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What's Up with Higher Education?

The expression “If you can manage to stay around long enough people will mistakenly think you know what you’re talking about” is built on a simple belief. Being old equals knowing more, or at least more than the younger generation. Culturally bound to “educere” (Latin for “to lead out”) the elders believe it is their responsibility to lead younger generations out of their ignorance. This definitional responsibility, typically provided by schools and universities, results in common wisdom which sounds like this; “preparing students for tomorrow in today’s world”, “formal education is critical for succeeding in tomorrow’s world”, and “you’re lost without a degree”. Young people have long recognized the value of obtaining knowledge. In today’s world, thanks to technological advances, they also know how easy it is to access that knowledge.

Experience has Shown

The speed of this change challenges the role of educational institutions and begs the question of how they can remain relevant. Today’s educational needs seem to fly in the face of common wisdom. Successful young business leaders have leapfrogged over the higher education model. In addition, the business model is changing dramatically driven primarily by advances in technology. The needs and demands of business have changed and with it the workforce. Educating a new generation has less to do with knowledge and more to do with creativity and thoughtful application of information.

In a two-decade-old paper supported by the World Bank for the UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education (1998), Michael Gibbons talks about the “develop(ment) of structures which promote and reward group creativity”. He cautions higher education about their focus on memorization and individual performance at the expense of teaching people to be thoughtfully “creative”. He warns that overlooking this opportunity will challenge the very relevance of the institution.

Seemingly Irrelevant

Twenty years later we see prophetic fulfilment of the World Bank report. Too often the university model, instead of being a crucible of thought catalysing civil discussion, becomes a bastion against change. Plagued by ideologies, cultural morays, and parochial thinking leading to myopic strategies many have moved from being a facilitator of ideas to a purveyor of them. Wholesale adoption of every idea or ideology dilutes the value of the process and the relevance of the institution. The university model’s dismissal of systemic change has given the message that new competitors and new technologies are irrelevant. Consumers, however, understand that their success depends on obtaining the abilities and skills to discover their place in a knowledge society. Higher education’s danger in meeting this demand is that universities have new competition that has already adapted and adopted to the change.

Truth Arises

There are some bright spots that provide hope. The effects of technological changes apparently ignored are beginning to be reimagined in some higher education players. Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford, MIT, and California Institute of Technology are among those who have caught hold of the vision of a new relevance. These schools and others have, in whole or in specific program offerings, begun to understand they must not only be adept at producing knowledge but must also excel in what Gibbons calls “re-configuring” knowledge. Simply put, it is teaching people to think creatively and use knowledge to build solutions. We used to call that wisdom. For higher education to reclaim its relevancy this new wisdom must be adopted and abound.

“Experience has shown, and a true philosophy will always show, that a vast, perhaps the larger, portion of truth arises from the seemingly irrelevant.” (Edgar Allan Poe, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt)

An Allegory on the Illusion of Time - Paul Bond

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