Making Higher Education Relevant

The past few months have witnessed a proliferation of important news, from the earthquake and its aftermath in Japan, to the explosion of democracy in the Middle East, to the massive restructuring of the world economy. These are events worthy of historical study. Exciting and important things are taking place on a massive scale around us and it is well-neigh impossible to be up to date, or even well informed, about many of these events. Reading the latest issue of The Economist brought that point home to me. It also raised interesting questions about current affairs relevance and its relationship to higher education.

The Economist is not gospel. It is idiosyncratic, Anglocentric, problematic and overly fond of itself. The publication also does a reasonable job providing a reader an overview of world political and economic affairs with a more in-depth focus on some issue or issues. Whether reading about Indonesia at a crossroads (referenced in the Simpsons) the role of the state in this issue, it makes the world both small and knowable as well as extraordinarily complex and unknowable. Even though it is a magazine about world events, The Economist’s intent is fundamentally relevant in a real-time, global sense of the world. One might argue that the ability to pick up, read, and make sense of an issue of the magazine is a good indicator of a successful college education. The publication’s strength is not that it speaks only to experts in Brazilian banking and European telecommunication, but that it delivers both in a manner that speaks to a college educated person interested in the world.

Making a college education relevant is an oft-cited goal of institutions of higher learning. As colleges and universities wrestle with their big picture learning goals, “relevance” seems to gather appeal ever more. We have left the Ivory Tower and are a now engaged in the world, or so many of us within the academic quadrangle claim. Who could object to a relevant college education? No pointy-headed esoteric intellectuals here – we are all about connecting education with the world. Students want it, parents want it and I am all for it, too – a successful education should have some relevance the life of the person being educated. In practice, however, the goal of academic relevance leading to post-academic relevance is surprisingly elusive. Post college relevance- and I purposely avoid the term “real world” – lives on a different plane from much of academia. Bridging those realms is a daunting task.

A relevant, or pertinent education for many is its direct correlation with employment or the creation of wealth. Though not the aim of a liberal arts education, there is much to be said for an education that assists with employment and wealth creation. But educators are not trainers and higher education is not vocational. If it were, it would lose one of its more important functions: the creation of knowledge. We often elide the question by repackaging higher level learning goals as practical skills. Accordingly, institutional missions may speak of educating “global citizens” or outstanding “communicators.” A college educated person, we often claim, is a “life-long learner.” We often describe of college educated people as being more informed, more worldly, more aware of what they do and do not know.

Could an institution of higher education, committed to providing its students with a relevant, real-time awareness of the world, acknowledge or incorporate a publication like The Economist into curriculum or practice? How does one go about problematizing the scope, continuities, changes and interconnections in a publication with that broad a scope? And the scope matters dearly, for it is the very linkages and relationships that mark the higher level learning that is central to a college education.

Interestingly enough, our very structures in higher education work against teaching The Economist. Courses are grounded in single disciplines taught by single experts. Learning is usually organized into 15-week segments, though there is variation among the semesters, and it takes place in an environment that is planned and reviewed well in advance. Learning is vetted, too, so that outcomes can be measured and reported. Content in The Economist depends upon what is happening in the world. It cannot be scripted.

A further wrinkle is higher education’s reflexive unease with current affairs. We may see a teach-in here or there, but Google searches reveal few courses, save journalism courses that examine current affairs from a media perspective, that wrestle with current affairs.

Faculty are not encouraged to teach current affairs, either. From the current FOI of William Cronon’s email to McCarthyism on the campus, there is recurring distrust of faculty political leanings, which are left of center. It is very difficult to teach current affairs with integrity without engaging in it from a personal point of view. Faculty are aware of this. To overcome the structural challenges as well as the political issues, a faculty member would have to see a significant return on investment. To my eye, there is not much return on investment without substantial institutional support.

To be more successful, to be more relevant, we need to experiment within higher education to find new ways to engage students and faculty with current affairs. To avoid it, as we do now, neither serves our mission or our larger objectives.


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