Higher education must be a three-dimensional deal, one that includes acquiring knowledge, developing skills for the workplace, and having meaningful experiences to shape learners for a lifetime
Last summer, I had a unique opportunity to visit one of the most successful business families in Dhaka, Bangladesh during an academic trip there, along with another New York professor. The family, one of whose members I had taught here in the States a few years earlier, has an impressive business empire in the country. At one point, when the conversation turned to education, one of our hosts lamented that their company too often had to look beyond Bangladeshi universities for top talent. I asked why.
Graduates of local universities, he said, had solid academic knowledge of the subjects. “But if I give them a business problem and ask how they’d solve it, they give me a textbook answer.” That remark made me think about the challenges of higher education across South Asia for quite some time.
Knowledge isn’t enough
Analyzing a business situation, one could say, requires skills that can only be learned after joining the workforce. Colleges are designed to impart knowledge, one could argue, to lay the foundation of the disciplines. Indeed, this view of college should not be considered outdated. Colleges should not be asked to just prepare students for jobs. They are centers of learning that must shape habits of mind and inculcate productive perspectives on society and profession for a lifetime. Job preparation can be done by a career center on campus.
But the real question is not whether college and university education should be “practical”; it is how to balance different demands and emerging challenges. As I discuss in this essay, higher education must be a three-dimensional deal, one that includes acquiring knowledge, developing skills for the workplace and for lifelong learning, and having meaningful experiences that shape the mind and instill values. Let me unpack.
In many parts of the world, higher education (in most subjects) remains dominated by the first dimension, knowledge. The triangle is often a straight line, so to speak. Curricula often focus on mastering content; institutions and their academic staff simply help students memorize what the books say, mainly for the exams. Teachers can be excellent by simply explaining well what someone else has said in textbooks, rather than having to be researchers and generators of new knowledge themselves, helping students learn how to explore issues and apply knowledge to life and professions. Students and their parents view exams and marks on transcripts as the end goal of education, rather than as a measuring rod needed for teachers and schools to adjust teaching and learning, to determine where more support is needed. Books and other curricular resources are not just seen as educational “material” but as the curriculum itself.
Needless to say, understanding and remembering what textbooks say doesn’t prepare a person very well for any profession or for life beyond it. Knowledge of a field of study isn’t enough for success in any profession or society in today’s world.
Colleges must significantly increase the amount of intellectual, professional, and social skills that students need for a lifetime. Seemingly paradoxically, this can be done quite well through courses that are known for being “impractical.” With general education courses, colleges can teach students intellectual skills for analyzing situations and texts, formulating arguments and persuading different audiences, leading teams and resolving conflicts, taking intellectually savvy and socially smart positions on complex issues, conducting research and using emerging technologies for processing and communicating information, and adapting to situations and coping with change and challenges in life and society. These are very “practical” skills.
The skills above may involve the teaching of language or use of poetry and literature as material; they won’t come from teaching language or literature for their own sake. They require the teaching of academic research and writing, problem-identification and solution, case studies and formulation of theoretical perspectives, and practice with new methodology and technology for getting work done. The “skills” that the humanities can teach students can help them form the bedrock of intellectual abilities needed and admired across the disciplines and professions.
Now, if the humanities themselves can and must be used as means for teaching intellectually and professionally/socially “practical” skills, then imagine what other disciplines can do. In the social sciences and law, science and technology, management and medicine, it makes even less sense to just try to teach the content of textbooks. Students can read the texts themselves, and while they may not understand the texts perfectly on their own, that fact is a poor excuse to limit teaching to explaining what the books say. Teachers’ role is to help students use the contents of course materials for generating their own ideas and perspectives on the subject of study or practice.
Even within the current exam-dominated regimes, teachers can design teaching/learning activities and assignments to foster educational and professional skills—both abstract and concrete. This can be done if teachers can ensure that most class meetings include one or more student-centered activities, have students discuss or write about what they’ve learned at different points during class, start the class with a quick test if it helps students to come better prepared, and teach research and communication skills needed for academic success.
Pay attention to experience
Finally, and most importantly, colleges and universities should design themselves as environments that can facilitate positive experiences that make lasting effects on students. What memories do students take away and cherish about their days in college? What values and value systems do they adopt from and while gaining the knowledge and skills they do in college? What inspiration and energy are instilled by the opportunities for learning, getting to know other learners (some of whom become lifelong friends and colleagues), and forging relationship with teachers and other mentors? How open minded do students become? How passionate about the field of study? Are colleges making students more intellectually courageous, more ethically responsible, more socially driven, more technologically savvy, more politically aware?
The experience of education need not just be limited to becoming a member of a certain discipline, preparing for a certain profession. A major in politics must enable students to understand social issues and institutions politically, and one in humanities must prompt them to reach for deep understanding of science and technology.
Experience as the third dimension of education has to do with the full development of the individual, the preparation of productive citizens. It is not just a matter of preparing the engineer, but a personality that is well rounded and ready to use engineering for serving society while pursuing a successful and happy life.
Experience as a key aspect of education requires more than what can be done in the classroom. It requires an academic environment where students who struggle academically can find support and motivation; those who excel academically should find other avenues of growth there. It can happen in student organizations and clubs, when students are having fun, making friends, practicing leadership, or exchanging cultures. It can also come from working on campus, serving food at the cafeteria or tutoring other students, going for internship, or serving on extension and community initiatives. It can be fostered through writing groups, collaborative research, debate teams, sports programs, and musical and other cultural performances. It can be derived from study abroad and international exchange programs.
The experience of education—both within curricular domains and through educationally relevant co/extra curricular activities—need not be an expensive endeavor. It does not need five star hotels or fancy parties, or gimmicks and show offs in other extravagant places. If anything, the experience of education must do the opposite. It must make students humble, encounter challenge, help others, learn to share privilege and sacrifice time, grow empathy and let go of ego. Neither taxpayers behind public education nor parents in private institutions should have to bear the burden of luxury in college. Higher education must involve the practice of mindfulness and the development of emotional intelligence. It doesn’t have to be boring or even always serious. But it must be positive and liberating.
Advancing the triangular model of education will require significant changes in our current approaches to higher education, including making major updates to current curricula, approaching teaching differently, and making major investments in infrastructure.
But that doesn’t mean that we don’t already have strong traditional elements and new developments to build upon. The sociopolitical revolutions of the past few decades, positive influences of globalization, new affordances of technological advancements and many elements of our traditional culture favor further change and improvements in the direction I have indicated we must move.
We just need to start analyzing where we are, to figure out where we want to go. And we need more than the knowledge in textbooks do that.
The author is Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at State University of New York in Stony Brook