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Why a Typewriter Won't Get You on the Web: A Call for Holistic Change
These days, I see a lot of innovation occurring at the edges of our institutions. But our current institutional structures feel cast in concrete. They’ve become so ingrained that many of these structures have gone unquestioned for more than a century. As Louis Menand noted in The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, reforming the current shape of higher education is like trying to use a manual typewriter to get on the web.1
The expansion of technology, the rise of artificial intelligence, globalization, and an ever-evolving set of demands for the knowledge and skills of individuals throughout their lives have remade the expectations of why, and when, we need higher education. Simply put, in times of epochal change such as this, new institutional structures will be required. And these structures may be far harder to create than the innovative centers and programs that exist on the edges of the academy.
The previous era of change in higher education
The last time we saw an epochal shift in higher education was in the years following the Second Industrial Revolution, when colleges and universities adopted new functions and transformed their structures. The linchpin of this transformation was the divide created between undergraduate and graduate education. Charles William Eliot, president of Harvard from 1869 to 1909, understood that the new function of education should be to produce white-collar professionals who could also be middle-class (and upper-class) leaders for their communities and the nation. To do this, Harvard led the way by separating undergraduate education and graduate education, requiring, of course, the bachelor’s degree before the advanced degree (an inventive way to address the financial crisis of higher education in that era).2
This new structure was supported by the organizing principles of twentieth-century industrialization. In the wake of the factory assembly line, standardization became the organizing principle: set a standard time to earn a degree within a tightly ordered discipline in which faculty and students become proficient in one specific area of expertise. During this period, higher education moved to an emphasis on sharpening occupational expertise (professionalization) while also deepening its commitment to scientific research.3 In sum, what characterized this period was increasing specialization and differentiation. In education, this meant every undergraduate student needed four years and, often, a set amount of time to pursue a selected professional education. Students were “all-alike” learners who pedagogically marched through rigorously ordered disciplines. As a consequence, the structures of higher education produced professional experts and middle-class citizens whose obligation and privilege were to serve, with all their knowledge, their professions and their communities.
Fast-forward to today. While it is true that we have created, to a significant degree, new functions for higher education, many of our structures endure.
Two major disruptors—the influence of technology and the rapid movement into global cities—have caused an epochal change that influences how we know, act, and create community today. We can already identify three functions of higher education in this new era.
Function 1: Develop the skills, habits, and disposition of the whole person
I often think about the contrast of the twenty-first-century educational experience to my own experience in graduate school in the 1970s. Then, the function was to teach us to master the knowledge produced by a set of thinkers (in my case, those who specialized in the history of Christian theology), which would allow us to add to the deep vault of knowledge in our chosen field. Now, most of our students must learn something quite different: how to navigate the acceleration of change, prepare for multiple careers that require the understanding and mastery of highly different content, collaborate among changing groups of people, and work around the world—or from their favorite university academic commons.
Employers want to hire individuals who can think critically and communicate in ever-expanding media. But they also want people who can work in diverse teams to problem solve and innovate. Employers seek a well-rounded person who knows how to learn deeply and who has emotional intelligence and a high capacity for adaptive learning and doing.4 We need to make sure our graduates can pivot from problem to problem, working with different people in collaborative teams. Agility, cultural competence, innovation, and knowledge are the “value added” that all our graduates must bring to their careers.
The current situation calls for a new, integrative approach to education that pays heed to individual learning styles and psychosocial growth patterns while developing technology-based assessments, interventions, and plans. One of our favorite phrases at the University of Denver (DU) is “the genius is in the doing.” Our undergraduate programs emphasize experiential learning—including integrative capstones and a type of community engagement focused on collective impact—to tackle the most significant societal challenges of today and tomorrow. This “doing” form of education (as compared to the “banking” education of the former century) meshes the essential learning tools of critical thinking, emotional intelligence, teamwork, and collaboration with hands-on engagement with real-world problems.
The DU Compass Curriculum is a collection of offerings aimed at providing students with time to learn essential personal, interpersonal, and career navigational skills—and to learn sound habits for civic dialogue, resiliency, and networking. In the first quarter of their residency, students can take a course that assesses necessary skills for life in college and in the world: emotional intelligence, conflict management, cross-cultural competency, leadership, and so forth. Students assess their current skills level, reflect on it, and set goals for the future. Throughout their first year, students are organized in cohorts that may range from neighborhood groups to affinity groups to shared interest groups. They work with advisors on building community, on collaborative learning and living, and on engaging in projects related to the public good. In the classroom and lab, the residence hall and social spaces, the career achievement center and our many forms of community engagement, we are creating an ecosystem for students to learn, practice, and do good for the world while they do well in the world.
Function 2: Create new social engagement structures
If the first function of higher education is to help the individual develop the skills, habits, and disposition to successfully and meaningfully navigate their lives, the second is to create new structures of social engagement. Twenty-first-century organizations and communities are vastly different from those of the twentieth century. Gone are the rigid, stable bureaucracies that primarily look inward. Most new organizational structures—be they government, business, or nonprofit—are networked and highly adaptable to change with boundaries that may be permeable.
Universities are also increasingly networked organizations that allow emerging networks to nestle in between the traditional structures. In addition to schools and departments, universities are composed of institutes, centers, pop-up projects, and curricula. At DU, for instance, faculty have research partners in Hong Kong, Cape Town, or Medellín. DU students use their time on campus to launch their for-profit and nonprofit companies and increasingly want their academic programs to reflect their interests and how they see knowledge operating in the world in addition to the disciplines of the university.
