I wrote recently that, having almost finished my first book, I have already started on a second. My plan is to write articles and publish them here, on this blog, as I research. The idea is to stitch these articles into a book at the end of it all.
This second book is quite different from my first, but I'm very excited about it as it is on a topic dear to my heart: university education. In particular, the question I want to ask over the course of the coming months is:
How can the modern university be made more relevant, more humanizing, and more effective at facilitating the learning of students?
Before I explain what I mean by that, I'll explain why writing this is an important project for me to undertake.
I am incredibly lucky to have gone to a great university, studied a high-paying major I didn't hate, earned more scholarships than was probably fair, and taken advantage of the opportunity for life-changing extracurriculars, friendships, and study abroad programs.
In other words, my four years at the University of Oklahoma were excellent.
Underneath all that, however, there's a rankling remorse of sorts, one that I've often spoken of with my friends, many of whom have had a similar experience. We felt that the classes we had, with a few very notable exceptions, were the worst part of our college experience, and the place where we learned the least, despite the fact that they (and the accompanying homework, studying, and tests) occupied the largest part of each of our days. I do not think my friends and I were alone in thinking and feeling this, and validating (or dis-validating) this hypothesis is one of the aims of my research to come.
Of all the problems facing universities today- increasing competition from non-traditional education sources, rising prices, astronomical student to teacher ratios- the fact that universities fail so miserably at what should be their core competency is the most sharply ironic, even poignant, problem of all.
Take Paul Goodman's description of the typical experience of a student in a college classroom, written in his book Compulsory Miseducation. Note that I've edited it down quite a bit for brevity, though it is still quite a long passage. Long, but both engrossing and elucidating, and it summarizes perfectly why I think this is a book that needs to be written. The emphasis in bold is mine.
Here is a young fellow in a college classroom... He is in his junior year. So, omitting kindergarten, he has been in an equivalent classroom for nearly fifteen continuous years, intermitted only by summer vacations or play. Schooling has been the serious part of his life, and it has consisted of listening to some grown-up talking and of doing assigned lessons. The young man has almost never seriously assigned himself a task. He's bright -- he can manipulate formulas and remember sentences, and he has made a well-known college...
It was written in 1964 but could easily have been written in 2016. In fact, it's almost certainly more true now than then.
And yet students continue to swamp university admissions offices in ever-increasing numbers, attesting to the allure of two things: first, what we Americans call the College Experience, my generation's rite of initiation into adulthood. Second, the slip of paper (expensive as it may be) certifying our professional and intellectual capabilities, and without which we would be barred from entering most of the professional world.
We can and should do better in our universities, and it doesn't take much effort to come up with dozens of reasons why. To name a few: the huge cost both for students and the community-at-large, the fact that 6 out of every 10 Americans attend a college or university in their life, the role these institutions have in the lives of its attendees as the path to prosperity and, increasingly, as a rite of passage into adulthood; the role universities have in setting standards for our public schools.
In short, having the best possible educative system at a university at the lowest cost possible should be, at the least, of keen interest to all. This means, as I stated earlier, discovering how to make universities more relevant, humanizing, and effective at facilitating learning of the right kind, by which I chiefly mean self-directed and experiential. And as I will argue later, evolving our universities and our public education system in general to meet these goals is probably, as I will argue later, one of the most important initiatives the American people can undertake in the 21st century.
I promised I would explain why I chose those three categories- relevant, humanizing, and effective at facilitating self-directed learning- as the goals which our higher education system should strive to achieve.
To be honest, they just seemed right. I have a certain idea of what principles and values our schools and universities should engender in their students, and how these institutions can evolve to do exactly that. The above categories work well enough for now, the start of my flight-of-the-mind, and I'm confident that a better way to organize these principles will emerge in due time.
Relevant. Universities are hopelessly out of date, not just since the digital age but since the invention of the printing press. Ironically, our universities have in most regards retrograded, even compared to those of the medieval world. The modern university is desperately in need of an overhaul that takes advantage of modern technology and philosophy to cut both costs and obsolete learning practices; improve collaboration, empathy, and initiative; and prepare students to tackle the pressing issues of our generation.
Humanizing. Perhaps the goal of a university we've most lost touch with, as our modern day higher education institutions seem more concerned with how they can increase the amount of donor dollars they receive. Yet this is also perhaps the most important goal of all, as it deals very directly with the kind of people we want to be and the kind of community we want to live in. For example, how can universities help students find themselves and their vocation, becoming free, independent, and self-driven individuals without losing touch with the responsibility we each have for ourselves and one another? Or, as the democratic education pioneer John Holt put it,
"The fundamental educational problem of our time is to find ways to help children grow into adults who have no wish to do harm. We must recognize that traditional education, far from having ever solved this problem, has never tried to solve it."
Effective at Facilitating the Right Kind of Learning. I know few people who find the lecture and the test, the hammer and the forge of traditional education, to be very inspiring or to spark any kind of real learning. On the other hand, evidence is mounting that the ideal learning situation is precisely the opposite of that found in a typical college classroom.
In particular, the ideal qualities of this ideal include it being self-directed, experiential, and interdisciplinary, and that it be based on solving real world problems in small teams. This loose formula is incredibly effective at not only facilitating learning of the subject matter at hand but also at sparking and fanning the flames of the self-actualizing values described above: independence, initiative, responsibility, and finding one's vocation.
Ironically, we see once again how universities have seemingly forgotten the wisdom of the past. One need look no further for inspiration than the relationships of the Master with his apprentices that was alive until well-meaning mandatory education and anti-child labor laws extinguished this age-old tradition in the early twentieth century.
The overall vision of this book is that it be an honest and motivating picture of the untenable problems facing our education system in general and our universities in particular, a brief history of how these problems came to be, and, as described above, a discussion of the imperative changes universities must make not to survive, but to better serve its students and its communities. Indeed, the second half of the book-to-be will transition into discussing in-depth the changes necessary and how to implement them in order to do its students justice.
To create this vision, I took inspiration and synthesized ideas from a variety of fields, sources, and influences as disparate as Agile and Lean product management philosophy of the past 20 odd years, the ancient Greek idea and practice of Praxis, anarchic theories of architecture and urban planning from the 70's, democratic education pioneers from the 60's, my time working at the University of Oklahoma Economic Development department in 2013-2014, as well as two intensely respected and absolutely formative professors I had the honor of knowing while at the University of Oklahoma.
I have a general idea of what the book will say and what my next few articles will be, but part of the adventure will be seeing how that vision evolves and changes as I dive deeper into the subject and encounter questions, issues, and research I hadn't yet considered. For now, however, I'm going to explore the role modern universities play in the United States, with the first article on that topic published by the end of the week.
Dillon Dakota Carroll
December 2nd 2015
...sees much and knows much