Edu-shmay-tion part 2: A Great Speech

They say that Lincoln was an ineffectual public speaker. His voice cracked and was high-pitched—it did not match his tall, imposing physical presence. Were he to have delivered The Gettysburg Address over the television from the Oval Office, cable news and instant public polling may have panned the speech. But, luckily for Abe, he led during an era when communication skills and effective oral rhetoric were not a necessary entry point into popular politics.

The King’s Speech was a reminder that in the “Television Age,” the style of communication may determine a leader’s reception more than the content. And so, I wish I could share with you the audio of a speech I heard last Thursday by Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, President Emeritus of George Washington University.

Trachtenberg with fmr. Pakistani President Musharraf

He wore a bow-tie and stood with his hands forward, nearly outstretched, on the podium. The crowd was rapt, and his delivery was spot on. He paused at the right moments, injected a balance of humor and emotional appeals, data and anecdote. The topic of his speech was “How to Innovate the Higher Education Role in the New Global Knowledge-Based Society?” and despite being in the sunset of his life and leading an established college for two decades, his views were surprisingly forward-looking, surprisingly innovative. In lieu of you actually being able to hear the speech yourself, I typed up the speech as he delivered it word for word. Enjoy. (Oh, and if this inspires you to work on your own rhetorical skills, there is a series right now on the Art of Manliness website on Classical rhetoric here and here. The site is far less chauvinistic than it sounds.)

I thank my colleagues for the opportunity to work with them, and all of you for joining us. President Shirai deserves our congratulations for framing our discussion and for his emphasis on global understanding and regional cooperation.

Everyday brings us fresh news that emphasizes the need for greater knowledge and understanding of the successes and challenges other nations are facing and their ineluctable implications for our own nations.

I have the privilege of serving on the board of a foundation in Spain that is wrestling with a cultural challenge that you may recognize. 80% of the university graduates in Spain, given their choice of an ideal job after graduation, would like to be a civil servant in a location close to where their family presently lives.  They don’t want to move, and they do not want to start up businesses of their own in a garage and try to grow and become the next Bill Gates. The bank that created this foundation in Madrid is concerned that this is bad for the population of Spain. Having 80% of the population work for the government will not work, and having a culture in which people do not want to relocate for new job opportunities from one side of the country to another, that do not want to leave their own village, is a problem as well.

Interestingly enough, the problem is not unique to Spain. The Italians have a similar challenge. It is surprising for an American, because we are a country of nomads. I have two sons: one lives in Silicon Valley and works in the computer business, and the second lives in Missouri where he is a professor at the University of Missouri. Each of them has a son, but they are not of consequence yet. I am thrilled for these two sons, but they cause me great anguish. When I want to see my grandkids, I must take a plane ride and fly to San Francisco or fly to St. Louis. Why did these two boys move away from me?

They claim that it is not because they do not like me; that they have moved for opportunities that they could not get other places. I know this is true, because my professor son interviewed at 18 universities, many of which were closer but did not make an offer.  Many of the universities that he interviewed at were closer, but they did not make an offer. The rats. The son from Silicon Valley went there because it had a combination of opportunities uniquely suited for his intellectual and professional interests. To come to Spain and discover that the sons were not willing to move away from the fathers is a testament for the fathers, but a challenge for the Spanish economy.

This is increasingly a challenge for the 21st century. Those of us in higher education are tasked to address it. All of us in university life share a deep-rooted belief that we are the intellectual heirs of the best that has been taught and said  not just by those in the academy, but by those that practice governance and states-menship as well. We believe as well that the legacy we hold in common will encourage us and our students to be responsible citizens of the world and of our nations. But higher education is not homogeneous; neither is access to its rigors and benefits. We have no common curriculum; no universal lists of important readings and experiments. We have physical plants ranging from temples and tents. I would not argue for a universal curriculum or a worldwide curriculum, nor would I contend that anyone person can write a list of readings that would be definitive for an educated man or woman.

But there are a few things we hold in common: a set of expectations for the outcomes of education. We expect our students to read and write and calculate with fluency and perhaps even with grace; that they will be capable of critical thought; that their moral horizons have expanded and they will be better citizens of our respective countries and of the global community because of what they gained in our classrooms; that their tolerance has increased with their knowledge; that they will be eager and enlightened participants in a civil society and a civic discourse; that they will engage in political activity for the benefit of others.

We hold in common that they will be educated at a level that allows them to contribute to the solutions of domestic and global problems, all of which require not particular facts, but an understanding of contemporary science and technology and to recognize the contributions that a variety of disciplines will contribute to generating meaningful work for everyone; for ensuring that disputes between nations will be settled peacefully; and for understanding that our explanations of the solar system and the depths of the ocean are more than scientific and engineering curiosities. This is an ambitious agenda for higher education, but would we want one that is willing to settle for less?

In the United States, higher education has at last recognized that even our most venerable institutions are facing a crisis, not simply one of insufficient financial resources, but one of becoming complacent in our successes. New technology has shown that mastery and expertise and the acquisition of skills can be acquired not just through the traditional bricks and mortar classrooms, but through well-designed distance and online learning. We have learned from psychologists and biologists and physiologists about learning styles and the best way to construct those.

