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July 31, 2006

What will college be like in 2056?


Naomi Schaefer Riley, the deputy Taste editor of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), addressed this question in her July 21 "de gustibus" column.

Long story short: Remarking on the ever more fashionable tendency in American schools to teach skills such as synthesizing and analysis rather than old-fashioned factual knowledge and history, Ms. Riley wonders who will edit and express the results of those conclusions in clear, understandable language.

I predict that being able to write lucidly will be a guaranteed ticket to a nice lifestyle in 2056.

But then, I would say that, wouldn't I?

Here's the WSJ piece.

    The Future Will Be Different! Why Study?

    What will higher education look like in 50 years? If you weren't in Honolulu a couple of weeks ago, you might not know. Alas, I wasn't there either. But a glance at the panels of a conference convened there -- called "The Campus of the Future" -- offers a clue: College in the coming decades will have even less to do with learning than it does now.

    Of the conference's almost 200 offerings -- e.g., "Responding to Climate Change," "Branding Your Identity" and "Takin' It to the Streets" -- none seemed to have even a tangential relation to the idea that, in college, teachers are supposed to impart knowledge to students.

    The organizers, in their defense, are not academics and probably don't consider it their jobs to think about what goes on inside classrooms. (The sponsoring groups included the Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers and the National Association of College and University Business Officers.) But they were interested enough in classroom life to ask Thomas Friedman to lecture on the topic. The New York Times columnist obliged, offering his thoughts on what colleges can do to keep America competitive in a global economy.

    According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mr. Friedman "urged educators to focus less on concrete outcomes like grades and test scores and more on teaching students how to learn, instilling passion and curiosity in them and developing their intuitive skills." To anyone who has followed the rhetoric of educationists in recent years, these bromides will sound familiar. Suffice it to say that if colleges take up Mr. Friedman's suggestions, they will move further away from their academic mission, and the kind of student who thrives in a university environment will change.

    Mr. Friedman suggested to his audience of 4,000 that preparing students for an uncertain future was akin to "training for the Olympics without knowing which sport you will compete in." This blustery overstatement is also painfully familiar: Change is so rapid, we are told, that we can't even imagine what the future will look like. I recently found myself at a "career night" at my old high school in Worcester, Mass., where I heard ideas similar to Mr. Friedman's. An alumnus on my panel advised students that "the job [you] will hold probably doesn't even exist today."

    One has to wonder whether such claims will become, for students, an excuse for laziness. Remember the young Alvy Singer in Woody Allen's "Annie Hall"? Upon finding out that the universe will eventually come to an end, he decides to stop doing his homework. In such a way, students today -- hectored about the hyper-changing world they are in -- may decide that there is no point in traditional learning since the future will be so very different. Why read Gibbon when only "intuitive skills" are going to be worth anything?

    But for all the anxiety of education experts, it may well be that the skills that were useful to our parents and grandparents will be useful for years to come. People who edit Web sites, after all, still have to know grammar. Biologists who manipulate DNA still have to know the phases of meiosis. Businessmen -- who, Mr. Friedman suggests, now need to be "synthesizers," and "adaptors" -- still have to know how to calculate the bottom line. Even columnists may find that the history they learned in school comes in handy (though perhaps not often enough).

    A few years ago, David Brooks wrote a piece for the Atlantic called "The Organization Kid," in which he described the harried life of a college student today. At Princeton, Mr. Brooks recounted, he "asked several students to describe their daily schedules, and their replies sounded like a session of Future Workaholics of America: crew practice at dawn, classes in the morning, resident-adviser duty, lunch, study groups, classes in the afternoon, tutoring disadvantaged kids in Trenton, a cappella practice, dinner, study, science lab, prayer session, hit the StairMaster, study a few hours more."

    Perhaps, as Mr. Brooks concluded, students are amazingly diligent these days. Perhaps they are more serious about college than, say, the baby boomers were. But study after study has shown that less and less of their time is devoted to academics. It is given over instead to "leveraging," "synthesizing" and other Friedman-ite activities, often aided by handy electronic organizers.

    Some might say that a palm-piloted life is exactly what a young person will need for the 21st century. But not everyone is suited for it. We've been reading a lot recently about boys falling behind girls in school. You don't have to hang around teenagers for long to realize that girls are much bigger fans of to-do lists and neat calendars than boys. They are more adept at "multi-tasking," too. Meanwhile, boys throw themselves into one or two subjects, keep messy notes and need to be reminded where they have to be next.

    Some dean may chalk these proclivities up to immaturity, but there is a reason to value the kind of academic single-mindedness that male students often bring to an educational environment -- the kind of thing that pushes up those old-fashioned test scores. Even on the campus of the future.



And that's all I have to say about that.

Wait a minute — wrong picture....

July 31, 2006 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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When, and if, the calendar ever gets to 2056, I'm sure college will be very similar. People will drink, party, and go to class only when absolutely necessary.

Posted by: Shawn | Aug 5, 2006 6:10:51 PM

if you really want to know what the future will be, check out this self-interview featuring the futurist's futurist ray kurzweil. life as we know it will be very different. http://www.singularity.com/qanda.html

Posted by: rob | Jul 31, 2006 6:20:12 PM

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