Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Restoring higher learning to higher education

Higher education. Once upon a time, those two words had caché. Having an undergraduate degree meant that an individual invested considerable time and energy in working towards the attainment of a degree, and that attainment meant the individual had proven herself or himself worthy.

College and university classrooms were places of higher learning. Expectations were higher, thinking was higher, effort was higher. The end result was a well-educated individual who could hold his or her own among the ranks. Students who did exceptionally well and graduated at or near the top of their class were expected to have more ability, more perseverance, more capability, and more intellectual capacity. They were not expected to have expectations that jobs, promotions, and benefits would simply come their way.

Students who did not fare as well but still graduated demonstrated they had grit; they had perseverance and some levels of ability and capability, but they had to work harder and longer to try to be competitive. These were the students to watch because they knew nothing came easy, yet they were willing to work.

Students who barely graduated from college gave the world a clear indication of the likelihood of their success in the world of work. These are the students who likely went to college for a range of reasons, none of them intellectual--mostly because it was expected of them but college and a degree were not of interest to them.

In some ways, the democratization of higher education is to blame, but it's far from the only reason. College has become much more than a place of higher learning, and quite possibly to its detriment.

When the US decided that vocational education was no longer sufficient--and I'm not quite sure how that happened--innumerable students who would have preferred to get a perfectly acceptable professional certification found themselves attending college. Someone went into debt while those kids struggled and grew more frustrated. Career and technical education (CTE) has rebounded, and that's a very good thing.

Now what if we were to take a giant step back and think about what might be the real purpose of a college education. The liberal arts educators believe they have the answers, and I submit they are generally right: to learn to be critical thinkers, to learn to think and communicate effectively, to learn how to present one's self professionally, to learn how to behave in professional situations, and to establish a foundation for the person students will become. To accomplish this, students take a range of courses that offer them a means to establish an academic foundation for the work they may endeavor to do.

College has become a transactional means to an end. Students approach college with the intent of completing a certain amount of required course work and taking on some appropriate extracurricular activities, perhaps excelling in a sport to try to the professional athlete route to success. College has become an exercise in building one's resume.

Students and colleges are not solely to blame. The work place has some skin in that particular game because they make it clear that only "the best and brightest" have a shot at success. Balderdash. And how often has a company hired that bright light only to discover it has little fuse and no substance?

There is already a Symposium for the Future of Work and Learning, which is a step in the right direction. But it's a formal event and organization with a program and speakers. . .blah blah blah. Basically it's a business school.

What if. . . a team of individuals made up of business leaders and educators were talk formally and informally with managers (not executives, mind you) in all kinds of businesses? Everyone would ask and be asked the same questions. This should not be a complex survey. Perhaps some of the team could collect job descriptions and code those to get an idea of what companies think they want in their employees. But there should also be interviews about the most valuable employees and why they are so valued. 

My theory is that the most valued employees are those who work hard; who take initiative; who are willing to learn, unlearn, and relearn; who step in to coach or mentor when needed; who don't think they are bigger or more important than their job titles and yet don't let anyone take advantage of them. They are the employees who are confident in their abilities and capabilities, but unrealistic; they are the employees that some think are suckers because they commend and recommend the work of others--they are true team players. They are the employees who will stay as long as needed to make sure the work is done right. They are the employees who own up to mistakes and who do not sabotage others.

I would also suggest that the team interview graduates who have been out of college less than five years and find out just how much they learned in college has been useful to them and in what ways. They may need to be prompted because it's likely they learned some things without realizing it, but it's also quite likely that much of what they've needed to know and learn about their work wasn't the remotest part of the curriculum.

I don't think a college education should be tailored to the work place, but I do think that higher education and the work place--and that's all levels of the work place--need to be in better communication and partnership to make sure the next generation of higher education is about the kind of higher learning that students and employers can value.

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