As a self-proclaimed TedTalk junkie, I came across one from 2004 by Malcolm Gladwell titled, “Choice, Happiness, and Spaghetti Sauce”. The title grabbed my attention. I liked all those words. If you have not heard this TedTalk, I encourage you to take 17 minutes and listen to it. Malcolm Gladwell is an excellent storyteller. He has a talent for taking everyday life and analyzing it through a different perspective. Sometimes we get so caught up in what we know to be true that it is difficult for us to think that there is another point of view. As humans, it is difficult for us to deal in the unknown or with variables. It is much easier to accept particular truths and use them as guides for the decisions we make.
To illustrate a point, below is an excerpt from Malcolm Gladwell’s TedTalk. By way of background, one of Gladwell’s heroes is a gentleman, named Howard Moskowitz, who is most famous for reinventing spaghetti sauce. By profession, Howard is a psychophysicist. He earned his doctoral degree from Harvard University and spent much of his career working in the food industry with companies like Pepsi, Vlasic Pickles, Campbell Soup, and Nescafe, to name a few. Howard Moskowitz revolutionized the way the food industry thinks, one of his ideas he termed “Platonic notion” and here is why it relates to higher education.
Now that same [Platonic notion] idea fueled the commercial food industry as well. They had a Platonic notion of what tomato sauce was. And where did that come from? It came from Italy. Italian tomato sauce is what? It’s blended; it’s thin. The culture of tomato sauce was thin. When we talked about “authentic tomato sauce” in the 1970s, we talked about Italian tomato sauce, we talked about the earliest Ragùs, which had no visible solids, right? Which were thin, you just put a little bit and it sunk down to the bottom of the pasta. That’s what it was. And why were we attached to that? Because we thought that what it took to make people happy was to provide them with the most culturally authentic tomato sauce, A. And B, we thought that if we gave them the culturally authentic tomato sauce, then they would embrace it. And that’s what would please the maximum number of people.
In other words, people in the cooking world were looking for cooking universals. They were looking for one way to treat all of us. And it’s good reason for them to be obsessed with the idea of universals, because all of science, through the 19th century and most of the 20th, was obsessed with universals. Psychologists, medical scientists, economists were all interested in finding out the rules that govern the way all of us behave. But that changed, right? What is the great revolution in science of the last 10, 15, years? It is the movement from the search for universals to the understanding of variability. Now in medical science, we don’t want to know, necessarily, just how cancer works, we want to know how your cancer is different from my cancer. Genetics has opened the door to the study of human variability. What Howard Moskowitz was doing was saying, “This same revolution needs to happen in the world of tomato sauce.” …Howard not only believed that, but he took it a second step, which was to say that when we pursue universal principles of food, we aren’t just making an error; we are actually doing ourselves a massive disservice.
Higher education has its own Platonic notion. For years, going to college was seen as the inevitable next step in every person’s life following high school graduation. It was seen as this sort of transition period of leaving the comforts of home to continue learning valuable life skills while still adhering to authority and structure. The trouble with this notion is that it is not reality. Students no longer want “traditional Italian ragùs.” Students today are following different paths. They find themselves in difficult situations. They have limited financial resources. They have real world responsibilities that present barriers to accessing an “old world” education. Students today need variety just like their spaghetti sauce. They want “cheese, light, robusto, rich and hearty, extra-chunky garden, and yes, old world traditional.”
The problem we face is similar to that of the food industry. We are unwilling to discard what we think we know to be true in order to really understand what students need. The second problem is that students do not know what they need. They only know what they have been told. This is why educational options are so important. What works for one student will not work or meet the needs of all students. It requires a culture shift, not just for institutions, but for accrediting organizations, federal regulators, and politicians. Each of these individual groups are focused on what they believe is the solution to America’s declining graduation rates and increasing drop-out rates. However, these solutions are being proposed in a vacuum excluding two important groups, students and the employers who are expected to hire them.
Higher education needs to embrace human variability and set aside the long held universal principles of education that no longer apply to an increasing diverse student population. Traditional higher education can no longer afford to present itself as a one-size-fits-all solution to the American dream. The higher education culture needs to engage in an active revolution to support quality oversight of educational options, encourage innovation, integrate the effective use of technology, and earnestly seek those solutions that meet the needs of students. We can meet the needs of students if we thoughtfully develop education options that support the pursuit of their goals, value their individual contributions, and allow them to find meaningful work to give back to their communities.
“That is the final, and I think the most beautiful lesson, of Howard Moskowitz: that in embracing the diversity of human beings, we will find a surer way to true happiness.”
~ Malcolm Gladwell