“What is wrong with higher education? How will technology transform it? What new direction will it take in these difficult times?” I often hear such questions, from both inside and outside the academy. Such questions deserve answers, of course, but they raise another question, one seldom asked: What is college for? This, too, deserves attention, for if we do not agree on the destination of the enterprise, we are probably not going to agree on the route or the proper mode of transportation. Change is afoot and inevitable. The point is whether it will be made wisely, and with a clear goal.
The confusion has been magnified not only by a basic failure to understand the goals of education, but also by the extraordinary complexity and variety of the project. Higher education is not a single industry producing a single “product,” but an extremely varied enterprise, with more than 4,000 institutions doing different things in different ways, with different ends in mind. The confusion shows up in the debates about whether technology (specifically, distance learning) will “save” us. As the recent events at the University of Virginia demonstrate, even governing boards can manifest a surprising naïveté about technology as the answer.
Of course, technology will play a prominent role in the continuing evolution of the academy, but it will not provide the comprehensive solution that many expect. This is so not because faculty members oppose technology—indeed, many embrace it with enthusiasm. But there is resistance for good reason. Many faculty, even those who embrace it, understand its limitations. Some things technology does with astonishing success. Some things it does poorly. Astute educators recognize the difference.
Consider the residential college in the landscape of higher education. It is a unique model that will not soon go out of style, if the surge in applications at the best of them tells us anything. There are several reasons for this confident future. Most of all, the residential-college model will flourish because it is grounded in the way human beings function. People are social creatures who best mature intellectually in a particular social environment. At the center of an effective educational system is a vibrant community in which learners not only think together but also engage in learning practices together.
This is something Plato, Aristotle, and Jesus understood. It was adopted by monasteries and cathedral schools in the Middle Ages. It was modified at Oxford and Cambridge (each university actually a collection of discrete learning communities, called colleges), and eventually taken up by hundreds of American colleges and universities, beginning with Harvard.
Despite the considerable differences among all those institutions, one idea binds them together: the understanding that reflection and practice together are the best pedagogy. As Andrew Delbanco puts it in College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be: “Learning is a collaborative rather than a solitary process.”
Of course, technology plays a prominent role in the continuing evolution of colleges. Computers will enhance learning, but they will never replace the profoundly personal dimension in deep learning.
The degree to which we believe that physical presence is important to learning will influence our answer to “What is college for?” If we decide that college is simply an instrument to transfer objective data from one brain to another, without serious reflection on the big questions of life, or if we think essential knowledge can be reduced to a set of easily digested facts, then modes of delivery are not especially important. A “just the facts, ma’am” course of study hardly requires a person on the delivery end.
However, if we accept the wisdom of the philosopher and chemist Michael Polanyi, that all knowledge, even scientific knowledge, is personal—involving the passion and heart of the knower and not just the facts about the known—then personal engagement becomes critical. If a life—a soul—is to be formed, if college is about reflection, exploration, discovery, and self-discovery, then engagement with a mentor or guide in a lively community of learning is essential. Something akin to Socratic dialogue will be prominent.
After millennia of experimentation, we know a great deal about how people learn. We know that the best learning involves practices—lots of them. We know that effective learning is best achieved through the engagement of other deeply attentive human beings. The learning might occur in a traditional classroom, but it might happen in a different space: a lab, a mountain stream, an international campus, a cafeteria, a residence hall, a basketball court.
No PowerPoint presentation or elegant online lecture can make up for the surprise, the frisson, the spontaneous give-and-take of a spirited, open-ended dialogue with another person. Hannah Arendt was correct: “For excellence, the presence of others is always required.”
As an educator, I take seriously the current complaints about the academy. Anything as sprawling and complex as higher education means that something, somewhere, is being done poorly or flat wrong. Too many professors, schooled in the finest research universities in the world, have learned to scorn teaching and even to view undergraduates as impediments to their professional advancement. Others have forgotten, or even scoff at, the idea of holistic, transformative, values-based education. Too many students never get a chance to know a caring professor personally.
No wonder some people think that education can be standardized, easily packaged, and cheaply distributed. No wonder taxpayers are less willing to finance the enterprise. As in Hamlet, we are hoist with our own petard.
Throughout America, though, in thousands of classrooms and labs, in fieldwork or over lunch, students continue to be transformed by caring master teachers. We must celebrate and support these successes. The residential-college model is uniquely effective in changing lives. It was so in 1636, when Harvard was founded. It will be so in 2037, when my university celebrates its centennial, and it will be long after, if we tell our story well and remain faithful to the vision of personal learning.