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What Colleges Will Teach in 2025


America must resolve the conflict between knowledge and know-how
By Jon Meacham @jmeacham Sept. 26, 2013 23 Comments

ReportsonwhatsupposedlyeducatedAmericansknowandmoresensationally, dontknowcomealongfairlyregularly,eachmoredepressingthanthelast. AsurveyofrecentcollegegraduatescommissionedbytheAmericanCouncilof TrusteesandAlumniandconductedbyGfKRoperlastyearfoundthatbarely halfknewthattheU.S.Constitution establishestheseparationofpowers. Forty threepercentfailedtoidentifyJohnRobertsasChiefJustice62%didnt knowthecorrectlengthofcongressionaltermsofoffice. Highereducationhasneverbeenmoreexpensiveorseeminglylessdemanding. Accordingtothe2011bookAcademicallyAdrift,byRichardArumandJosipa Roksa,fulltimestudentsin1961devoted40hoursperweektoschoolworkand studyingby2003thathaddeclinedto27hours.Andeventhosehoursmaynot beallthateffective:thebookalsonotesthat36%ofcollegegraduateshadnot shownanysignificantcognitivegainsoverfouryears.Accordingtodatagathered bytheChronicleofHigherEducationandAmericanPublicMediasMarketplace, halfofemployerssaytheyhavetroublefindingqualifiedrecentcollege graduatestohire.Everybodyhasanopinionaboutwhatmattersmost.WhileBillGatesworries aboutthedearthofengineeringandsciencegraduates,theAmericanAcademyofArtsand Sciencesfretsaboutthefateofthehumanities. (FULLCOVERAGE:TheTIMESummitonHigherEducation) Risingtuitioncosts,anunderpreparedworkforce,aninhospitableclimateforthehumanities:eachoftheseissues,amongothers, shapesargumentsoverhighereducation.True,pollssuggestthatmoststudentsarehappywiththeircollegeexperiences(ifnottheir debtloads),eliteinstitutionsarethriving,U.S.researchuniversitiesaretheenvyoftheworld,andacollegedegreeremainsthe nationscentralculturalandeconomiccredential.Yetitsalsoundeniablethathand wringingabouthighereducationissocommonthat italmostformsanacademicdisciplineuntoitselforshouldatleastcountasavarsitysport. Andsowringthehandsofmanyparents,employers,academicsandalumniinthefallof2013astheundergraduateclassof2017begins itsfreshmanyearandasparentsoftheclassof2025contemplatethecostsandbenefitsofcollegedowntheroad.Highereducation isfacingarealcrisisofeffectiveness,saysMichaelPoliakoff,vicepresidentofpolicyattheAmericanCouncilofTrusteesandAlumni, agroupthatsupportstraditionalcorecurriculumsandpostgraduateassessmenttests.AttheTIMESummitonHigherEducationon Sept.20,SecretaryofEducationArneDuncancalledformoreaccountabilityinhighereducationthroughthedevelopmentofa universityratingssystemonethatcouldincludetheearningpowerofaninstitutionsgraduatesasafactor. AtatimewhenvirtuallyeverystateisimplementingnewCommonCorestandardstoincreasetheamountofgeneralknowledgein mathandEnglishthatatypicalpublicschoolstudentmustmasterinK12,thereisrenewedinterestintheperennialcollegiate argumentoverwhatscalledeithergeneraleducationor,morecolloquially,corecurriculum.Atissueiswhethertherearecertainbooks
Photographs by Peter Hapak for TIME

