|The News and Observer, John Rottet|
Q: You write that college students and recent graduates have “been given a raw deal.” What are some of the reasons you believe that to be true?
A: There are three major problems. First, the schooling students receive today is badly in need of updating. Basically, the infrastructure, curriculums, and assessment methods we have now were developed between 1860 and 1925.
At the height of the momentous changes to life, work, and society driven by industrialization and the accompanying urbanization, America’s elite Puritan colleges went through a massive redesign, shifting away from their founding mission to train ministers toward the selection, preparation, and credentialing of future leaders of new professions, new institutions, and new companies.
Such prescriptive, disciplinary, and specialized training worked well for most of the 20th century. But it makes a lot less sense for our postindustrial and post-Internet world, in which the boundaries between work and home are far less distinct, work itself is more precarious, wages are largely stagnant, automation is expanding and becoming more sophisticated, democratic institutions are failing, professions are disappearing, and the next shock to the economy is on the horizon, even if we can’t see it yet.
Second, college costs too much. The heavy burden of tuition placed on this generation is simply unfair. Parents of today’s college students did not face, as a generation, the kinds of financial strain this generation faces. They were part of a society that supported higher education as a public good. That tradition has eroded over the last 40 years with so-called “tax revolts” placing a particular burden and penalty on our youth.
Third, the ideology that justifies defunding higher education also clamors for an end to so-called “frills” and an emphasis on “skills training” to make students workforce ready.
Specific mastery of an array of technical skills might land one a first job but, as we see in virtually every management study, they do not give you the “soft skills” you need to succeed, especially in changing labor environments.
Students need to be trained in deep, “broad learning” skills that transfer and that prepare them for the complexities of our world. They don’t just need to be “workforce ready.” They need to be “world ready.”
Q: In the book, you discuss the reforms that Harvard President Charles William Eliot put into effect in the 19th century. What did his reforms accomplish, and do you see any equivalent figures in the higher education field today?
A: In 1869, Charles Eliot wrote “The New Education,” a stirring critique of existing forms of higher education in America and a manifesto for the higher education revolution he would go on to lead in his 40-year reign as president of Harvard.
He argued a “new education” was needed to address the needs of new corporations and industries for specialized, credentialed professionals and managers. He emphasized outputs and productivity, because that is what the management theorists of the time (like Frederick Winslow Taylor) were pushing.
He and his colleagues were obsessed with ranking, certifying, and credentialing for the complex world of industrialism so they defined strictly what a discipline was and how to be an expert in that discipline.
Here’s a list of structuring features of higher education that barely existed before 1860 and that were fully in place by 1925: majors, minors, divisions (humanities, social sciences, natural and biological sciences), credit hours, degree requirements, grades, the bell curve, deviation from the mean, class rankings, certification, general education, upper-division electives, ability to choose professors, optional attendance policies, professionalization (credentials, accreditation), graduate schools, collegiate law schools, nursing schools, graduate schools of education, collegiate business schools, Harvard Annex for women (later Radcliffe College), competitive scholarships, financial aid, college entrance exams, capital fundraising campaigns, living wages for professors, tenure, sabbaticals, faculty pensions, school rankings, new courses and subjects (including natural history, algebra, laboratory physics, geometry, modern languages, American archaeology, and anthropology), secularization, and optional prayer (the first American college to end compulsory prayer).
That’s an amazing set of accomplishments--and that’s the network of areas that needs attention today. Nothing on that list needs to be defined for contemporary readers because it’s the system we’re still familiar with.
Today’s workplace is dramatically different from the one in Eliot’s day and requires a different kind of preparation. We now live in an era characterized by automation, digitization, and algorithm-based global redistribution of ideas, capital, goods, labor, and services.
Modern networked computing has changed everyday life and work, and these changes accelerate each year. Even our ideas about what it means to be human and social—a “self” and a “society”—fail to encompass the close ties of people who never physically meet, who can interact virtually—as friends, lovers, or trolls.
No one knows what will happen next. No one could have anticipated six months ago that the most powerful leader in the entire world would dictate policy and opinions that can sink a corporation’s stock prices or start a nuclear war with an early morning tweet. The Internet is not just new technology but a new way of being in the world.
What would it mean to redesign higher education for this world--to create a “new education” for the world we live in now? I believe that just as Eliot and others wholly remade the Puritan college, so too do we need a “new education” for our world, from the classroom to the board of trustees, from the fundamentals of how we teach and learn to how we measure outcomes, select, credential, and accredit.
Redesigning higher education shifts the goal of college from fulfilling course and graduation requirements to learning for success in the complex, changing world one faces outside of the classroom.
It’s an activist, engaged agenda that features content but also how to use that content for a more just society and a more productive, responsible future. It emphasizes ideas that are not bound within disciplines or majors and collaborations across vastly varied talents, points of view, and other areas of distinctiveness, contribution, and difference.
It focuses less on getting the one best answer out of five possible (the standardized testing model) and more on learning how to ask deep, profound questions and to begin to work, alone or with others, to find the most successful answers. It gives students the confidence to be leaders of change, not simply susceptible to and exploited by it.
In The New Education I profile an array of educators, across a vast variety of institutions, who are pioneering new ways of teaching and learning. I also look at institutions working towards massive change.
And The New Education ends with “Ten Tips” for students now in college, with advice on the ways they can get the most out of their education, wherever they are, and “Ten Tips” for educators who, within the walls of their classroom, can try new methods and practices that help equip students for a changing world ahead.
Q: Another issue you discuss in the book is the high cost of a college education. What do you think is likely to happen in terms of college costs over the next decade or so?
A: It would be very optimistic given the current political realities to believe it might happen everywhere but it is actually possible that some states will make improvements.
A group called Keep California’s Promise is advocating that if the media California tax payer paid only $31 dollars in taxes more per person, that state contributions would return to the 2000-2001 per capita per student spending levels. It would cut tuition in half for every student in the entire University of California and California State University systems.
New York, Tennessee, and Oregon are other states with such tuition-support or tuition-free movements.
Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to reforming the country’s colleges and universities?
A: I think change will continue to happen on many fronts, some positive, and some profiteering--for the good of a few at the expense of the many. I hope the change will be good. I definitely think we are at a tipping point where more and more educators, students, parents, and employers want changes to happen.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have two projects brewing. One is a book about all the different possible ways we learn. I recently heard that a successful photographer, now in her 80s and totally blind, has been taking photos with the help of young interns who she is teaching to “see” in new ways. I’m fascinated by the complexity of learning that far, far exceeds our current definitions of giftedness, learning styles, or learning disabilities.
I’ve also been playing with some ideas for a series of science fiction novels told from the point of view of animals who have learned to communicate across all species and who, together, are uniting to destroy humans in order to save the rest of the planet--the environment and the non-human animals still remaining. A bit dystopic but incredibly interesting to research.
I have a funny hobby of writing novels that I never publish (four to date), just for the pure pleasure of writing. I have no idea if I’ll write this series, but I love researching the amazing abilities of animals that we humans are way too limited to understand or fully appreciate.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Yes. I’ve been teaching for decades and I’ve never experienced a more passionate, smart, optimistic, activist, and determined group of students than the ones I’m teaching in the last four or five years. In the midst of my current despair for our political system, students today give me incredible hope.
I dedicate my book to "Millennials and to all future generations" who "deserve a better chance than you’ve been given" and admonishes "parents, professors, pundits, policymakers, and presidents" to "change higher education before it’s too late."
--Interview with Deborah Kalb