My generation of teachers was jolted from complacency by war and its aftermath, not the patriotic war of our childhood, but a war full of ambiguity. It called into question all our comfortable assumptions about the United States' moral superiority and the social value of our lives as practitioners and advocates of proper punctuation.
We saw our students, good and bad, leave our classrooms for the jungles of
Vietnam or Haight-Ashbury, for death or drugs. And we inevitably questioned the importance of drumming into their heads the iambic pentameter of Alexander Pope - it didn't seem to help.As professors mourned the diminished importance of their life's work in the view of a disaffected public - and in their own eyes - low faculty morale and administrative lethargy descended on our campuses. Searching experimentation and harsh questioning of pedagogical traditions precipitated despair, fatigue, then resignation. We offered students free or almost free course selection - how could we say that we knew better than they?
Then came the epidemic growth of professional and technological education at the expense of traditional liberal arts, the erosion of humanistic study, precipitated by a marketplace mentality as field vied with field, college with
college for enrollments that translated into dollars in the budget.
We pretended to be engaged in a business enterprise, talked money and FTEs (full time equivalents - two part-time students can equal one FTE), became absorbed in the economics of universities. Departments competed for students and funding, and we settled curricular matters on economic and political grounds.
Our cynicism deepened, our malaise lingered. Young faculty entered a demoralized profession, with rising promotion and tenure standards and diminished joie de vivre.
We may yearn for those simple days when teachers were awesome and the library represented the possibility of comprehensive learning. But we cannot ignore the fact that we have immediate need to prepare students for a vastly different world.
First, we must admit that the problems are enormous: dropout rates are appalling; grade inflation has not disappeared; neither teachers nor employers believe students graduate well educated. We constantly hear that U.S. graduates can't write, to everyone's despair (punctuation is not even expected); they don't speak well; they're not logical in problem solving; they have no ethical training.
They lack the cultural commonality that was embodied in gaining a common core of knowledge of literature, philosophy, art. They have lost their sense of history, the collective memory that binds a civilization. And either they lack motivation and drive or they are only motivated for personal gain.
Even if the depressing statistics are true in general I have the evidence that energy, intelligence, and strong motivation still exist.
I see four issues as centrally important ones: satisfactory incorporation of new delivery systems into the learning process, internationalizing education, integrating the needs for general and professional learning, and developing active community relationships to broaden our vision.
We are engaged in the most drastic change in the processing of knowledge since the discovery of movable type. The very nature of knowledge has changed. What once seemed permanent, encased in those reassuring volumes, now seems transitory and perhaps illusory. Multiplicities of facts will appear on a screen at the touch of a button, but only to be replaced by tomorrow's updated versions.
Information is fragmented and perhaps trivialized by virtue of its ready retrieval and the rapidity with which it multiplies. The concept of knowledge shifts to the utilization of databanks, with the implication of adding to and subtracting from the accounts therein. Indeed no one any longer has the
illusion that today's last word on a subject won't be supplanted by tomorrow's.
In teaching our students to use computers well we must keep in mind that a question is not important just because a computer can answer it. Computers can limit the imagination as well as expand knowledge. We must not be so captivated by new technological possibilities that we forget that the most important part of learning is forming important questions. We must teach our students to impose their priorities on the machine.
Secondly, we must abandon the notion that we are preparing a homogeneous body of students to live and work in the relative isolation of the United States. Our student body comprises a far richer and more diversified mix than it was our privilege to know in past decades. By the turn of the century the majority of U.S. college students will be people we now call minorities.
We will have two major new responsibilities: to provide immigrant and minority students with a cultural familiarity that extends far beyond teaching English as a second language and to provide for those students who only know U.S. life the kind of global understanding of other cultures essential for the political and economic well being of our nation.
As we need to forge connections between U.S. culture and other civilizations, so we need to make connections between various elements of the curriculum. We must go beyond the seeming conflicts between liberal and professional learning and reveal the ways in which they complement and reinforce one another.
Over the last two decades, a growing perception that the purpose of a
college degree is an entry level job has pervaded public thought. Liberal arts have been perceived as an anachronistic holdover from times past.
That view is beginning to change. Now we must design curricula that will preserve the integrity of liberal arts education while challenging students to prepare for a full career and a full life.
We need to think in more serious ways about breaking down the barriers between disciplines. The curriculum primarily follows traditional departmental lines, although much of the most exciting research today occurs in the interstices between traditional fields - biochemistry, for example; linguistics with its strong ties to cognitive science and work on artificial intelligence; or the merging interests of geography, sociology, and urban studies.
To break out of the old patterns, we will need to look at the curriculum in new ways. For that we need to put different groups of people together. We need new vitality, new approaches to the future - that means not only interdisciplinary planning but also closer work with the community.
Admittedly, there has been reluctance on the part of faculty to open discussion of curricular matters to "outsiders." But in preserving academic freedom, we have tended to become insular and isolated.
The Queens College corporate advisory board, which brings together faculty with corporate and cultural leaders to consider new ideas for innovative curricula, is practically unique in college life. It is one of many efforts that we will make. In looking toward expanding curricula in East Asian studies, for example, we are talking with Chinese, Korean, and Japanese leaders. We need the kind of rich cross-fertilization that such open discussions can foster. And our community needs the kind of outstanding graduates that we can educate.
So in many ways, my message is, as E.M. Foster said, "only connect." We must conceptualize our mission to embrace all our goals in a meaningful and forceful way.