Modern Education: Strategy Not Content
Modern education, as we have come to understand it at Columbia Pacific University, focuses on strategy rather than content. In our modern society, the tide of the information revolution is rising around us. Increasing waves of new technology, new literature, new media, new politics, new cross-cultural exposures, and new risks to the planet wash over us day by day. As educators and as students (that is, as self-educators) we must confront the reality that our society’s data load is overwhelming.
Interim responses within academia have been substantial, sometimes even heroic, but inadequate, for example:
- ‘back to basics’ (i.e. new content is irrelevant and transient),
- departmentalization (i.e. the right hand doesn’t need to know what the left hand is doing),
- specialization within departments (the index finger doesn’t need to know what the thumb is doing),
- longer schooling (the median time in graduate school to earn a doctorate in the humanities in 1987 was 8.4 years; in 1967 it was 5.5 years),
- adult and continuing education (part-time and off-campus students now outnumber full-time students in degree-granting institutions).
But the “Third Wave” (as Toffler puts it) is not merely one of quantity. Education’s response must involve a profound philosophical upheaval. We can no longer teach content. Our students will drown in it. We must teach thinking strategies which will enable them to swim in any ocean of data. As Dr. Richard Crews [president of Columbia Pacific University] said in a letter published by the Chronicle of Higher Education (Feb. 14, 1990, page B5):
The danger is that the content can obscure the first two goals, particularly when the content is (as it should be) fascinating in itself or used because it has a weight of traditional acceptance.
Latin was once an honored part of a liberal-arts curriculum. It was used because the grammar required orderly thinking. It also gave students more direct access to the rhetorical power of Cicero, the historical importance of Caesar, and the poetic eloquence of Ovid. However, unless the teacher was carefully conscious of priorities, the value of Latin grammar as a set of thinking tools was potentially obscured by the fascination and authoritative weight of the content.
Our awareness of the use of linguistic and semantic approaches to learning thinking skills has been broadened by studies in comparative linguistics, general semantics, generative grammar, and artificial intelligence. We have lost some of the innocence of classical scholars…
In modern higher education, students should learn several different kinds of general skills or competencies. They should learn academic protocol: how to connect their intellectual interests and activities with those of other scholars. This includes a range of information and skills from such broad concepts as understanding the traditional academic structure and compartmentalization of fields of knowledge down to such fine details as correct punctuation and spelling, and standard forms of footnotes and bibliographic citations. Academic protocol overlaps with a second general area of competencies: how to undertake intellectual research through a diversity of resources, employing a diversity of means, in pursuit of a diversity of goals. A third general area of competence again overlaps with the first two: the capacity to engage in independent study—self-motivated and self-designed. This is essential for the fourth general competency: the capacity (including organizational, motivational, and personally integrative) to engage in lifelong learning.
In addition to such generalizable intellectual skills, students should be equipped by their university education to pursue some specific field of interest, academically or vocationally. This involves the mastery of some field-specific body of concepts and data. Sources of such information in the modern world are many and varied. They encompass a wide range of subject matter and an extensive array of delivery systems. It would not be possible for a university to duplicate this vast and diverse array of content and delivery modes. Nor would it be proper for an institution to expect students either to restudy what they already know from other sources or to limit their studies to the specific resources that can be accumulated by a centralized institution. It is valuable for a university, in addition to providing basic courses, to serve organizing, evaluating, and certifying functions as students address the information resources in their particular fields.
CPU’s core curriculum is designed to provide the first, the general skills or competencies in academic protocol and independent intellectual research. Moreover, the curriculum steps are designed so that students entering with very different backgrounds and academic experiences can be accommodated effectively. Entering students must have good intellectual ability, be emotionally mature, and be self-motivated to achieve. With these basic personal abilities, they can embark on the curriculum from a wide variety of academic (and non-academic) foundations.
CPU’s curriculum is also designed to provide for a variety of individual fields of interest. For example, each of the core curriculum courses requires individualized content. Approximately half to two-thirds of the actual work of the introductory course MM311 (“Materials and Methods: Researching Information Resources and Developing a Learning Plan”) is specific content individualized to the student’s particular interest area. In addition, each student develops five learning contracts, one for each of five knowledge areas related to the student’s field of study. The knowledge areas are broad in scope so that each student can find personally relevant courses and topics within them. The knowledge area titled “Humanities” of the School of Arts and Sciences, for example, can involve studies in such diverse areas as language, literature, history, law, philosophy, archeology, and the history, criticism, theory, and practice of the arts. Similarly, the knowledge area called “Human Development” of the School of Health and Human Services can be focused on any of the many stages and processes in normal and abnormal human development from conception through senescence. At least half and as much as 100% of the work a student does to meet knowledge area requirements is specific and individualized to that student’s interests and academic needs. All in all, about one-third of the intellectual work toward a bachelor’s degree and two-thirds of that toward a graduate degree is field- or interest-specific, that is, individualized to suit the content needs of the individual student.
