Professors’ Take: The future of our children’s education

John Sides is a political science professor. Hatchet File Photo
John Sides is a political science professor. Hatchet File Photo

Higher education is ever-evolving – even professors will tell you so. The Hatchet’s opinions editors asked a series of professors what they’d like to their children and grandchildren to learn as they navigate through college. Here’s what they said:

John Sides in an associate professor of political science.

My children are 4 and 6 years old.  I want them to grow up thinking that their education is never finished. I want them to become avid readers and articulate writers. I want them to be fluent in a second language, whether that’s a language spoken in a foreign country, a computer programming language or what have you. I want them to be interested in lots of subjects, including ones they don’t actually have to study for a course requirement or a job.

I want them to love learning for its own sake.

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María J. de la Fuente is the director of the Spanish language program.

My daughter is going to college next year, so I’ve thought long and hard about what I want – and also what I don’t want – for her when she goes to college.

I don’t want her to learn the what. I want her to learn the how, when, where and, especially, why. I want her to think and reflect. I wall all her classes to be like that. So far, as a parent, I have done my very best to make sure that she gets that kind of education, either in school or at home. It is called critical thinking.

I also want her to continue to expand her knowledge of foreign languages and cultures, to be a true citizen of the world. Whatever she studies, I want her to leave college with the knowledge and ideas on how to solve a problem, or more than one problem, no matter how small it may seem, and with the motivation to do it.

I do not want her to waste four years of her life learning facts and little else. And I don’t want her to sit in a class where checking her e-mail or Tumblr is the most exciting part. I need professors who can challenge her to think critically, to work in a team, to have ideas, to defend them and to research them if needed. And also who can tell her “this is not enough.”

This is the college experience I would want for my daughter and everyone else. Anybody who leaves college with such a set of skills, knowledge and ideas will be successful in anything.

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Jeffrey Brand is an associate professor and the director of graduate studies in the philosophy department.

Why should an 18-year-old in the 21st century spend four years of her life studying history, philosophy, experimental psychology or any of the other arts, humanities and sciences?  Of course, some people find these disciplines inherently fascinating. I do. Studying liberal arts can enrich your life. It can make the world more interesting to you and enable you to hold more interesting conversations than you otherwise would.  It can make you into a more informed and responsible citizen.

But what about students who aren’t passionate about any of the liberal-arts disciplines?  Is it nonetheless wise for such students to major in one of these fields?  The typical student in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences may enjoy her major field of study, but she’s not destined to be a professor.

So what do the liberal arts offer this “typical” student?  We professors like to claim that liberal arts teach general-purpose skills such as “critical thinking” and “communication” – skills that ostensibly pay off in a wide range of (non-academic) careers.  But the next generation might demand that universities definitively isolate the elements of a liberal-arts education that return the greatest long-term value for typical students. Universities could identify these elements and incorporate them systematically into a new model of higher education.

The new model would give students what employers will actually require in the next 50 years, rather than fulfilling our self-congratulatory fantasy that we’re training the next generation of professors. For the most part, we’re not.  But we devote vast educational resources to an enterprise that gives students preliminary training for academic careers that almost no one actually pursues (historian, philosopher, experimental psychologist). Then we market that enterprise – liberal-arts education – to typical students on the basis of some apparently beneficial side-effects.

We professors love teaching history and philosophy and psychology, so we encourage students to study our beloved fields, hoping and claiming that doing so will help them in their careers as hospital administrators and advertising executives.

Maybe the whole system is backward. What if, instead, we figured out what cognitive skills the typical student really needs to acquire? We could focus on imparting those. I don’t mean vocation-specific training. That already exists. I mean researching which elements of liberal-arts education translate into versatile career skills and then concentrating our efforts on those elements.

The new model might be less inspiring for us as professors, but given the exploding cost of higher education, perhaps the next generation will demand it of us. Perhaps they should.

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Ted Barnhill is a professor of finance.

My wife Marge and I obsessed about our three children’s education.  Eventually they told us to bug out, and they did their own thing. They are now a medical doctor, architect and philosopher.  Now, we think a lot about our seven grandchildren’s education.  My hope is that they will be creative, productive, informed, engaged, prosperous and happy. Initially, my hope is that they be educated broadly with an understanding of:

1. Cosmology, including the scope and the origins of the universe (13.8 billion years +/-)

2. Evolutionary biology (3.6 billion years +/- of life on earth)

3. Sociology/psychology (individual and group behavior)

4. Philosophy (ethics, individuals and society, religion)

5. Political science (alternative political systems, coalition politics, propaganda)

6. Economics (classical economics, and the current globalization of the economy)

7. Natural sciences

8. Mathematics

9. History (including economic history of the successes and failures of various types of political/economic systems including democracies, socialism, communism, capitalism, fascism, monarchies, etc.)

10. English/literature

My hope is that my grandchildren will come to understand that the world is in the process of absorbing billions of previously economically marginal individuals into the global economy.  This process is redistributing jobs, income and wealth around the world. At the national level, prosperity is determined by productivity which is driven by technology, capital investment, people, management and efficiency. At the individual level, productivity and prosperity are often driven by skills acquired through education and training. Many less well educated people in most countries will be poor.

At some point if they are to be prosperous my grandchildren will need to either:

1. Become a successful professional (doctor, lawyer, engineer, educator, architect, researcher, manager, government employee, etc.)

2. Own and potentially run businesses

3. Create, own and potentially run businesses

4. Invest savings wisely

5. Become a very good poker player

6. Marry money

7. Win the lottery.

Good professional educations, an awareness of global opportunities, perhaps a little entrepreneurial spirit and support from parents and grandparents will be very important.

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