It is worth asking why we teach so many of our courses in the format in which we are sitting today. Before there was movable type, a professor had his lectures and those lectures combined represented a book. The way the professor transferred the book to the students was by lecturing. The students sat as you sit and took notes, and by the end of the course the professor had the book. The professor had transferred his book to the students through his mouth, their ears, and their notes. But then, movable type was invented. You would have thought that with the invention of movable type, the classrooms would disappear.

But no.

Books were expensive in the beginning, so they were often chained to desks in libraries at the beginning. Today, we have gone beyond that. We can give people books for modest amounts of money if we wish and indeed we have had cheap books for a long time. But the lecture has not disappeared. Today we have the Kindle. You can give somebody 200 books on a small, electronic tablet. Surely that means that the classroom will disappear? No. I do not know of a single university that is not building more classrooms.

Now, there have been predictions that the place-based university will disappear. I disagree. I disagree because, and this is a personal observation, but 17-year-olds are very annoying people. Parents, therefore, are pleased to pay lots of money to have an explanation to send away young people. In the United States, we do the same for older people. We send them to nursing homes. We have nursing homes over here and universities over there, and the population is liberated from the old and the young.

But, some are not able to go to the university. It is inevitable that the university will come to those who are unable to go to the university. Online universities are currently walking like a baby, but they will soon walk like an adult and eventually, they will run. We will see more education delivered through computers and other electronic universities. We will see students moving from class-to-class and at home. Students from GWU will be able to take a course at Waseda [University in Japan]. The other day, through Skype, I had a conversation with my 2-year-old grandchild. I saw him as clearly as I see you. I heard him. He heard me. He could have been a professor; I could have been a student; and we could have had a class. We have that kind of technology today. That sort of change is inevitable.

International education will make it possible for students in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Rio de Janeiro, New York, and Washington, DC will take a class at the same time with the same professor and an international dialogue. This will be transformational. It will allow internationalization without travel. It will allow language study with authentic speakers without moving from country to country and continent to continent. New technologies have shown us that mastery of information can be acquired in a variety of ways not simply in the traditional campuses of bricks and mortar. We have discovered that virtual campuses can deliver much of the opportunities, though not all, that resident campuses provide. We have opened up the world’s libraries and journals online. We have recognized that learning continues throughout life, and that throughout our lives, there is more and more to learn whether in philosophy and history, or in the social sciences and hard sciences as well.

Our heirs will need to renew their learning constantly as they move throughout their lives. Lawyers and doctors constantly must refresh their knowledge to remain contemporary and cutting-edge. We require continuing education for professions; we need to do that as well for every area of human endeavor. We need to understand that not all that must be learned can be vouchsafed in a degree. Some can be demonstrated for certificates of accomplishment. We are learning to challenge some constructs in the United States, for example, that programs do not always have to take place in a 4-year period; it could be possible to give a bachelors degree in 2 or 3 years; a law degree in 2 years; a medical degree in 3 years.

It may be worth a moment of history here.

Henry Dunster came to the United States to be the President of Harvard. In 1636 when he came from Cambridge, it took 4 years to earn a B.A. at Cambridge. So, when he came to Harvard, he established a four-year bachelors program at Harvard. In 1639, three years after Dunster came, Cambridge changed the Bachelor of Arts to three years. Had Dunster come three years later, Harvard would have had a three-year degree program and all other American universities subsequently founded that use Harvard as their North Star would have had three-year degree programs. We would have save thousands of years of university years.

That issue is now under examination. There are more and more universities that are questioning why it takes four years baccalaureate and four additional years medical to earn a degree. Some people are backing up and asking whether or not this could be accomplished in 7 years. We are doing that at George Washington, and may I say: the graduates are astounding. In fact, you cannot tell the 7-year and 8-year students apart.

May I ask a question: when you get a calendar each year, you go through it and see twelve months. but in the University calendar, why has somebody stolen May, June, July, and August? I think universities are going to asking why they are not running twelve months a year. The physical plant of George Washington University is worth several billion dollars. Is there any industry that would have a capital facility worth billions of dollars that would lay fallow for four months of the year? And the week: why does it begin on Monday and end on Thursday? What about Friday and Saturday? I’ll give you Sunday. The Lord rested for one day, so I’ll give you Sunday.

When I went to university, not all that long ago, we went to school all day on Friday and half-day on Saturday. That has all-but disappeared now in American universities. I think it will be restored in my lifetime.

Now, I do not want to argue that training and developing a specific set of skills is the primary goal of higher education. It is important, but it is equally important to develop intellectual and moral abilities. What we want are people with trained hands, minds, and hearts. The hearts are every bit as important as the minds and the hands. Knowledge by itself has the capacity for evil. What we are trying to train are people who will add value for our societies. We should not allow our universities to become trade schools. We must insist that universities develop supple minds, empathetic hearts, a harness for new educational technologies, and new understanding capabilities and serious thoughts.

If I knew all the answers, I would be happy to provide them with you today. But I hope you would agree that asking the right questions is the necessary first step.

I am honored to be in the company of colleagues who have set us on that path. I thank you for your attention.

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