Inventing the Future of Higher Education
by Peshe C. Kuriloff - November 22, 2011
The accomplishments of Steve Jobs, a college drop-out, raise provocative questions about what students learn in college and what they might benefit from learning in the future. This article argues that the goal of higher education going forward should be to produce knowledge rather than consume it. Knowledge-making will require some significant adjustment in how we teach our students.
The death of Steve Jobs, generally considered one of the great innovators and most influential thinkers of our time, leaves a vacuum in our society we will be hard pressed to fill. His story, the triumph of individual initiative, determination, and creativity resonates with our American mythology, portraying America as the land of opportunity and invention.
Jobs has become in a short time an American icon. The graduation speech he gave at Stanford in 2005, advising graduates to do what they love, to avoid dogma (which he defined as living with the results of other peoples thinking), and to stay hungry and stay foolish, had over 10.7 million hits when I viewed it on October 10. Many people believe they have something to learn from Steve Jobs.
We Need to Give Up on the Past
Interestingly, Jobs (as well as Bill Gates) was a college drop-out. He only lasted six months at Reed College, where he failed to find enough value to merit the cost to his struggling parents. He does credit a calligraphy class on which he dropped in while still living with friends at Reed with inspiring him to provide multiple fonts on the MAC. He doesnt disparage a college education, but he doesnt endorse it either.
In a New York Times full-page tribute ad to Jobs (October 7), the Diesel company wrote: The best way to forecast the future is to invent it. That endorsement of the value of invention should provide all of us in higher education with food for thought. The value of higher education has come under broad attack recently (Murray 2008 and the debate following) for everything from its exorbitant cost to failing to provide a promised leg up in the job market to the over-emphasis on a four-year degree. Few critics have focused, however, on the obsolete pedagogy and over reliance on old knowledge as a target.
We used to think in the 80s and 90s that higher education was all about teaching and learning critical thinking. Those who could identify and explain complex social and scientific problems, critique established texts, and think analytically would save the world. But analytical thinking doesnt necessarily lead to invention. What we need to know now is how to discover the unknown and predict the future. Our future as a world society and many future jobs, from weatherperson to economic forecaster to inventor of new technologies, depend on seeing whats ahead, not beside or behind us. Society really needs fortune-tellers, and just how do we prepare students for that?
The goals of higher education and the needs of our society for creative thinkers are not aligned. In the same way that our K-12 schools were created for a different era and have stubbornly resisted change, our colleges and universities have failed to keep pace with a rapidly evolving world that craves new ideas. In higher education we continue to glorify the past, established knowledge on which we think we can build a firm foundation. But the Internet teaches us everyday that knowledge is ephemeral. The past is simply someones interpretation of reality, versions of the truth, not a rock on which to build our faith. When will we ever learn?
We Need to Teach what Matters
Times have changed since I went off to a university in the 60s eager to learn as much as I could about as many subjects as I could master. I was humble in the face of so much knowledge. Students dont have that luxury today. We need to prove to ourselves and our students up front that the content of our courses is worth knowing, and that proof creates a high bar for course content. Over the years Ive forgotten so much of what I used to know; and much of it seems increasingly suspect. If asked what academic learning really matters to me, Id be hard pressed to decide.
Ive come to think its not what we know that matters but how we come to know it and on whose authority. The validity of what we claim to know depends more and more on how we came to that knowledge and less and less on the character or quality of the knowledge itself. Acquiring knowledge is not an end in itself. Knowledge matters only to the extent it helps us act and successfully live our lives. Knowledge should help us follow our passion, do what we love, and make our dreams come true.
It is Better to Make Knowledge than to Consume It
Higher education has traditionally avoided tackling the challenge of new knowledge by focusing on content we have had time to study. Time is no longer on our side, however. Our students justifiably want and deserve to know the world as it is today, not the version we learned in school decades ago. Material from even a few years ago seems antiquated and irrelevant. Before its published, its obsolete. Inevitably we turn to the Internet for a more up-to-date, if not always a more conventionally reliable, view of the known world.
When my students rate instructors they give flexibility high marks, and well they should. If we stick by our old ways and fail to construct new knowledge ourselves, we do them a great disservice. We cant afford to wait for knowledge to prove itself in traditional ways; we have to be willing to construct and reconstruct new knowledge with our students in real time. By sharing the knowledge-making process with them, we empower students to make their own meaning and at the same time work to inure them from the unscrupulous purveyors of knowledge rampant in the media.
From this perspective, every classroom becomes a laboratory for new ideas, fostering innovation and creative thinking. I no longer say to my students: youth subcultures in some way resist or deny mainstream culture, nor do I say: subcultures do not resist mainstream culture because they are active and willing participants in consumer culture. Instead, we gather as much evidence as we can about the character of subcultures and both individually and collaboratively decide what it means.
I have come to think that the best I have to offer my students is to model knowledge-making and then require them to do it themselves. This is Deweys learning by doing on a grand scale. We are not simply reaffirming how the world operates by dropping a ball and testing the rules of gravity for ourselves; we are leaping into the unknown, where gravity may or may not exist. And if it doesnt exist, what will keep us from floating off into space? How might we construct new ways of thinking about problems we havent yet identified or understood?
The Future of Higher Education
If we dont change our ways soon, we will confirm our critics view that the academy is becoming increasingly irrelevant and out of touch with the rest of the world. We might not have had much to offer a great thinker like Jobs, but we could offer a lot to potential great thinkers of the future if we learn our lessons well. Our role is not to preserve the past, nor is it to create a common cultural foundation for all our people. Our role is not to train a workforce for big companies, nor is it to prepare citizens for their role in democratic governance. Our role is to empower our students to invent the future.
Most of us who teach in higher education are unskilled in invention, products of a highly conservative process of cultural reproduction. But like our students, we can learn to take greater risks if our institutions change course, restructure the reward system, and decide to cover our backs. We can never know all the answers, but we know how to inquire, how to investigate, and how to search for new ideas. Many of us are eager to reach across disciplinary boundaries and reject the increasingly artificial and often archaic distinctions that separate fields and ways of thinking from one another. Turning our institutions and our classrooms toward collaboratively identifying and supporting new ideas and away from transmitting approved and sanctioned knowledge is an ambitious enterprise and will take all of our resources combined to enact, but we have nothing to fear from such bold action. If we, along with our students, invent the future, we can plan for and predict what will happen next.
Murray, C. (2008). Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing Americas Schools Back to Reality. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.