oneshouldreadandcertainfactsoneshouldknowtobeconsideredatrulyeducatedpersonoratleastatrulyeducatedcollege graduate. Attheheartofthedebatebetweentraditionalists(wholoveacore)andmanyacademics(whoprefertoteachmorespecializedcourses andallowstudentsmorefreedomtosettheirowncurriculums)isatensionbetweentwodifferentquestionsaboutthepurposesof college.TherearethosewhoinsistthatthekeyoutcomeliesintheanswertoWhatshouldeverycollegegraduateknow?perhaps minimizingthechancesthatfuturesurveyswillshowthatpoorJohnRobertsislessrecognizablethanLadyGaga.Othersask,What shouldeverycollegegraduateknowhowtodo? Thosethreeadditionalwordscontainmultitudes.Theprevailingcontemporaryvision,evenintheliberalarts,emphasizesaction: activethought,activeexpression,activepreparationforlifelonglearning.Engagingwithatextorquestion,marshalingdataand argumentsandexpressingoneselftakesprecedenceovertheacquisitionofgeneralknowledge. Acaveat:thedebatewearediscussinghereisfocusedmainlyonselectiveschools,publicandprivate,wherethereseemstobea persistentuneaseamongkeyconstituenciesparents,trustees,alumniandmostofallemployersaboutundergraduatecurriculums. Thelasttimethesequestionswereincirculationwasinthe1980s,theyearsinwhichEducationSecretaryBillBennettpushedfor renewedemphasisonthehumanitiesandAllanBloomoftheUniversityofChicagopublishedTheClosingoftheAmericanMind,abest sellerthatargued,amongotherthings,thatthegreatbookswerebeingwronglymarginalizedifnottotallyneglectedbythemodern university. ThatdebatereflectedlargerargumentsaboutthecountrystrendtowardtherightunderRonaldReagan.Whatsdrivingthecore standardsconversationnowistheambitiontosucceedinaglobaleconomyandtheanxietythatAmericanstudentsarefailingtodoso. Howdoesthecountryrelievethosefearsandproduceagenerationofgraduateswhowillcreatewealthandjobs?Itsaquestionthats fuelingtheObamaAdministrationspushforaratingssystem,anditsaquestionthatisntgoingaway. TheRootsoftheCore FromthefoundingofHarvardCollegein1636untiltheCivilWar,Americanuniversityeducationwasmostlyaboutsendingpiousand hopefullywellreadgentlemenforthintotheworld.AsLouisMenand,aHarvardEnglishprofessorandliterarycritic,haswritten,what Americansthinkofastheuniversityisofrelativelyrecentvintage.In1862theMorrillActcreatedlandgrantuniversities,broadening opportunitiesforthoseforwhomcollegehadbeenavirtualimpossibility.Menandandotherhistoriansofcollegiatecurriculumsnote thatatHarvardin1869,CharlesWilliamEliotbecamepresidentandcreatedacultureinwhichthebachelorsdegreebecamethekey credentialforongoingprofessionaleducationaculturethatcametoshapetherestoftheAmericanacademy.The19thcenturyalso sawtheriseofthegreatEuropeanresearchuniversitytheGermanmodelofscholarteacherswhoeducatedunder graduateswhile pursuingtheirownresearchinterestsmovedacrosstheAtlantic. Thenotionthatastudentshouldgraduatewithabroadbaseofknowledgeis,inMenandswords,themostmodernpartofthemodern university.ItwasonlyafterWorldWarI,in1919,thatColumbiaCollegeundertookageneraleducationcourse,calledContemporary Civilization.ByreadingclassictextsfromPlatosRepublictoThePrincetotheDeclarationofIndependence,withtheBibleand EdmundBurkethrowninforgoodmeasureanddiscussingtheminthecontextofenduringissuesinhumansociety,everystudentwas compelledtoengagewithideasthatformedthemainstreamoftheAmericanmind.Theimpetusforthemovereflectedalargersocial andculturalconcernwithassimilatingthechildrenofimmigrantsintoAmericanculture.RobertMaynardHutchinsadoptedasimilar approachattheUniversityofChicago.Thecourseswerenotaboutrotememorizationtheywere(andare)centeredonreading followedbydiscussion.Theywere(andare)requiredofallstudents,somethingthatsetColumbiaandChicagoapartfrommanyother collegesandstilldoes. WorldWarIIhelpedbringabouttheHarvardReportof1945,aneffortbyAmericasoldestcollegetoprovideacommonculturalbasis notonlyforitselitestudentsbutalsofortherisingmiddleclass.Studentswereexpectedtoread,forexample,thegreatbooks.Asthe decadeswentby,however,theassumptionthattherewasagivenbodyofknowledgeoragivensetofauthorsthathadtobelearnedor readcameunderculturalandacademicattack.Whowastosaywhatwasgreat?Whynotletteachersdecidewhattoteachandstudents decidewhattostudy?

