Looking Into the Future

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The Fresno Pacific University Board of Trustees approved a new strategic plan at its June meeting. Behind this plan is an understanding of the educational environment—the education ecology—within which FPU exists.

Our ecology is a particular localized version of the national and international environment. Over the next years, as we move to achieve the goals of the plan, it is good to step back and discern the major trends. Numerous books on these trends arrive each year, and the authors speak at professional gatherings. Some of these “experts” last, some are forgotten. Our work is difficult, and interesting, because FPU faces contradictory trends in our Valley ecology.

Let me try my hand at identifying three elements within which we work:

One: higher education will remain valuable, even extraordinarily valuable, as the primary pathway toward financial stability for most people and families. Even in areas in which a degree is not necessary immediately, it may be long term. Information technology, for instance, or technical roles in medicine. But for most the B.A. will be a requirement. Recently we have seen state requirements that people working in early childhood education, day-care workers, have B.A. degrees, as well as nurses in hospitals.

The understanding of the economic value of higher education has had dramatic influence on governmental policy and on costs. Federal support has shifted from grants to loans because of the ability of degree holders to pay back the support they have received. And public demands have also increased—for instructors with doctorates, for technology, for instant information and for research experience—and raised tuition.

At the same time, the limits to perceived value bring greater demands for lower costs, often coupled with an increased desire for services. We will have to discover and develop multiple responses to the multiple populations we serve, and do so within new financial expectations and competition. It demands from all of us a great capacity for ambiguity and an understanding that education can be “practiced” in a variety of ways, as it must be if it is to be offered to a variety of populations.

Two: there is one movement towards degrees based on “competencies” and another towards project- and problem-based learning. Competency-based education is often associated with individualized study, moving at the student’s individual pace, as she or he demonstrates that knowledge, either in a subject or of a process, has been achieved. Project- or problem-based education is much different, requiring deep understanding applied to complex projects—a senior or master’s thesis or project, a business plan or an analysis of a social or organizational problem. Sometimes we are bedeviled in our discussions when one person is thinking of competency-based education, and another is thinking of problem- or project-based education. We have moved from being an institution with a more-or-less single form (project- and problem-) to having some programs that are more competency driven.

Three: there is strong movement toward ultimate respect for individual values and opinions, and at the same times towards commonly held values. This might take the form of the commonly held, even supremely held, value of respect for and encouragement of all manner of individually held values. Sometimes we see it in the desire of a young student for affirmation of what they have personally decided as their choice or way of life, even though it may seem to others as unhealthy, dangerous or damaging. At other times, students are hungry for commonly held and traditional values. In the case of FPU, students often desire to work in a Christian environment where traditional and commonly held spiritual values are promoted. Sometimes a student will desire this environment, and at the same time demand acceptance of divergent views and values. It is all very complex and sometimes confusing. To teach, professors must address, understand and respect the desire for common values and the individual, even idiosyncratic, choices of students. And at the same time professors must hold to their commitments and beliefs to represent Christian faith in life and teaching. It is challenging, sometimes messy and even incoherent, and is different than it often was a generation ago. But through this balancing act students learn, change and grow intellectually, morally and spiritually.

These three trends are big elements in our ecology, representing the world in which our students live and in which we teach. Whether we are unaware of them, resist them or can even know how to respond to them, each represents a challenge and opportunity. We at FPU seek to find a way to have a lasting Christian influence on our students, and through them on the world.

  • Linda Hoff

    Great piece, Steve. I appreciated the way you identified three complex issues that inform our understanding of our context. I see much of the phenomena that you describe in my work here in teacher education.
    Linda