Tuesday, April 19, 2016

A Lesson from John Quincy Adams

I am reading James Traub’s new biography of John Quincy Adams.  It is interesting for many reasons, not the least of which is how it illuminates a critical time in American history that is often overlooked.  It was a time when the American experiment was still delicate,  due both to  internal differences among the states and our increasingly important role with the colonial powers of England, France, and Spain as we defined our continental scope.
            Adams, who had served as our representative to France, Russia, and England as early as the 1790s and as Secretary of State under Monroe, had a unique perspective on the nation’s international affairs—one that is still important today.  Discussing the competition between Adams and Henry Clay in the Monroe administration, Traub writes:
For Adams, Clay’s views smacked of a dangerous unreality, a commitment to principle in the absence or history, politics, national habit, and character.  Like Burke, Adams reasoned from what men did, not from what they wished they did or imagined they might have done in an ideal setting.  A foreign policy based on a priori assumptions about the world rather than a rigorous understanding of men and nations was bound to overreach and lead to grief.

            It is a timely lesson for the 2016 Presidential campaign.  Both parties are being challenged by outsiders whose views can easily be said to smack of a “dangerous unreality.”  Republican Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign makes bold statements about bringing jobs home again, about building a wall to keep out immigrants, and about defeating international extremist terrorism.  However, he has no real plans, only what amounts, in the end, to a marketing campaign.  The Democrats have Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, who campaigns for democratic socialist ideals—free education, universal health care, etc.—but with little explanation of how he will pursue his ideals or ensure that they are sustainable.
            Like them or not, these are candidates who lack the political skills to sustain their vision into reality.  Trump has no political leadership experience, and it is questionable whether his financial deal-making experience would have any value in statecraft.  Sanders has always operated as an outsider; it is difficult to know whether he could become a team-builder who could create the majority needed to fulfill his ideals.
            The lesson from John Quincy Adams is that we must be very cautious about giving power to people who propose to govern on “a priori assumptions about the world.”  We need leaders who are experienced in political leadership, not outsiders who have only their marketing skills or ideals to offer.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Future of General Education: Part One

Back in the 1980s, I wrote a book, The Meaning of General Education: The Emergence of a Curriculum Paradigm, that traced the idea of general education from the early days of the Industrial Revolution through the social revolutions of the twentieth century.  In this and future postings in this series, I will explore the opportunity to create a new kind of general education that will meet the needs of today’s society.

The Meaning of General Education described how our ideas about general education evolved in the wake of major social, economic, technological, and geopolitical changes, from the Yale University faculty’s defense of liberal education in 1828 through the rise of the research university and industrialization and the wars and social upheavals of the 20th century.  After surveying the evolution of general education through 150 years of technological, economic, social, and philosophical turmoil, I summarized by noting, first, what general education is not.  It is not simply another name for liberal education or interdisciplinarity or a prescribed curriculum. Instead, the innovations of the 20th century suggested a definition along these lines:  

General education is a comprehensive, self-consciously developed and maintained program that develops in individual students the attitude of inquiry; the skills of problem solving; the individual and community values associated with a democratic society; and the knowledge needed to apply these attitudes, skills, and values so that the students may maintain the learning process over a lifetime and function as a self-fulfilled individuals and as full participants in a society committed to change through democratic processes.  As such it is marked by its comprehensive scope, by its emphasis on specific and real problems and issues of immediate concern to students and society, by its concern with the needs of the future, and by the application of democratic principles in the methods and procedures of education as well as the goals of education (p. 5).

