We keep hearing of the future of higher education, how it will change, how students will change, how we will have to change as educators and institutions. The “will” is no longer applicable. It has changed, is changing, and we are responding, willingly or not.
A dozen year’s ago now, I remember hearing a technology guru predicting that within 10 years most students would pursue education online. I knew at the time that it wouldn’t happen. Educators and universities are powerfully conservative forces. They don’t like to change. They are steeped in tradition–often good tradition. They think they know how to offer and pursue learning. By “they,” of course, I mean “we.”
Some of the changes we just live with, some seem beneficial, some we are not so sure abut. Teaching has had to change. Twenty years ago we when working with students on research in the humanities and social sciences we taught how to find information and presumed knowledge. If you went into a university library, you could be reasonably certain that the information you found their was reliable. Today we no longer teach how to find knowledge–students can often find something very quickly. We now teach how to assess the quality of the information we find. Can we rely on Wikipedia for technical information, or even for some general information?
But some things haven’t changed. The goal of education is still learning to think well, to understand, to broaden our intellectual experience and deepen our insight. There are no short cuts here. Education requires mind and soul communicating with others. It is pursued through dialogue, through creative production, through critique and revision, through testing one idea against another, finding and assimilating more data and diverse angles of vision. It can be a wonderfully exciting work, and a terribly frustrating and agonizing process.
Students may go to a variety of colleges, pick up courses here and their according to there convenience. Courses may be offered on line. Programs may become shortened or lengthened, become narrower and more professional. These are all elements of the changing trends. We in higher education institutions are adapting to the new market realities–willingly or not.
But the goal and the necessary work that goes into an education won’t change, and can’t change. The more we learn, the deeper we are drawn into further learning, the more we know what we do not know, and the more we are forced to test the information we receive, enter into dialogue about its meaning, critique and revise, and learn the relations of one field of knowledge to another. Students will need professors, and professors students. Without this exchange of ideas and insight, without the transmission of the craft of learning, we will not see it continue, whatever the changes our world brings. There is much more to be said. But if we understand this much we will be aware of the extraordinary energy that learning demands and the lasting benefits it offers for our present and future.