Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"Pole-pole," not "hakuna matata," in Higher Education

"Pole-pole" was one of the first Swahili phrases that we--the group I was with--were advised to understand during our three-weeks as volunteer-tourists in Tanzania.  A phrase that suggests taking things slowly, to ease up, not to get all wound up, not to rush.  It was important that we Americans understood this, and approached our daily interactions with Tanzanians that way, given the American drive to get things done.  We had to ditch the favored "chop-chop" attitude in favor of "pole-pole."

Even I had problems downshifting to "pole-pole" despite my unhurried approach to many aspects of life.  As much as I quote Rumi and wonder why we hurry, I found the "pole-pole" life way too slooooooow.

I suppose I have my own speed in life.  I found the Tanzanian life to be slow, while my daughter thinks, even gets annoyed sometimes, that I take the longest time to complete a thought, a sentence!  The good thing, at least according to me, is that I don't force others to speed up to my pace, nor do I nag them to slow down to mine.

But, there is one aspect of life where I believe we are messed up with our excessive speed: education.
[Educators] are responsible for teaching students how to think critically and creatively about the values that guide their lives and inform society as a whole.
That cannot be done quickly—it will take the time that too many people think they do not have.
Acceleration is unsustainable. Eventually, speed kills.
Indeed! I agree with Mark Taylor, who is at Columbia, without any reservations whatsoever.

Instead of taking the time to educate, we are incorrectly focused on a whole bunch of messed-up priorities.  (No, this post is not about the wasteful spending on athletics, or on frivolous courses, or ...)
 People often ask me how higher education and students have changed in the four decades I have been teaching. While there is no simple answer, the most important changes can be organized under five headings: hyperspecialization, quantification, distraction, acceleration, and vocationalization.
Yes, from the faculty side of teaching and learning, hyperspecialization--even at undergraduate education--has been awful!
Since the early 1970s, higher education has suffered from increasing specialization and, correspondingly, excessive professionalization. That has created a culture of expertise in which scholars, who know more and more about less and less, spend their professional lives talking to other scholars with similar interests who have little interest in the world around them. This development has led to the increasing fragmentation of disciplines, departments, and curricula. The problem is not only that far too many teachers and students don’t connect the dots, they don’t even know what dots need to be connected.
I like how Taylor puts it: "they don’t even know what dots need to be connected."  The "they" includes teachers too.

Students and their parents, and taxpayers, have a twisted notion that higher education is about vocational training.  Many of these are the same people who oppose vocational education in high schools, and yet want to approach higher education as if it is a trade school!  As Taylor notes:
[It] reflects a serious misunderstanding of what is practical and impractical, as well as the confusion between the practical and the vocational. As the American Academy of Arts and Sciences report on the humanities and social sciences, "The Heart of the Matter," insists, the humanities and liberal arts have never been more important than in today’s globalized world. Education focused on STEM disciplines is not enough—to survive and perhaps even thrive in the 21st century, students need to study religion, philosophy, art, languages, literature, and history. Young people must learn that memory cannot be outsourced to machines, and short-term solutions to long-term problems are never enough. 
If only I knew how to practice the more famous Swahili phrase, "hakuna matata!"



Ramesh said...

An intriguing post which covers a number of new areas despite your prodigious posting on the topic of higher education.

I am fascinated by the five headings of changes that you have quoted from Mark Taylor. They are so interesting that I would suggest they each deserve a post. Four of them completely resonate with me; the only one that doesn't is acceleration - which is the theme of this post !

I actually thing education has slowed down considerably because of the other four changes, especially hyperspecialisation. I know a friend who is taking five years to complete a PhD on the life of butterflies in the Western Ghats. I have another friend who is also doing a PhD and at the end of two years he has not even formulated his research topic. On one hand, yes, education and thought are slow processes, are lifelong pursuits and cannot be rushed along. On the other hand, to a layman outsider like me, higher education, especially the PhD and post PhD processes seem to be at glacial pace.

Strongly suggest separate posts with your perspectives on each of those five mega changes. Would be interesting to non professional educators too. Like me !!

Anne in Salem said...

Is vocationalization even a word???

Sriram Khé said...

As for "vocationalization," Anne, in the immortal words of Thomas Jefferson, “Necessity obliges us to neologize.” ;)

Ramesh, a discussion of higher education by itself is usually only about the undergraduate education, which is also why Taylor refers to STEM (science, engineering, technology, math) and the humanities and the social sciences ... It is also in this context that Taylor worries that instead of that broader education, we seem to want to "vocationalize" undergraduate education.

The PhD issue you write about is one heck of a serious issue here.  That is a completely different issue though.  In the humanities, the average time to complete a PhD is now at seven-plus years, I think.  The five you refer to is quite a deal compared to here.  (But then in India a PhD is after a MSc and then an MPhil, right?)

I am sure there will be more contexts when I will come back to the other aspects that Taylor writes about.  After all, if anything, higher education is so screwed up that it will continue to offer plenty to blog about ... ;)

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