            These goals suggest an active learning environment that is problem-centered, research-based, and inquiry-oriented.  I noted that general education curricula share these attributes: (1) they are self-consciously purposeful, so that the goals guide every aspect of the curriculum; (2) they are comprehensive, not in the sense of a “survey of knowledge” but in the sense that the goals are reflected in all aspects of the curriculum, both content and method; and (3) they are “intimately concerned with democratic processes and with the needs of a democratic society” (p.188).
            Many institutions—especially research-oriented colleges universities—have tried to meet their general education mission through a “distribution” curriculum that ensures that students receive, in addition to their major area, s some basic skills—writing, speaking, math—along with exposure to knowledge as it is organized within the university, with many options to allow students to select courses that meet their interests.  However, this approach fails to address the core goal of general education: to purposefully prepare students to be self-fulfilled, full participants of the society in which they live. 
            One thing that makes the distribution model so stable is that it has become embedded in the budget model of colleges and universities.  The model by which academic departments are funded usually includes a factor that reflects student enrollment in courses taught by departmental faculty.  As a result, departments tend to hold on dearly to introductory courses that meet distribution requirements (i.e., 6 credits in the social sciences, 9 credits in the sciences, etc.) and that attract students who are not majoring in that department.  These courses, in turn, provides jobs—and financial support—for graduate assistants, thus helping to maintain the department’s graduate program.  It brings to mind the anthropology department at one university where I consulted some years back.  The department had created courses that fulfilled distribution requirements in three different lower division areas—Introduction to Physical Anthropology (met a science requirement), Introduction to Social Anthropology (met a social science requirement), and Introduction to Human Anthropology (met at humanities requirement). 
            I would argue that, even within a distribution system, at least half of the general education requirement should consist of problem-centered courses that engage students in understanding and addressing social issues through inquiry, gathering and evaluating information, and applying the resulting knowledge to a specific problem or issue.
The Need for a Fresh Approach
            There are several reasons why it is time for institutions to take a fresh look at the role of general education in their undergraduate curricula.   Many public institutions have suffered in recent years from a perception that higher education is more of a “private good”—a benefit to the individual student—rather than a “public good”—a benefit to society as a whole.  This suggests that higher education is emphasizing (or at least is perceived as emphasizing)  professional/vocational education—preparing students for careers—at the expense of preparing them for productive lives as members of their civic communities.  Beyond that, however,  we must recognize that the world itself has changed. 
A quick historical analogy might be helpful.   From the middle ages through the late 18th century, the classical liberal arts model worked well.  It was, after all, an age when higher education was limited to preparing a small elite for careers in law and ministry.   The Industrial Revolution—and the dramatic social changes that accompanied it—changed all that.  With industrialization came new professions—engineers, scientists, managers, teachers (to educate children of immigrant workers)—and new academic disciplines, like social psychology, statistics, and sociology that were needed to help institutions respond to immigration, urbanization, and a new economic and social context.  The twentieth century saw social revolutions—the rise of communism and socialism, for instance—a new economic order, and social dislocations—two world wars, the great depression, and advances in science—that had not been seen before.  These changes drove experiments in general education throughout the first half of the century.
Today, as the Information Revolution matures, we are again faced with massive social, economic, scientific, and technological change.  Some examples:
Globalization  By the middle of the twentieth century, the old boundaries between East and West had been erased.  In the intervening years, politics, trade, migration, business logistics, and technology have served to create a truly global society.  Nations have not yet learned how to live in that society yet, though the experience of wars from Vietnam to Iraq has suggested that the old rules no longer apply.  However, it is clear that the economies of nations are increasingly interdependent and that social traditions are being challenged in new ways.
Climate Change  Signs of global warming can no longer be ignored.  Climate change will present dramatic challenges in the coming decades, spurring the need for international cooperation in the face of massive human migration from low-lying communities, changes in the global food supply, etc.
Technological Change  Baby Boomers were the last generation to be born before the technological revolution that brought us, first, satellite communication, and, more recently, the worldwide web.  Today’s students were born into a world in which information is generally available and in which individuals can communicate with and form communities among people from anywhere in the world.  The Internet has transformed work, has created new ways for people to collaborate and share information, and has opened new horizons for people across the world, providing new ways to understand issues and solve problems.
Community  Before the technological revolution, “community” meant a group of people living in the same geographic space whose lives were interdependent.  Today, technology has created gaps in that old community, as we are increasingly dependent on people who may live across the globe.  That same technology has allowed us to create cyber-communities of people who may live anywhere but who find common ground by focusing on a few common interests. In this environment, the question of how we respond to people who are unlike ourselves becomes important and, increasingly, complex.
The challenge for educators—and for the general education curriculum—is to help students learn how to live and prosper in a highly inter-reliant global society and economy in which technology and mass migration and inter-dependent international supply chains are redefining “community.” 
Future postings on this topic will look at this challenge from several perspectives, keeping in mind the underlying general education goal of integrating content and method.  This will include challenges in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences, as well as pedagogical opportunities offered by technology to directly engage students in curricula that encourage inquiry, collaboration, and problem-solving as students prepare to live in a complex global society.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Celebrating Penn State Shenango Campus's 50th Anniversary

This year, Penn State’s Shenango Campus is celebrating its 50th anniversary.  It served its first freshman class in the 1965-66 academic year.  I came along as a freshman the following year.  In 2005, I was honored to be invited to deliver the spring commencement address as the campus was preparing to celebrate its 40th anniversary.  In the spirit of helping to celebrate the 50th anniversary, here is the speech I gave on that occasion:

