Normally, at this time of year, we primarily focus on offering recent graduates advice, congratulations, or general luck for the future, but not today. Instead this post is dedicated to higher education or more specifically to those colleges and universities looking to educate a new group of freshman students in the fall, whether they are recent high schools graduates, drop outs, or adult learners. This is a humble reminder to institutions that education is a human system, one that requires us to see past numbers and data to see the individual within.
In higher education, we are working feverishly to determine how to educate students for an unknown future. In this industrial approach to education, we have made false promises to students telling them if they work hard, get good grades, and go to college, they will get a job. This is not always the case. It is true that individuals who attend college earn more money over their lifetime, but it does not always result in the big payoff of a corporate job, making a six-figure salary or guarantee a job at all. This view of education is, however, alienating millions of people who believe they are not good enough or smart enough because the topics they are interested in are not valued, like humanities or fine arts.
Many people today have a hard time fitting education into their lives. They may be interested and believe in its importance, but they are unable to navigate a system that was designed to meet the needs of a student population that no longer exists. Education was developed to segment people into two groups: those who were academic and those who were not. Over the years, this excluded an increasing number of people who believed this to be true and as a result talented people are left without an opportunity to realize their full potential. In trying to quantify learning outcomes and gather more data to demonstrate compliance, institutions are required to shift focus away from educating a changing student population.
This is not to say that monitoring outcomes and tracking data is not important; it is, but not to the detriment of providing an education that starves individuals’ desire to feed their curiosity, question the status quo, and pursue their dreams. Higher education is pressured to prove its value upon graduation. However, graduation is not the conclusion of learning, but the foundation. While a student may earn a degree in accounting, is she any less successful if she chooses not to become an accountant, but instead devotes her life to teaching at a community college? As scrutiny increases, we grasp for solutions that do little to address the problem.
As a society, we ask ourselves how can we ignite a passion within students for STEM programs, we question who our next innovators will be, but we do not provide a learning environment that allows for students to adequately pursue their personal interests and innate creativity. We develop a prescribed curriculum, delivered in a structured timeframe, to students who met a specific set of criteria. We continue to offer education to students based on what we think will meet their needs instead of designing a curriculum that allows students the flexibility to pursue their interests. Students may begin one degree program and decide their interests have shifted, but not before discovering that their credits will not transfer into a new major and they have wasted months or years of learning. Is learning ever really a waste? We treat this as a punishment instead of an achievement.
This past weekend, I met a bright young woman who had moved to Chicago from Scottsdale, Arizona. She started her academic career at a small liberal arts school in southern Indiana. After two years, she realized that the environment was too small and her interests shifted. She withdrew and enrolled in Arizona State University’s accounting program, but was informed that her credits from the liberal arts school would not transfer. She valued the education she received so, she decided to double major in accounting and literature. Now, she works downtown for a major logistics company, not in accounting, but managing and building new client relationships. Ideally, she wanted an opportunity to fulfill both of her passions, but ultimately, she had to select one over the other.
Higher education has come under fire because it is perceived as being too big to truly change. While there are innovative programs and institutions striving to better serve students, as a whole, we are not doing enough. There are too many students who feel they do not belong or are unable to navigate a daunting system and as a result simply choose not to attend at all. For those students who make it past those initial steps and enroll, we unnecessarily squander their talent when we diminish their interests. We need to provide education that does not favor one discipline over another. We do not need nurses whose real passion is theater. We do not need business managers whose real passion is painting. We need institutions that see past the conformity of the industrial approach to embrace an educational model that encourages the pursuit of passion. We need pathways that allow students to chase their dreams because, in the end, those are the individuals who change the world.
“I believe our only hope for the future is to adopt a new conception of human ecology, one in which we start to reconstitute our conception of the richness of human capacity. Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won’t serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children.” ~ Sir Ken Robinson