Therearemanyculturalreasonsforopposingthecore.Forinstance,facultiesgenerallydislikebeingtoldwhattodo.(Doesnt everyone?)Themostintelligentargumentagainstacore?Thatthefreedomtochooseonesacademicpathwillstokeonescuriosity andfuelexperimentation.AtplaceslikeVanderbiltUniversity(whereIamavisitingfacultymember)thecurriculumaltersthe Columbiaapproachintwoways.First,studentschoosespecificcoursesthattheuniversitybelievesprovidewhatchancellorNicholas Zepposcallsbothfoundationalknowledgeandcriticalthinking.Inotherwords,weencouragemorestudentgrowthandrisktakingin electinghowonebuildsthatfoundation.Ratherthanmandateaspecificsetofgeneral educationcourses,Vanderbiltasks undergraduatestomeetdistributionrequirements,choosingclassesinbroadlydefinedfieldsincludinghumanitiesandthecreative arts,thehistoryandcultureofAmerica,andinternationalcultures.Soourapproach,saysZeppos,allowsformoreexplorationand risktaking. Knowledgeitselfchanges,andnotonlyinscienceandtechnology,wherechangeissorapidandselfevident.Appomattoxwillalways havehappenedinApril1865,butonesunderstandingofthecauses,courseandeffectsoftheCivilWarcanshift.Theprevailing academiccultureputsmoreemphasisondevelopingastudentsabilitytoconfrontquestionsofinterpretationbyaskingthemmore aboutwhysomethingoccurredthanwhen.Butsomeraisereasonableconcernsaboutthisapproach.Atprestigiousschools,the majorityofstudentscomefromstrongbackgroundsandwilldowellevenwithoutthecore,butthatisnottherealityforallstudents, saysPoliakoff.Thecorecurriculummakessurethatallstudentsdeveloptheskillstheyneedtobesuccessful. Sowhattodo? AQuestionofAssessment PageA1oftheWallStreetJournal o ftenbringsnewsthatmatterstoAmericasstrivingclasses.OnesuchstoryarrivedthisAugust.The headlineAreYouReadyforthePostCollegeSAT?wasfollowedbyarevealingsubhead:Employerssaytheydonttrustgradepoint averages.ThepieceexplainedtheimminentarrivalofanSATlikeassessmentthataimstocutthroughgradepointaveragesandjudge studentsrealvaluetoemployers. TheCollegiateLearningAssessment,orCLA+,avoluntarytestdevelopedbyaNewYorkCitybasednonprofit,theCouncilforAidto Education,istobeadministeredtoseniorsatsome200U.S.collegesanduniversities,includingtheUniversityofTexassystemand the liberalartsSt.JohnFisherCollegenearRochester,N.Y.,inanattempttomeasurelearningbyaskingcriticalthinkingquestions. Exitexamsareanexcellentideabecausetheyareaquantifiablewayofgivinginstitutionsandindividualsthemeasureofthekindof progresstheyremaking,saysPoliakoff.AndwhileanassessmentliketheCLA+mighthelpemployersdecidewhichstudentstohire, somearguethatstudentsandparentsneedmoreinformationtohelpchooseacollege.WhenDuncantoldTimeseducationsummit abouttheratingssystemenvisionedbytheObamaAdministration,hedescribedanapproachthatwouldtakeintoaccountmany metrics,includinggraduationrates,graduateearningsandagraduatesstudentdebt.Thebasicquestion,Duncansaid,isthis:How manystudentsataninstitutiongraduateatareasonablecostwithoutalotofdebtandgetajobinthefieldtheychoose? Fairenough,butnoneofthistestsgeneralknowledge.Youdonthavetobeabletoidentify,say,AlbertEinsteinorexplainthe differencebetweenastockandabond.CriticsoftheCLA+arguethatinstitutionsmaybepenalizedforattractingstrongstudentswho scorehighlyasfreshmenandthenjustashighlyas seniorsthusshowingnogrowth.Othershaveevenmorefundamentalproblems withtheideaofauniversaltest.TheideaoftheCLA+istomeasurelearningatvariousinstitutionsandcomparethem,saysWatson ScottSwail,presidentandCEOoftheEducationPolicyInstitute.Idontthinkthatstechnicallypossiblewithsuchadiversesystemof highereducation.Thatsbasedonthefactthatallthecurriculumsaredifferent,textbooksaredifferent,andyoureexpectingtoget somemeasureofinaverygenericwayacrossall curriculumshowsomeonelearnsinoneinstitutioncomparedtoanother.All institutionsaredifferent,andalloftheirstudentsaredifferent. SowhynotmakethediversityofAmericanhighereducationanallyinallayingconcernsabouthowmuchcoreknowledgecollege graduatestakewiththemintotheworld?Whynothonortheindependenceofeachinstitutionandencourageeverycollegetocreatea requiredgeneraleducationcomprehensiveexamasaconditionforgraduation?Askeachdepartmentforagivennumberofquestions thatitbelieveseverygraduate,regardlessofmajor,shouldbeabletoanswer.Formulateessayquestionsthatwouldtestastudents capacitytoanalyzeandreason.Inotherwords,taketheinitiative. Yes,thedepartmentaldiscussionsaboutwhataneducatedpersonshouldknowaboutchemistryorChineseorcommunismwouldbe

fraughtandlong.Thegoodnews,however,isthatthedebateswouldbeilluminating,forcingacademicstolooktofirstprinciples, whichisalmostalwaysahealthyexerciseinanyfield.Aninstitutionmightdecidethatsuchanassessmentjustisntforthem,butitsan ideaworthexploring,forcollegescouldthencontroltheprocessratherthancedethatauthoritytoyetanotherstandardizednational test. WhatishearteningtothosewhobelieveinthevalueofapassingacquaintancewithHomerandtheDeclarationofIndependenceand JaneAustenandToniMorrisonaswellasbasicscientificliteracyisthatthereislittleargumentoverthehumanandeconomicutilityof amindtrainedtomakeconnectionsbetweenseeminglydisparateelementsofreality.Thecollegegraduatewhocanthinkcreativelyis goingtostandthegreatestchanceofnotonlydoingwellbutdoingsomegoodtoo.Aslongastheliberalartstraditionremainsa foundationofthecurriculumineventhemostelectiveofcollegiatesystems,thereishopethatgraduateswillbeabletodiscussthe GettysburgAddressinajobinterviewatGoogle. withreportingbyElizaGray/NewYorkandMayaRhodan/Washington

Jon Meacham @jmeacham


Meacham, an executive editor at Random House, is the author of the Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. The views expressed are solely his own.

Meachams book Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power will be published by Random House on November 13