First, let me say congratulations to the graduates who are here with us today.  I also want to recognize our graduates’ families, friends, and loved ones.  No one achieves a goal like this entirely on her own--you all deserve a share of the congratulations tonight.  
I also want to thank Dean Disney and Dr. Leeds for inviting me to be here.   I am especially proud to join you tonight for several reasons.  First, as a Penn State administrator.  Second, as a Penn State Shenango Alum.  Third, as a Shenango Valley native.   And fourth, this year Penn State Shenango is celebrating its 40th anniversary of service to the community here in Western Pennsylvania.   I am a member of the second class to go through the campus.  I graduated from Hickory High School in 1966.  I am a classic Penn State first-generation student.  When I was in high school, I had few prospects of ever attending college.  However, some of my teachers told my mother and me about this new campus that would allow me to attend Penn State without having to bear the expense of leaving home and that would allow me to continue to work part-time while I studied.   The campus was not yet at its current physical location—our classes were held at Kennedy Christian High School during my freshman year—but the very fact that Penn State was here in the Valley was a godsend to me back then and it has been the same for many other students as the campus has grown and become a part of downtown Sharon over the past four decades.   So, it is a distinct honor for me to be back with you this evening.
            Back in those days, you could only complete the first two years of a baccalaureate degree at the campus.  I finished my undergraduate degree at University Park in 1970.    The following month, this book came out—Future Shock by Alvin Toffler.   It was, as the cover on the paperback edition said, “a runaway best seller.”  But more than that, it was a kind of social exclamation point that announced that something very big was happening in our world—it proclaimed the beginning of the Information Revolution.  It described the many changes that were beginning to take shape in our culture .  Especially explored a variety of changes—changes in science and technology, in organizations, in families, in education, in relationships—and the challenges facing us as individuals and as a society learned how to cope with increasingly rapid and radical change.   Most of us were only vaguely aware of all this in 1970, but it was not long before we all began to feel the impact and began to sense that things would never be quite the same. 
            Well, we are now more than a full generation into the Information Revolution.  Most of you who are graduating today know no other world than a wired—and increasingly, wireless—world.  Most of the rest of us have trouble remembering what it was like in the “old days.”  (Notice that I did NOT say the “good old days”).   And yet we are still discovering the true dimensions of change that the Information Revolution has created—and is still creating.  We are, in a very real way, in the same situation that Penn State’s graduates of a century or more ago might have been:  they were a generation into the Industrial Revolution and I am sure most of them could not have envisioned what the 20th century would bring.  We look out today on the edge of the 21st century and only one thing is certain:  there is a lot more change to come.   Some of them will be what one author calls “predictable surprises.”  But some will be total surprises.   It’s going to be an exciting ride.   And it’s time for you to take your turn at the wheel.
            One that is still unfolding but that has incredible potential for transforming how we will live in the world in the coming decades—is how the Internet and wireless communications are transforming the concept of “community” in our lives.  We all live in several different overlapping communities.  Our family and friends are a community that we take with us throughout our lives.  We also have our local, physical community—like the Shenango Valley itself—where we have many different kinds of associations and, often, where our cultural heritage rests.  And, as we move on in life, we develop communities that share professional interests and communities of interest around other dimensions of our lives.
            Today, those communities are no longer as tied to local geography as they used to be.  A generation after Future Shock, we know from experience what Alvin Toffler was telling us:  that the information revolution was not about technology, but was about US.   I work with Penn State’s online courses.   My professional community is national and international.   Just in the last two weeks, I have interacted with colleagues in the United Kingdom, Brazil, Mexico, and Norway—all without leaving State College (a town that my graduation speaker in 1970 described as “equally inaccessible from anywhere in the world”).  Students in our online courses come from all 50 states and all 7 continents.  Their experience of a learning community is a bit different from mine 40 years ago.  
            For me, at my age, all this is an adventure.  For you, well, it may be pretty normal.  But this idea of technology is changing how you will define your community in the years ahead is well worth thinking about.   All of you have the ability now to carry your communities with you wherever your life’s work will take you.  For some of you—and I hope this is true of a good many—it will allow you to stay right here in Western Pennsylvania and still be citizens of a rich community of colleagues and friends far from here.  Pennsylvania is facing a powerful challenge.  Many of our communities—and the Shenango Valley is a wonderful example—were shaped by the needs of the Industrial Revolution.  The challenge—and it is an immediate challenge for all of us—is to re-envision our communities for this new economy.  We’ll need your leadership here at home or wherever your careers take you, to make that happen.
            Tonight, you have received your degrees from Penn State.  But I think it is important to note that you did “receive” your education. It hasn’t been handed down to you.  Instead, you MADE your education.  You had lots of help from faculty members and other students, but it is YOURS.   In the process, you’ve created a new capacity within yourself to face the changes ahead.  One thing we DO know about the world that the information revolution has created is that, for us—because the world continues to change rapidly—education doesn’t end tonight.  It is a lifelong process.    I wound up getting two more degrees from Penn State as an adult learner.  I hope that, as you move forward you will continue to turn to Penn State for renewal and to help you to reach new goals as you move ahead in your life.
For tonight, though--from one alum to another—congratulations and the very best wishes for the future.
Thank you.