Higher Education is Ripe for Deconstruction

Higher education has some problems, the cost of college being only one concern. Our global model of higher education has served us well for a century or so but the time is upon us for those in higher education leadership to step back and deconstruct education.

I walk around my campus and talk to people. My job as a GIS Manager/Programmer and ESRI Higher Education Contract Representative for my campus puts me at the crossroads to meet various people, from interesting backgrounds, working in departments and offices trying to accomplish different tasks.

Sometimes, I travel to nearby public schools, other universities or community colleges. Going to a conference or a meeting exposes me further to different ideas. I also subscribe to a variety of newsletters which cover pedagogy in higher education, technology in higher education, leadership topics in higher education. I try to stay aware of what is going on in my discipline, and the greater university community.

Taking all of this in, plus the disruption of online education, I’m thinking higher education should be considering deconstruction. Regardless of how one feels about online education, whether one class at a regional university or a MOOC, higher education is ripe for some serious disruption. Here is what I mean, and bear with me, as I’ve got to build to my point.

Education is a subset of learning. Learning happens all the time, every day, and encompasses all forms of knowledge transfer, from touching a stove to learn about burns and blisters and heat transfer, to sitting a brick-and-mortar classroom listening to a lecture on the Warsaw Pact. Education is the formalized approached to learning, with textbooks, and exams, and Powerpoint, with grades, and transcripts and portfolios. But, how did we get here?

Reading some history paints an interesting picture. As with any argument, I’m going to begin with the Greeks. Look at the biographies of any Greek scholar. Examine their interests and skills. Eratosthenes, the father of geography, calculated the circumference of the Earth, developed a means of communicating the passage of time, so people could talk about “when” some event occurred. He worked on prime numbers, created maps, and wrote. Plato also studied math, writing, philosophy, and gymnastics.

I don’t want to give an extended treatise here, so let me provide a couple more anecdotes. Carl Linnaeus (18th C.)[link], the father of the modern naming system in biology, and a founder of the discipline of ecology, was interested in botany, zoology, and later became a physician. While traveling throughout Europe, he developed classification schemes for animals, plants, and minerals – making him a geologist, too. James Hutton (18th C.) was a Scot and is considered the father of modern geology. [link] Hutton’s interest was not limited to rocks, though. He also was a chemist, studied medicine, and was a farmer. Together with David Hume and Adam Smith, Hutton was an important part of the “Scottish Enlightenment.” He, Hume, Smith, along with John Playfair, Joseph Black, and Erasmus Darwin would establish the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

The idea I want to argue is people who were fascinated by the natural world gravitated towards others who also shared a similar fascination. Some universities and colleges did specialize in certain areas, like medicine, or astronomy, but by and large, students could attend a college and be exposed to the lectures of well-traveled, well-read, and well-educated instructors who were experts in a variety of fields, at least for the time. These student could drift from one lecture to another, from one instructor/lecturer to another, and learn from a wide variety of experiences.

Education was more like learning as I established by definition earlier, broad and holistic in nature with little bureaucracy and regimentation. Transcripts, letters, diplomas were hit-or-miss. Students and teachers were recognized by reputation, how well they communicated, how well they were able to convince the common people, and perhaps, how well they could read.

Education, like any other organism, evolved over time. Education organized, either by intrinsic design or by exogenous forces, into college and universities which have come to specialize in discipline-specific areas. Think about Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, Harvard, Johns Hopkins; I know the list is not exhaustive but you get the idea. Engineering, for example, brings to mind Stanford, MIT, Purdue. I’m sure I missed a few.

Today, schools have become specialized, to a degree. Young adults scrutinize reports published by U.S. News regarding, “The Best Colleges for {insert field or discipline here}.” For some, people look for, “The Top 100 Best Value Universities.”

Within schools, though, even more organization and compartmentalization has occurred. In prior years, even centuries, a student could float among philosophy, botany, or math lectures as a breadth of experience and knowledge was truly valued. Today, student must engage separately the “school of agriculture,” or the “college of science,” or  the “college of business” as if these are green beans, potatoes and gravy, and Salisbury steak which cannot touch lest the dinner be ruined.

The compartmentalization I refer to is euphemistically called, “stovepipes,” or “educational silos.” Students do not understand why they have to take a humanities course about Western Civilization, plus read a book by Jane Austin, then sit through a lecture on plate tectonics. Even some in education have lost touch with our educational ancestry, and argue for the elimination of general education requirements.

