Last Friday’s excellent symposium, “Higher-Ed in the Crosshairs,” examined some of the most relevant issues facing our community. What is the value of a university education? How does the university confront changes in technology and the demands of an evolving twenty-first century work force? How can university teaching respond dynamically to the ways modern students communicate, process information, and learn?
For me, the most striking of these questions had to do with arguments for our continued relevance in a digital world. It reminded me of a recent conversation with a young family member who has chosen not to attend college. “Why should I spend thousands of dollars on a college degree,” he asked me, “when I can learn anything I want to know on the Internet for free?”
I’ll confess, even as a graduate student a year away from a Ph.D. and (hopefully, some day) a university teaching position, this question gave me pause. I’m sure we’ve all heard a variant of this argument, but here’s the thing: this time, it was coming from someone who is an ideal candidate for university education. He is intellectually curious, reads voraciously, finds great pleasure in mastering something new, and already thinks critically about the world he confronts on a daily basis. He obviously views the university’s mission as we do: not as mere vocational training, but as an immersion in ideas and modes of thinking that prepare you for membership in professional and civic communities. He just doesn’t see this immersion as the exclusive property of higher education. If this kid doesn’t want to go to college, I thought, we’re doomed.
So, you can imagine my relief and delight when this exact issue came up on Friday. The answer to this objection, eloquently provided by Marc Christensen, Dean of the Lyle School of Engineering, is–wait for it–good teaching: “The value of an educational experience is maximized with a sage and pupil working together, grappling with the material and practicing their craft. The connected experience of teachers and students engaging together is what education is all about.”
I realized while listening to Dean Christensen that I can only talk about the value of my own undergraduate and postgraduate education in terms of the ‘sages’ who have taken me as their ‘pupil.’ As an English major, I could have read all those books by myself over the last ten years, but I would never have learned how to grapple with them without the mentorship of my professors. That is the value that I want to add to my students’ college experience. As Christensen said in perhaps the most-tweeted moment of the entire day, “At SMU we should never choose to compete in the marginal value of content delivery; we simply cannot win that game. We will never be the deep discount big box purveyor of pedagogy. Instead we must focus on the high value experience our constituents demand. That is what we can be truly great at, and it is what most of us went into teaching to do: engaged learning in the classroom.”
Of course, this leaves my young friend’s point about cost unaddressed–and his point is a good one. We should continue to do what we can to ensure that the sage-and-pupil experience isn’t the privilege of the few. What this argument about engaged teaching does demonstrate, however, is that we can point to something other than earning potential as the return on a student’s investment. If we could reframe the conversation about higher ed in these terms, the university wouldn’t need to justify its existence. If we could consistently create this kind of value, our students would justify it for us.