The future of academia: thinking, wide and deep

The universities of tomorrow need to be places of both deep thought and wide connections.
Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard, thinks universities need to shake up their act. He says:

the world is changing very rapidly. Think social networking, gay marriage, stem cells. Yet undergraduate education changes remarkably little over time. With few exceptions, just as in the middle of the 20th century, students take four courses a term, each meeting for about three hours a week, usually with a teacher standing in front of the room. Students are evaluated on the basis of examination essays handwritten in blue books and relatively short research papers. Instructors are organized into departments, most of which bear the same names they did when the grandparents of today’s students were undergraduates. A vast majority of students still major in one or two disciplines centered on a particular department.
It may be that inertia is appropriate...Nonetheless, it is interesting to speculate: Suppose the educational system is drastically altered to reflect the structure of society and what we now understand about how people learn. How will what universities teach be different?

Here are his six hopes / predictions:

1) Education will be more about how to process and use information and less about imparting a world where the entire Library of Congress will soon be accessible on a mobile device with search procedures that are vastly better than any card catalog, factual mastery will become less and less important.
2) An inevitable consequence of the knowledge explosion is that tasks will be carried out with far more collaboration. As just one example, the fraction of economics papers that are co-authored has more than doubled in the 30 years that I have been an economist. More significant, collaboration is a much greater part of what workers do, what businesses do and what governments do. Yet the great preponderance of work a student does is done alone at every level in the educational system.

3) New technologies will profoundly alter the way knowledge is makes sense for students to watch video of the clearest calculus teacher or the most lucid analyst of the Revolutionary War rather than having thousands of separate efforts. Professors will have more time for direct discussion with students — not to mention the cost savings — and material will be better presented. In a 2008 survey of first- and second-year medical students at Harvard, those who used accelerated video lectures reported being more focused and learning more material faster than when they attended lectures in person.

4) Universities need to switch from passive learning to a more active, dynamic model...“Active learning classrooms” — which cluster students at tables, with furniture that can be rearranged and integrated technology — help professors interact with their students through the use of media and collaborative experiences. Still, with the capacity of modern information technology, there is much more that can be done to promote dynamic learning.

5) The educational experience will breed cosmopolitanism — students will have more international experiences, and classes in the social sciences will draw on examples from around the world.

6) Courses of study will place much more emphasis on the analysis of data. Of course, we’ll always learn from history. But the capacity for analysis beyond simple reflection has greatly increased (consider Gen. David Petraeus’s reliance on social science in preparing the army’s counterinsurgency manual).

Many of these changes are about opening academia up and making it more networked and digitally connected - so that students have access to the best lectures from around the world online, so that they work together more, so that they are more connected to other thinkers and cultures, so they are trained to locate and analyse the latest research and data. Is this a worrying vision: turning the students of tomorrow into vociferous informavores who process vast chunks of information like computers without necessarily taking any of it in? Where's the heart, the soul? Where's the humanity?
That's certainly the reaction of Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, a former professor of education at Harvard, who responded in the New York Times with a piece called
What Would Aristotle Think? He writes:

For economists like Mr. Summers, the education debate in America is simply about job skills, competition and getting ahead. Aristotle is turning in his grave! The idea of education as the foundation for an engaged, mindful, citizenry to intelligently deliberate and decide the pressing issues of the day is being ignored in today’s education debate. America’s preoccupation with whether our students are keeping up with their peers in Hong Kong, Shanghai and South Korea overlooks other fundamental purposes of education, confounding “doing well” economically with being fully and productively engaged with the world.

Stefan Collini from the University of Cambridge apparently argues a similar point in his new book on universities, where he warns that we're losing sight of the idea of a university as a public guardian of the best ideas. Instead, he says, the Browne report on higher education has put forward a vision of university as a economic marketplace where the student is consumer, and therefore king, and the universities tussle with each other to provide the most customer satisfaction. This is like turning schools into candy stores, he warns. It's not just about what students say they want. It's about what they ought to learn.
What we have here are two contrasting vision of the university. Summers' vision is of the university as networked digital experience built around the desires of the student and the requirements of the marketplace. Let's call this
the university as user-driven digital hub model.
The other vision is of universities as place of deep research, deep thinking, and as the guardian of the best and highest culture and learning. Let's call this the sacred groves of academe model.

Neither of these models are perfect. With the university as digital hub, thinking can become shallow and superficial. Deep thinking is replaced by the Twitter retweet. The latest fad gets all the funding, and both student and academic float along on the trending topics of the day, without the necessary distance, quiet, or solitude for deep and sustained thinking.
With the sacred groves of academia model, by contrast, deep and sustained thinking can degenerate into obtuse, over-specialised research that disappears up one particular alley. For example, I'm amazed how some academic classicists are completely unaware of how people are trying to follow ancient philosophy in modern life. They are astonished to hear there is any relationship between Stoicism and cognitive behavioural therapy, for example. They seem rather threatened when you tell them a bit about all the developments that are happening outside of their department. They are less the guardians of culture, and more like gargoyles, resisting any attempts to open academia up, to take it online, to make it more accessible and connected.

I think the university and the academic of the future needs to be able to think both wide and deep. They need to be informavores, able to network, make connections and keep track of the latest developments in other disciplines and cultures, and the ways their research touches other fields. But they also need to be able to disconnect from the tweeting crowd, to engage with the great thinking of the past, to think deeply and quietly.

One of the most popular courses at Harvard is Michael Sandel's course on Justice. That is a great model for the course of the future: it introduces students to some of the key philosophical approaches, it shows them how these ideas feed into contemporary real life situations, it draws students in and puts their own thinking and debating at the centre of the course, and it puts the whole experience online. Sandel is both a deep thinker, in his engagement with the great philosophers of the past, and a wide thinker, in his awareness of how these ideas feed into current affairs and modern concerns and his emphasis on student participation.
The pleasure students obviously take in Sandel's course show that there needn't be a conflict between teaching the greats and taking student satisfaction seriously. I think there is a huge student demand for great ideas and great culture that will enrich people's lives, not just make them more employable. Students want to be prepared for the marketplace, but they also want to be prepared for life. And if universities can't provide that, they will find other networks and organisations that can.

AcademiaJules EvansComment