Nearly 50 per cent of postsecondary students in America end up leaving without a degree. The data suggest that they drop out because of a shortage of funds or a lack of interest – but also because they do not see real-world relevance.
Some argue that online courses (including those offered free by universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard) are the answer. If well constructed, they work exceptionally well in certain fields, especially technical ones suited to individualized, challenge-based learning. But skills acquisition is no substitute for a degree. Just ask companies like Google and Apple: They may pick the cream of the online-educated crop for outsourced jobs that come without benefits or security, but typically they do not consider these students as corporate leaders of the future.
In fact, U.S. surveys of employers reveal, over and over, that what they prize most in future managers are excellence in written and spoken communication, critical and creative thinking, an ability to collaborate across distances and cultural differences, breadth of knowledge and experience that takes students out of localism and provincialism, basic technical skills, quantitative literacy, and an ability to be flexible and take risks in changing environments.
That's a great syllabus for a new approach to liberal arts.
But first we need to transform our rhetoric. The opposition of "liberal arts" and "vocational education" carries with it a lot of residual 19th-century class snobbery as well as 20th-century quantitative bias. In the real world of the 21st century, though, there aren't "two cultures" – the arts and the sciences. We need both. As a cartoon circulating on Facebook would have it, "Science can tell you how to clone a Tyrannosaurus rex. Humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea."
To get us thinking about the possibilities of educational reform, I propose a Start-Up Core Curriculum for Entrepreneurship, Service and Society. Hokey, yes: SUCCESS.
Neither a "great books" program (which, however profound, rarely connects to a student's specialized major) nor the "duck, duck, goose" model of distribution requirements (where students are left to make coherence from a welter of rhetoric, statistics, art appreciation, natural science, foreign language or other offerings), SUCCESS is not just about content mastery, but about putting deep knowledge into practice to address real-world global problems.
The program would take up two years, with the first devoted to a thematic cluster of problem-based courses. For example, if the liberal-arts topic were "global health disparities," interdisciplinary, team-taught courses would touch on health but also humanities, the arts, social sciences and computational and biological sciences. Weekly meetings with all faculty and students would help to connect the intellectual dots.
That's a great start. But it's expensive and not as entrepreneurial as students today might want, so let's push the model further. To save costs, a SUCCESS program might include a mix of large lectures and online courses (in areas such as introductory statistics, foreign language or HTML). Both formats would be supplemented by small group meetings with peers, teachers, teaching assistants and sometimes guest experts.
Seminars would be devoted to the great books, from Socrates to Amartya Sen. But from there, students would be challenged to investigate how these thinkers would contribute to issues of general social health and welfare and tie their work into business and management frameworks. So, Dr. Sen insists that we account for the intangibles that enhance or cripple our lives (inequality, life expectancy, infant mortality or disease). How would you create a cost-benefit analysis and a strategic business and workflow plan that might embody those ideas?
The second part of the program would then take students off campus for an eye-opening year of entrepreneurial, service-oriented, practical work.
Simultaneously contributing to the world, and learning from it, an engaged practicum would address the very real issue of "sophomore slump" (when the dropout potential runs highest). It would also be a targeted alternative to the typical year-abroad experience, which, even for the lucky 14 per cent of U.S. graduates now able to afford it, is often not linked to coursework or future careers.
Of course, you do not need to go abroad to learn how to participate in and contribute to diverse cultures and populations, given the gap between rich and poor in North America. Many, if not most, colleges and universities are located with radical income and health disparities a few kilometres, if not blocks, away.
For their practicum, students could be placed in non-profits, community organizations, small businesses and after-school programs. They would lend their new expertise, deep thinking and skills in communication, leadership and collaboration to organizations desperate for help in financially strapped times. In turn, students would learn more about the urgencies of deep and broad knowledge, the importance of general and specialized education, the necessity for computational and social networking skills and the imperative for hard work and true dedication – not all of it well rewarded – than any classroom could begin to instill.
As for the subject focus, even if a student were not to go into one of the many fields related to global health, such a foundational first year and experiential second year would show how the "wisdom of the ages" can help us deconstruct some of the cant of our era. After all, the "real world" itself demands serious, critical thinking – including how we might redesign the siloed, hierarchical, pre-professional research university that arose in the late 19th century. With a backlash against higher education in full swing, what better time than now to take up this challenge?
As award-winning journalist Thomas Friedman recently suggested, "Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary." Let's get started.
Adapted from Fastcompany.com.
Cathy N. Davidson is a professor at Duke University, where she also served as the first vice-provost for interdisciplinary studies. This summer, she was named the first educator on the six-person board of directors of the Mozilla Foundation.