I hit upon the notion recently – and I admit, I may be late to the party – general  education, a liberal education is not a bad idea for a simple reason.

Professors are not hired to “tell” or “recite” information, really. Professors are hired to coach the uneducated among us through a process of discovery and formal education, under the umbrella of learning. We – professors, adjuncts, lecturers, we cannot ultimately prepare a student for the unknown. The idea of transferring a person 100% knowledge to make them successful is impossible. All we can do to prepare students for success is to expose uneducated or under-educated people to a variety of experiences in an intellectually safe yet challenging environment in hopes the academic hurdles we throw at them will adequately prepare them to handle what the non-academic world will throw at them.

The question, “I don’t understand why I have to learn about Western Civilization,” actually has some good responses, and one I would like to supply goes something like:

I don’t know what you will be faced with in the world you have selected to make a career in. We, faculty, have to expose you to a variety of experiences, history, culture, language, etc. This is not a vocation school, simply challenged with teaching you a skill. We are charged with helping you become a better thinker, more contemplative, more thoughtful, and have a better set of experiences to draw from than 70% of the U.S. population, and most of the world, actually.

However, what seems to be happening is universities are collapsing towards the mission of community colleges while community colleges are expanding their mission towards regional universities. Coupled with these realignments, internal changes within universities are further isolating colleges and departments as each stake out academic territories, promote reducing academic hours yet want their courses to replace the general education courses offered by other colleges and departments.

Let me see if I can clean this up by offering a few anecdotes. At my workplace, we have reduced the number of required writing courses from 2 (6 hours) to 1 (3 hours). Each department is then charged with developing more writing assignments to account for the lack of writing instruction. At my workplace, we have reduced the number of hours required for Humanities by at least 3 hours. My workplace has also reduced the number of hours required for most bachelor’s degrees, from 128 to about 120.

The effect I see occurring is singular: reducing the exposure of the uninformed, undereducated, and possibly ignorant to ideas of problem-solving, ways of thinking, and philosophies which have the potential of being life-altering. By reducing a student’s interaction across disciplines, they miss out by not being exposed to computer science, political science, history, literature, geography, biology, and all of the realms those disciplines touch. The result is learning is moving away from the roots of being holistic and into an insular realm where few people will be able to think creatively, to think not just “outside the box” but “destroy the box” and approach problems with new perspectives, new energies, and a reinvigorated vision.

Twenty-first century thinking, no; 21st century society must be one where people draw from many disciplines and experiences. I’m not suggesting people must be experts in a multitude of areas. What I am suggesting is to be aware of these disciplines and to be open and receptive to seeking out solutions beyond one’s own experience. Computer scientists must seek out biologists; biologists must seek out engineers; engineers must seek out mathematicians. Actually, everyone should seek out a mathematician – and this coming from a geographer.

Higher education, by definition, and specifically universities, must fight against those who would drag higher education into mediocrity. Those in higher education must encourage multidisciplinary efforts that refuse to build barricades against other disciplines and departments. Nothing is gained, and must is lost, by refusing to acknowledge, accept, or be dismissive of the work of other disciplines, no matter what personal attitudes might be.

How can a professor ignore the field of criminology based solely on one’s own perception? I mean, yes, technically a person can be an irrational actor and choose to be ultimately dismissive of a field or discipline. Sociology and psychology fight this battle frequently, as does geography. “You aren’t a real science because you just borrow from all the others.” The problem with this thinking is it wrong. Period. And, by wrongfully dismissing disciplines, a person, i.e. professors, wall themselves off from the potential benefits to themselves and to their students, and no one benefits from such myopia.

Learning must occur in an open, free, and safe environment, and be encourage by those unafraid to say, “I don’t know but let’s find out.” Worshipping our own hubris is essentially a means of becoming not only stagnant but is a path to becoming irrelevant. Higher education must work on preserving primary mission; to share, encourage, and promote learning across disciplines and certainly across personalities.

2 thoughts on “Higher Education is Ripe for Deconstruction

  1. Pingback: Higher Education Needs A Start-Up Mindset | Constant Geography

  2. Pingback: Higher Education Is Anything But Nimble | Constant Geography

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