As Andrew DelBarco, director of American studies at Columbia University, notes, most of the media discussion today tells us very little about “what a good college ought to be” and what we do (or should do) for students.
There is, for example, the potentially distracting conversation about the economic return of individual majors. In many ways, this is an entirely reasonable concern. College is a tremendously important investment of time and money, and thinking about the practical return should form some part of the decision. First-generation and immigrant students know this well from their families. My first degree was in chemistry because my parents and I were given the deeply practical advice: If there is anything else you can do other than music and be happy, do it. My mother was immensely relieved by this advice, and I was not given the opportunity to try a higher-risk major.
I’d like to think that the choice of major could balance economics, aptitude, and passion. I tell students that their major now matters less because so much of what they will need to learn for their career, they will have to learn later, anyway. One new study confirms that there is no difference in the critical-thinking stills of graduates from different majors. That is good news, and the authors also find that college increases critical thinking. They also find, however, that graduates’ critical-thinking skills have declined over the last 48 years, despite their increasing importance and a new emphasis on colleges teaching students these skills.
We clearly need to do better at improving critical thinking, but what other skills should a modern curriculum address?
Jobs that require both thinking and social skills are growing, and the combination of math plus social skills seem a great hedge against technology. (Would it be bad to include social skills as a part of general education?) There is clearly a social and public good in our graduates getting jobs. We want to prepare them for the future, and that surely includes both intangible qualities of life and the ability to be self-sufficient financially.
Jobs that require both thinking and social skills are growing, and the combination of math and social skills seems to be a great hedge against being replaced by technology. Here at Goucher, we want to prepare students for the future, and this surely includes both being able to enjoy life (as a well-rounded person) and the ability to be financially self-sufficient.
At Goucher, we are thinking about how to combine all of these ideas. We have already started a new required three-year writing program for all students and hope to follow this with a similar requirement in data analytics. We are also focused on relationships, resilience, and reflection (what we call our 3Rs). We want to improve the relationships and mentoring that are so critical for later success and workplace satisfaction.
All of these things intersect. As a parent, what I really want for my child is happiness, and that comes from both some workplace satisfaction, but also some (paid!) work. Can we design a curriculum that combines both the abstract and the practical, prepares both the head and soul, and ultimately delivers both happiness and a job? Is all of that possible? Is all of that our responsibility? U.S. colleges have always been aspirational, so we are going to keep trying to deliver on all of those promises.
The Internet is fundamentally disaggregated. There is more and more information on our phones every day, but Siri is not getting any smarter because she remains disaggregated: More and more pieces of information just mean more bits and bytes. Ultimately, content only becomes knowledge when it is combined with wisdom. Content has to be integrated within people and thinking minds, and this happens best in a community. College and our general-education curriculum have to be about more than content. Our real products are integrated and happy people who are voracious, self-regulated learners.