Op/Ed Fridays: How higher education risks going the way of the dodo

February 19, 2016 by Joshua
in Awareness, Choosing/Decision-Making, Creativity, Education, Models

An Op/Ed piece in the New York Times, “What a Million Syllabuses Can Teach Us,” illustrated a perspective that will turn higher education into a dinosaur if it doesn’t learn some new perspectives. It begins

COLLEGE course syllabuses are curious documents. They represent the best efforts by faculty and instructors to distill human knowledge on a given subject into 14-week chunks. They structure the main activity of colleges and universities. And then, for the most part, they disappear.

Do you see the dated perspective?

The key words for me are “knowledge” and “activity.”

What’s wrong with knowledge and activity? Aren’t they good? Read on for a broader perspective, one that I hope and expect will overtake theirs.

Regarding knowledge, centuries ago, when most were illiterate, I imagine knowledge and access to facts made you valuable. With Wikipedia and search engines, everyone has knowledge and facts. Computers can beat humans on Jeopardy, implying they have access to more facts, process them faster than we can, and are improving faster than we are.

Besides value to society, I don’t see knowledge as the main source of happiness, purpose, passion, health, self-awareness, and other things people value in life. I don’t see much correlation at all.

I don’t devalue knowledge, but question it as the foundation to “structure the main activity of colleges and universities.”

Regarding activity, let’s look at the activity the article’s authors looked at. They continue

Our hope and expectation is that this tool will enable people to learn new things about teaching, publishing and intellectual history.

At present, the Syllabus Explorer is mostly a tool for counting how often texts are assigned over the past decade. There is something for everyone here. The traditional Western canon dominates the top 100, with Plato’s “Republic” at No. 2, “The Communist Manifesto” at No. 3, and “Frankenstein” at No. 5, followed by Aristotle’s “Ethics,” Hobbes’s “Leviathan,” Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” “Oedipus” and “Hamlet.”

I like their hope and expectation, but they look at how often professors assign texts and, as it continues, works of fiction and articles.

Their “activity” consists only of reading!

Do you want to be or hire someone who only learned to read and write? And for that matter, to read and write what someone assigned?

I see value in all those books, and I agree moving your eyes and turning pages has some activity, as does the thinking it generates, but nothing compared to getting up, moving around, changing your world, allowing it to change you, presenting your results, collaborating with others, and reflecting on your results. That activity will generate more thinking.


Instead of cataloging books and articles, I propose the article’s authors catalog the kinds of work professors assigned. I’ll bet anything that the top results include

  1. Reading
  2. Writing about what you read
  3. Talking to others in the classroom about what you read

They can call reading, writing, and talking active. I call it passive. I agree it improves you relative to sitting around doing nothing, but not compared to some activities I would propose:

  • Searching for problems that the books or class subject can help solve
  • Creating a project to apply what the class is covering to your life in something you care about
  • Collaborating with others on the project
  • Connecting to important people outside the class and school for whom the project is relevant—people who feel the problem, others working on solving it, etc
  • Resolving conflicts in your team’s behavior, not just abstract discussion
  • Presenting your results to others
  • Reflecting and writing about what you read and how it related to what you did

To me, active means making choices that affect others, which means challenging yourself and learning your values beyond abstract discussion.

It’s the difference between reading and writing about playing basketball and playing basketball, except about the foundations of your life. What is school for if it only treats your life abstractly?

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