Monday, August 29, 2011

Tripping Down the Stairs of Higher Education

I have heard that the college experience transcends generations, that Powerpoint is the main difference between a Harvard freshman class in 1900 and a Harvard class today. My parents and I bonded over similar experiences. As a non-traditional (read: older) student though, I have always been acutely aware that in many ways my academic experience has been profoundly different than even that of those my own age.

Students now deal with the enormous lectures halls and the reviled clicker questions. The body of knowledge to learn and the competition for top grades seem to grow exponentially before our eyes.

Each generation, each class, seems to develop radical ideas that change the world and the way we learn. When our parents had few resources outside their professors and material libraries, we have virtual access to libraries and scholars across the world as well as instant access through sites like Pubmed and Biomed Central (among countless others) to cutting edge research. We can clarify any confusion we may have about lecture material from almost infinite sources during the lecture. There is a beauty in the changes that America has witnessed in higher education. It is incredibly exciting to be right there and witness new developments unfold.

For example, Einstein fundamentally changed the world of physics for future students like Richard Feynman who, in turn, amended it for the new generations. Lisa Randall is continuing this evolution for current and future scholars. The biochemistry that I learned last year is radically different that that I would have learned had I studied it with my high school classmates. When they were studying advanced biochemistry lab techniques, the human genome had not been completely mapped. Certain technologies, like gene sequencing, that were cost-prohibitive to even postgraduate research centers then are now common in undergraduate laboratories. I was able to witness the development of new approaches like the development and use of homing endonucleases to cut HIV DNA that already been inserted into the host chromosome. But despite seemingly vast differences, the feel of college is the same.

Students are taught in essentially the same manner. Though we see a growing trend of non-traditional early learning philosophies (e.g. Montessori), at the collegiate level, the lecture method grips the undergraduate world just as we see in favorite stories like Tom Brown’s Schooldays or Tales of St. Austin’s. We suffer the same 500 seat lecture halls that our parents did as freshman, and at the graduate level, the fierce defense of one’s dissertation to a critical examining panel echoes softly in the memories of Cambridge’s fierce Wrangler mathematical examinations. Both parents and children relate to and laugh at the antics of Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School.

The students themselves are essentially the same. Roger Ashcam who wrote The Schoolmaster, a treatise on proper teaching in the 1560s, claimed “Some wits, moderate enough by nature, be many times marred by overmuch study and the use of some sciences, namely, Music, Arithmetic, and Geometry. These sciences, as they sharpen men’s wits overmuch, so they change men’s manners oversore… Mark all mathematical heads, which be only and wholly bent to those sciences, how solitary they be themselves, how unfit to live with others…” We can assume had he known the future evolution of chemistry & physics, he would have also securely included their scholars. We can all see this truth today. Everyone, regardless of her age, can remember growing up with a Milhouse, Urkel or Screech.

We see in the structures of universities, their classic Georgian or Gothic architecture, a lingering look to the past. The traditions of Greek Life, though on the wane, still exist. Students are still proud of being a multi-generational legacy. Memories of college shared between generations are that of a place out of time: days that start late and nights that never end.

The substance of academia is in constant transformation but the experience of being there is fundamentally the same. Though some of those newly found ideas shake the foundations of our world, our experiences, those joys found in intellectual awakening and the contribution of ideas to the great body of knowledge, may be shared trans-generationally.

As Ronald J. Daniels told the most recent freshman class of John Hopkins University “So although universities are in one sense symbols of permanence, they are – owing to their devotion to ideas -- paradoxically incredible engines of change. They change science and art, history and philosophy – even our understanding of what it means to be human – by the ideas they generate.”

Why am I waxing poetic over the college experience? Having dined at the smorgasbord of learning delights, having been able to choose to study something in depth under the guidance of great scholars, I have recognized how important it was in the development, the maturation of my character. The pleasure I feel when I can go to an art museum with an (somewhat) educated eye or read something, understand and appreciate some of its underlying social, economic historical forces is indescribable. But it is more than that. I was a full-fledged adult with strong opinions and curiosity before I pursued my college education. Post-college, I can look back and recognize that my full-fledged status did not mean fully formed. I know that my thinking and opinion formation now is deeper and more critical than before and I hope (and expect) that as I continue on in my education, that I will grow keener and more thoughtful.

On a greater scale, education is the driving strength of the development of our culture and nation. We would not be able to compete in the global market without the innovation an educated population develops. Those symbols of permanence and engines of change are undeniably some of the greatest sources of the innovation required to keep our country one of the most enlightened and innovative nations in the world.

I know that certain medias’ portray ‘the educated elite’ as unnecessary and even threatening to ‘normal people’; I see the fundamentalists try to disparage and discredit scientists in their attempt to sell creationism over evolution and I always laughed at the silliness. I mean, all of the comforts in our life, the luxuries (food, clean water, electricity, medicine etc) that allow us to focus on things other than physical survival, are due to the innovations by the very people that are being discredited.

But there are increasing unhappy trends in our status as the innovative and educated nation that make it more difficult to laugh off silliness. For the first time, we are looking into a future whose children will be less educated than their parents. They'll be less educated in a world of growing education opportunities. As a population, we need more, not less, education to compete on the global stage. We need more education to evolve as a society. Last year, the United States fell to an international rank of eighteenth in secondary education. That is almost as low as an developed nation can fall. We seem to be losing our drive to become the strongest or we're using a warped meter stick to measure our progress. Whatever the cause of this educational downturn, I’m just saying that I probably won’t be dismissing any silly attitudes anymore.

*The statistics I cited are from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

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