A week before last, I visited Dalton State College in northwest Georgia. I had a chance to make two different presentations, meet with the academic leadership team, and see some of the campus. It was a great visit. There, like elsewhere, I found concern about the future, particularly with the impact of potential loss of funding and rapid changes in technology on the educational enterprise. Yet there was a real spirit among the faculty and administrators I talked with.
One of the most memorable moments of the day was during the second presentation when we were talking about the need for 21st century skills. I made the comment that in all of the surveys and reports from groups like the Business Roundtable, National Association of Manufacturers, Chamber of Commerce, and others about college graduates and workforce needs, there were few complaints about students’ content knowledge. For example, you don’t see in one of those reports or hear a comment like: “She simply doesn’t know enough biology” or “He doesn’t understand Accounting well enough.” Apparently employers feel like colleges are doing a good job of educating for content. Instead, the reports from employers express concern about the lack of skills needed for the modern workplace: working together collaboratively, working with people who are different from you, organizing to get something done, communicating effectively in spoken and written language, and skills like that (which, by the way, are also civic skills, challenging some who would say that we don’t have time to prepare people for careers and citizenship simultaneously). In the Q & A, I wondered if there were ways that our instruction could be organized to produce more results focused on these 21st century job skills.
A student in the audience raised his hand. He essentially said that he didn’t really need any expertise himself; he could simply hire talented people. He went on to say that he had been disappointed so far in his classes. He said something to the effect that nothing that he had learned would help him earn a dollar.
I took away two reflections from those comments, both that I’m still thinking about. The first was this student’s apparent rejection of concepts of expertise. I guess it’s easy to think that with content at your fingertips (literally), you don’t really have to know very much. Yet that’s a terrifying idea. Expertise, at least from my perspective, isn’t going away simply because I can find out things in a nanosecond. I think we’ll still need people with vast knowledge, and equally important, with perspective, nuance, and judgment. But in the networked world of the 21st century, solitary expertise will often, I suspect, give way to collaborative expertise. That’s why I think we must work extra hard to make sure that our students have knowledge and understanding, but equally important, also have the interaction skills to work in highly collaborative, networked environments.
The second thought I had was that this student reminded me of an important student perspective to keep in mind. Like so many others, this student sees education is very instrumental ways. For him, and countless others, students go to college to get a job. Given the increasingly high cost of college, maybe that’s not only understandable but necessary. The idea of learning for its joy, learning for learning’s sake, probably sounds pretty quaint to many. As we think about re-designing undergraduate education, I wonder if there’s a way to both honor a student perspective (one shared by many parents) about the need for career preparation, and yet help them move beyond that very narrow view of college.