaries. And, personally, I think the critics are right. We do not prepare our students adequately.
Many people have provided us with different reasons for why this is the case. Some (rightfully) blame the focus on Standards of Learning (SOLs) that transform teaching about an issue into teaching for a test. Others blame a lack of technology use in the classrooms and the use of antiquated teaching approaches. Even others bemoan lack of funding for higher education.
However, I think the issue goes deeper than any of the above. I think it is a result of the underlying philosophy that we have adapted in Academia. It seems that our mission is to prepare students for the jobs that they will have, instead of teaching them to become life-long learners. Knowledge has much more utilitarian purposes today rather than being sought out for its own sake, as was more prevalent in the Renaissance era. Thus, universities have transformed from places of self-improvement and self-finding and personal growth to factories producing the workers of tomorrow.
Yet you might say “Peter, we do have to prepare students for the job market!” And I do not disagree with you on that point. However, how can we prepare students for jobs that didn’t exist the day they enrolled at our universities? How can we prepare students to address problems that transcend disciplinary boundaries if we only allow them to wear one hat? How can they be competitive on the job market, if the only skill that we have successfully taught them is rote memorization and regurgitation of unconnected facts? More so, at the time of their graduation, we oftentimes have even managed to beat their desire to learn and explore out of them! And in an ever-changing world, that is probably the worst of our sins.
How can we remedy this illness of higher education, then?
Honestly, I don’t have all the answers. I just have a vision that I want to share with you: a university teaching everything or AUTE (I chose that name as an homage to ACME from Looney Tunes). AUTE is a place where people come to learn what they want. To some degree, AUTE would be similar to the fictional South Harmon Institute of Technology from the movie “Accepted”.
In this movie with Justin Long and Jonah Hill, the main character gets rejected from every university he applies to and decides to create a fake university as to not disappoint his parents. This plan backfires as the fake website accepts any applicant who enters their data, resulting in a couple of thousand students enrolling. Thus, the main character leases and renovates an abandoned psychiatric hospital to serve as campus for the university. Since he has no faculty, he tells students to write down what they want to learn on an enormous whiteboard. From there on, the movie takes its predictable way, with the classic romantic side story and a challenge from the villainous establishment in the form of the dean of the adjacent (and real) Harmon Institute of Technology. However, the rest of the movie is not important.
While the rest of the movie is just a run-of-the-mill Hollywood comedy, the idea of letting students choose what they want to learn (combined with the fact that every student who applies is accepted) raises its status in my eyes to that of a social commentary. Although I certainly don’t think that a topic like “blowing sh*t up with my mind” is valid choice, the core of the idea strikes a chord with me. Giving students agency in the pursuit of what they are interested in while, at the same time, providing them with guidance and the resources they need for that pursuit could transform students from recipients of knowledge to seekers of knowledge. Of course, the problems that they pursue should be worth pursuing. However, in this day and age there are so many real-world problems that need addressing, providing an endless repository of topics students could pursue.
Furthermore, such an open-ended and problem-based approach could allow students to form groups where each student deals with a different aspect of the larger problem. Of course, this would do away with the concrete notions of disciplines. Students would learn the skills to solve specific problems, not a pre-determined set attributed to a specific discipline. Similarly, assessment of students could no longer be performed in a traditional way. Instead, students’ growth would need to be assessed based on their projects and in a much more qualitative rather than quantitative way. Instead of a transcript with a GPA, students would have a portfolio of documented projects and their teachers’ assessments when entering the job market.
Finally, I would love for AUTE to also be a place where people could go to learn any profession they want. I think the separation of “the educated” and “the working class” is not desirable for a society. If both academics and workers would have a joint place of learning, I think both sides would benefit from the potential exchange of ideas as well as from the increase in knowledge and appreciation of what the other is doing.