Research continues to be essential in the twenty-first century, as some of our most pressing problems will need the basic sciences to discover new knowledge and the social sciences and humanities to delve deeply into human behavior and expression. Today we need more research, not less. Our undergraduates work directly in labs and on the research projects of faculty, and, just as they will in their careers and communities, they tackle grand societal challenges that harness the multidisciplinary and university-wide expertise and interests of students, staff, faculty, and community members to pursue goals dedicated to the public good. At DU, students don’t choose between a research or engaged approach to education. The future depends upon their knowing how to do deep research as they address the tough problems of the day.
In addition to preparing students for a “team of teams” approach to their professional pursuits, social engagement includes building intentional communities for life as well as work. Most people long to experience substantive meaning from having shared values, rituals, and purpose. Today’s highly transient lifestyle and the dissolution of many traditional carriers of community (organized religion, families remaining in one place for many years) result in many students rarely experiencing how to develop a sense of belonging to a community. We are finding that many students need support as they learn to join, belong to, and create intentional community and organizational life.
Function 3: Support lifelong learning platforms
The third function of education today is the support for lifelong learning platforms and the continual focus on new context, new skills, new connections, and new work. Increasingly, higher education must be delivered across a life span. It may have a ritualized beginning, but it does not have to have a predetermined end. Education must not see the task as retraining those whose jobs have been eliminated but as constant education across a lifetime. If ever there was a time to focus on the function and the form of lifelong learning, it is in this century of rapid and constant change.
At DU, we have started a program to support students’ career aspirations during their entire undergraduate education. In addition to traditional career preparation, such as résumé writing, interview skills, and networking, this program makes the need for lifelong education a central focus. DU empowers our students as they launch their careers and, when they leave campus, they do so with the support of a global network made up of alumni, parents, friends, and partners. Moreover, they are well aware of the continued learning resources available to them at their alma mater for the span of their careers and, indeed, their lives.
These three essential functions—educating holistically, creating new forms of social engagement, and developing lifelong learning platforms—are the new ways in which we must think and act. We are doing so by remodeling and adding onto our current structures of higher education. DU’s liberal arts approach blends classical critical thinking and the scientific method with an integrative approach that creates a learning environment that ties in the practical community engagement found in graduate programs with the more traditional style of a liberal arts undergraduate education. This approach challenges the dogma that a wide gulf exists between liberal and professional education. As a research university, we are not interested in being (or being perceived as) an ivory tower. We realize that we are an urban hub in a global city, allowing us to partner with various communities and organizations while serving as a pathway of global connectedness between Colorado and the world. Through this work, we are creating an ecosystem for our students to learn and do.
But what if?
Like many other presidents and chancellors, I am proud of how DU is remodeling, adapting, and moving forward. To use a metaphor, we are rebuilding the plane while flying it.
But as a scholar, I need to ask the “what if ” questions. “What if ” questions sharpen our focus on the true functions of higher education and test whether our current adapting-from-within evolution will adequately serve the functions society needs from us. “What if ” thinking can provide new ideas and insights and even display the limits of our current trajectory.
So, let me conclude by proposing one “what if ” and a sketch of a new approach. In doing so, I invite others to consider similar radical approaches.
What if we could provide an alternative to the traditional four-year undergraduate education degree with an option for students to attend an immersive, residential community engagement program (CEP)—a program in which students are continually engaged in community-based research and work, through which they also learn skills and habits both of traditional liberal arts but also of twenty-first-century collaboration and innovation?
This residential program would be designed for cognitive, intrapersonal, interpersonal, cultural, and community learning. The program would be tailored to the educational needs of the cohort and the moment. Occurring over an abbreviated time period (something less than the traditional four-year undergraduate model), it would serve students individually by continually assessing learning style, personality, and wellness. Students in a CEP would learn about community building and how to effectively and meaningfully communicate with disparate audiences. They would practice cultural agility and resilience. A CEP curriculum would cover digital and numerical literacy as well as innovation and the development of creativity. In a CEP, students would participate in experiential engagement with many types of educational experiences, taking both disciplinary and interdisciplinary deep dives. And they would sow the seeds of lifelong belonging by working with local communities and organizations to do measurable public good.
After graduation, CEP students would have access to a lifetime learning platform with variable degrees and certificates to serve them over the course of their entire lives and careers. They would receive both standardized and individualized coaching as trends, issues, and opportunities change.
An approach like this reimagines the structures of our institutions first and foremost as a global network of knowledge composed of alumni, parents, friends, and employers, facilitated by technology but also through in-person hubs in major cities.
Innovators who practice design thinking (which our students will need to understand) approach problems from many different perspectives, set aside dogmas, and are willing to play in a sandbox of ideas—sometimes without so much as a bucket. I invite you to engage in design thinking not only about reform but also about revolution. Ask yourself: What are the functions and structures of contemporary education? What forms will most effectively support those functions? And, therefore, what forms will best prepare our next generation of students to lead meaningful, impactful lives?
1. Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 17.
2. Cathy N. Davidson, The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux (New York: Basic Books, 2017), 17–46.
3. Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas, 390–467.
4. For more information about “What Really Matters for Employment,” see the article by C. Edward Watson and Kathryne Drezek McConnell in this issue of Liberal Education. Additional information about the skills employers seek can be found in AAC&U’s recent employer survey: Hart Research Associates, Fulfilling the American Dream: Liberal Education and the Future of Work (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2018), https://www.aacu.org/research/2018-future-of-work.
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REBECCA CHOPP is chancellor of the University of Denver.