I posted the following as a comment on LinkedIn. It deals with both communication and higher education, and it affects our whole society–or does it? Am I right?

We [that is, college faculty] have had three basic roles since the time of Aristotle: information transfer, intellectual skills (i.e., critical thinking and context framing), and inspiration.

Many of our funding bodies (such as legislatures) have thought primarily of the first one. In the Internet age, if we believe our primary value lies in standing at the front of the room and passing on information, we are in serious trouble. Our students can find information cheaper and easier elsewhere.

Because we have failed to adequately communicate the purpose of college, our students fail to understand the need for the second one. It’s fine if they are mainly “here” to get a job, but they need to understand that the job comes as a side-effect. The primary purpose of college is to teach how to learn, how to think, how to frame problems, how to solve problems, how to work with other people, how to delay gratification, how to set goals and achieve them–in other words, how to be a more effectively functioning human being (and to document that achievement). That’s why employers require a degree, but except in engineering or medicine don’t care all that much what the degree is in.

The teacher is essential, first, in inspiring. Not just cheerleading, but arousing in the students a sense of the importance of the subject and where it fits in the “big picture.” The human teacher in interaction is critical in this, whether in face-to-face classes or online.

Information acquisition has been cheaper and easier for decades, at least since the advent of industrial printing presses. The Internet has only accelerated that. Students don’t fail because of a dearth of information; they fail because of a lack of skills for managing information, and a lack of desire to do so.

Therefore, nothing has really changed. We just now must realize it, and communicate that to our funding agencies and to our students. Otherwise, if they continue to think of us primarily in terms of information transfer, not only are we doomed, but so are our students and our cultures.

What do you think? Do you think college is about more than job training? Was that ever communicated to you?

Photo by Flickr user Ralph Daily.

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