The “End of History” and the “New World Order”
This is not to say there are not problems. The path to the New World Order—if we can reach it—is fraught with distractions and dangers. The goals of peaceful international cooperation for higher living standards and freer creative self-expression for all humanity are not a foregone conclusion. Just as mismanagement of technology, especially when wedded with short-sighted megalomania and greed, can threaten our biosphere—kill our oceans, pollute our atmosphere, waste our land—so mismanagement of our other intellectual resources can cripple or abort the gestation of the New World Order and the birth of higher civilization goals.
No, the path we are on of world transition cannot be taken for granted. Its branching possibilities are numerous, deceitful, and tempting. We must keep broad perspectives and high goals in mind, never becoming parochial or constrained by limited vision or courage. Most importantly, the path toward the New World Order must always reflect and encourage an evolution of individuals. Personal freedoms and life enhancement must never be lost in images of groups and abstract principles.
Politics and the Future of Education
One very important question is often poorly addressed: as funds are allocated, it is crucial to define not only how much but how funds and efforts will be expended.
It is a tired truism that we live in a complex and rapidly changing world. What is not so word-worn and obvious is that this has two important implications for education. First, students (of all ages) must be equipped to deal with technological and social change. The challenge for education is no longer to teach children what the adult world is like and how to deal with it, but rather to teach children and adults how the world is changing and may change, what causes it to change, and how to adapt — personally, intellectually, vocationally — to new technologies and social forces. We can no longer be content to equip children for a ‘state’ of adulthood. We must equip everyone for a process of lifelong learning.
The second important implication of modern changes for education is that we have powerful new tools we can use in the service of teaching. Multiplication tables and slide rules have been replaced by pocket calculators and personal computers. These are not easier to use, they are different — and far more versatile. (By the way, let’s not fall for the common myth that “6 times 8 is 48, put down the 8 and carry the 4” is any more intrinsically intellectually worth knowing than “push the 6 button, push the * button, push the 8 button…”) The textbook and chalkboard have been supplemented by computer screens, data banks, and interactive software. The evening news, newspaper, and weekly reader have been supplemented by dramatic, second-by-second, live TV coverage of emerging events from around the world. Language and civics ‘classes’ have thus come alive. Science ‘classes’ have come to involve both playful and personally important changes day by day — in health, ecology, new inventions, new fundamental discoveries. ‘Classes’ in English composition and thinking skills involve new modes of communications, from FAX to fiberoptics, from computer languages to artificial intelligence. History and economics ‘classes’ (including home economics and job training) have taken on new, dynamic components.
Not only does education need to teach something different — that is, understanding the processes of technological and social change, and personal adaptation to change — but education has powerful new teaching tools. The real challenge for legislators and educators is to design an educational system which is attuned, both in content and in methods, to the modern world — one which breaks away from the traditional children-in-classroom, textbook-and-lecture modes; one which sees education as a lifelong process of adapting to new technologies and new social forces, and which makes use of the powerful new teaching tools with which our world is becoming filled.
One important question in the political arena is whether government should conduct or oversee educational institutions at all. The following quotations on this subject are from the journal Policy Review, Spring 1990 issue.
We need to desocialize America’s learning industry at every level from pre-school to graduate school.—John K. Andrews, Jr., president of the Independence Institute, Golden, CO
One reason many of our public schools are of low quality is that they are monopolies…Our schools need a healthy dose of competition.—Dick Armey, Republican Congressman from the 26th district of Texas.
The linchpin of education reform is not more federal dollars for education bureaucrats. It is choice.—Gary L. Bauer, president of the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.; formerly Undersecretary of EducationTwo of our most pressing national problems—international competitiveness and the tragedy of the underclass—are in large measure a result of our stagnant, bureaucratic educational system.—David Noaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.
The idea of ‘desocializing’ education is related to broader questions of government control in other areas. The following is quoted from an article titled “Antitrust: The Architecture of Competition” which appeared in U.S. News and World Report, July 16, 1990.
Laissez faire was the watchword of antitrust policy throughout the Reagan years—with one major exception. Propelled by the Supreme Court, the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission both preached that the law applies to professionals as well as to business. Last week, architects became the latest to learn this fact of life. The Justice Department sued the American Institute of Architects in an effort to stimulate competitive bidding and thus lower architectural fees. In a proposed settlement of a suit brought by the Justice Department, the AIA agreed to drop a proposed code of ethics that would have barred members from competitive bids, discounted fees, or free services. Architects traditionally have not competed on the basis of price but on their reputations and individual styles. The Justice Department and the AIA have been fencing over the issue for years.
The Court’s hard line dates from a 1975 case in which it concluded that Virginia lawyers’ fee schedules amounted to price fixing. Since then, the High Court has refused to buy arguments that actions undertaken ‘in the public interest’, such as limits on advertising or concern for quality, merit special consideration for professionals. The real question, as physicians, lawyers, dentists, pharmacists and engineers are finally learning, is whether their actions harm competition.