Monday, February 29, 2016

Civic Education in the New Era

The rise of Donald Trump and his nationalist and racist political agenda has been disturbing to many of us.   This morning, a friend asked me, “How could this happen in the United States?”
We agreed that are many contributing factors.  For the past several decades, the United States (like much of the rest of the world) has been witnessing a social transformation the likes of which few living people can recall.   Since the end of World War II, a new societal structure has gradually been taking shape.  It is global rather than national.  It is technological rather than agricultural/industrial.  Technology has made geography increasingly irrelevant, breaking down longstanding cultural/racial identities.  It is profound in its reach and depth.  In the process, it has given rise to fear, anger, and resentment on the part of many affected people.  But the question remains:  How could the United States fall victim to the radical reactionaries of the likes of Donald Trump, whose best historical antecedent may well be Adolph Hitler?
            One factor may well be that we are no longer preparing our young people—either in the public schools or in our colleges and universities—to function effectively as citizens.   Here is a personal perspective.  I was born in 1948, at the end of the old industrial period and at the beginning of the current societal transformation.   Throughout the 1950s, American education was focused on how to maintain democracy in this changing world.  This was epitomized by the Truman Commission report of 1947, which proposed outcomes for the undergraduate curriculum and standards for general education.  It guided curriculum planning through much of the Cold War.
            As a high school student in the first half of the 1960s, I benefitted from a high school social studies curriculum that reflected the Commission’s goals.  The 9th grade social studies course was divided between a half-year of Pennsylvania history and a half-year of “civics”—which included an overview of the Constitution and the various structures of government at the state and national levels.  Tenth grade was devoted to American history.  Eleventh grade focused on world history.  And the senior year social studies class was “Problems Of Democracy,” which explained how our government worked and explored some of the major issues that American democratic institutions had dealt with in recent history.
            Unfortunately, my college experience was a bit different.   While we were offered highly interdisciplinary courses in the history of the humanities and in the biological and physical sciences, civics education was not given the same treatment.  We were left with the usual discipline-based introductory courses in sociology, history, and political science.  The distribution curriculum did not guarantee that all student were exposed to these subjects.  The discipline-based academic department structure has resisted major interdisciplinary innovations.
            Today, civics education seems to have waned even at the high school level.  Our culture has been in a period of profound change for much of the past five decades.   This year’s radicalism suggests that we need, once again, to take responsibility for the civic education of our young people and, especially, for college students who may lead our communities in the years ahead.  However, this must not be “your grandfather’s civics class.”  If we are to ensure that our communities—and our broader society—can thrive in the new environment, we need to prepare young people to live in the global, multi-cultural, technology-based society and economy that has been growing for the past half-century and that is now  blossoming around the world.
            Much has been said lately about whether our educational system is a benefit to society or simply to the individuals who learn a vocation in our schools and universities.  Now is the time to re-imagine the social role of American education and to build a new curriculum—and revitalize our institutions—to meet the needs of this new society.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Multi-Modal Continuing Education

This morning, the Centre Daily Times published an opinion piece  by Rob Wonderling, the chairperson of the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, in which he calls for greater attention to the needs of the rising “centennial” generation—the young people who follow the Millennials and who now make up 25 percent of the population, greater in size than the Millennials.   Part of the effort, he emphasized, must be greater attention to innovation in higher education:
We must begin now to transform Pennsylvania’s postsecondary experience into a forward-looking, technologically advanced and consumer driven system that encourages rigorous inquiry, prepares people for real-time job opportunities and serves as a means of lifelong learning.
            Wonderling chaired the Governor’s Commission on Postsecondary Education in 2012, which developed a menu of ideas for improving the role of higher education in the new society.  He lists five of those ideas in the article.  Interestingly, three of these priorities speak directly to the university’s continuing education/outreach mission:
·      A passport for lifelong learning to continually re-engage citizens who will need to refresh and update their skill sets for an ever-changing technology-driven world.
·      A 21st century innovation agenda for our commonwealth to serve as a magnet for entrepreneurs from around the globe.
·      Repositioning our public state colleges and universities to be the “go-to source” for continuing education for lifelong learning for future millennials, centennials and beyond.

            This re-confirmation of continuing education and outreach as part of the public mission of higher education is good to hear.   For well over a century, our land grant universities have been committed to public outreach and continuing education, dating back to the creation of Agricultural Extension in the late 19th century, when the nation needed to improve agricultural production in order to fuel the combined forces of  immigration and urbanization that were essential for the country’s success in the Industrial Revolution.  Throughout my career at Penn State—dating back to the late 1960s—a strong centralized continuing education function ensured that faculty across all disciplines could innovate without financial risk to develop research transfer conferences, training and development collaborations with employers, and adult education classes both on and off campus.  Programs like Management Development Services and the Pennsylvania Technical Assistance Program (PennTAP) regularly helped businesses across the Commonwealth to train their employees and to develop new capabilities.   Continuing education also meant extending the undergraduate and graduate degree programs to adults through evening and weekend courses and—through media ranging from correspondence study to television, satellite, and, today, online learning—to homes and worksites across the country and beyond.
            Today, while much attention has shifted to online delivery, there remains a need for more traditional continuing education formats that maintain the 19th century Agricultural Extension movement’s vision of the academic researcher working side-by-side with the farmer in his fields.  Ultimately, University outreach—whether it is traditional continuing education or technology-based outreach—must be multi-modal in order to best serve the needs of individuals and their communities.  Rob Wonderling’s call for a renewed commitment to lifelong learning reinforces the value of a strong centralized support system that helps faculty identify needs, find the program format that best respondsd to the need, and to deliver strong responses based in faculty research and teaching strengths across disciplines.