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Hamid Shirvani, Published November 24 2012

Letter: Educate for change but provide solid foundation

In today’s dynamic global economy, the emergence of new companies and new industries is forcing established institutions to reinvent themselves. In education, our challenge is to meet this reality by figuring out how to prepare people for multiple careers and for careers that do not yet exist.

Educating for change demands the construction of a solid foundation to educate the whole person. Our focus must be on teaching, research and innovation rather than numbers and statistics – goals based on quality rather than quantity. I hope we have not made a Faustian bargain that trades a classical education for one watered down to meet the demands of a rapidly changing educational “marketplace” that serves today but not tomorrow.

One of the best ways to look ahead is to start with the past. I am reminded of a conversation of Socrates, recorded by Plato, called the Phaedrus. In it, Socrates, who wrote no books, gave three reasons why he disliked the written word. Writing, he said, would deprive Athenians of their powerful memory; if everything were written, memorization would become unnecessary. He also said that writing would change education by requiring that students merely follow an argument rather than participate in it. Finally, Socrates warned that writing would change concepts of privacy and the meaning of public discourse.

In a sense, Socrates was correct. Writing doubtlessly undermined the oral tradition that he believed best expressed serious ideas, beautiful poetry and authentic piety. But Socrates did not see what his student Plato did – that writing would create new modes of thought and new pathways for the intellect.

In the same manner that the written word challenged the oral tradition, today’s information revolution has altered the way our generation thinks and writes. It has changed our sense-lives and mental processes. We need only to look at our children to see this change.

Although these changes represent major challenges for our universities, I am encouraged by a comment made many years ago by Clark Kerr, the former president of the University of California. When asked what he thought about the role of the university in American society, Kerr replied that America’s great research and teaching universities were a unique part of the heritage of the Western world and would remain among the most enduring institutions of society.

He observed that if one took the year 1520 as a starting point, only 75 institutions in the Western world still exist with similar functions and unbroken histories. Seventy are universities. Kingdoms, guilds and monopolies have come and gone; so, too, have nation-states and corporations. But these 70 universities are still in some of the same buildings, with professors and students doing much the same things, and with governance carried on in much the same way.

In this age of unparalleled change and uncertainty, it is vital that America’s great universities also remain a constant. I hope they remain so; keeping this legacy constant, however, will require careful stewardship.

In the United States, there has always been an unwritten social compact between the public and its universities. It grants universities unique institutional autonomy and scholarly freedom in exchange for effective and responsible scholarship, the education of an informed citizenry, and the preparation of society’s future workforce. Thus, our universities carry social and public obligations that transcend their institutional needs and desires.

There is also an understanding that teaching and research in our universities involve not just the transfer of specialized or technical information but a commitment to developing the whole person. To achieve this, we ought not to isolate our scholars within the ivory towers of academe, or within their own disciplines, but to connect them to others in and beyond the academy.

What does this mean? It means that our schools must produce self-motivated, lifelong learners. Universities must not provide students soon-outdated information but instead prepare students for active and continual learning. Any student who graduates without good cognitive skills, without having examined the values that guide our lives, and without a willingness to continually learn will lack the skills needed for this new millennium.

In the North Dakota University System, we should strive to create a liberal education for our students – an education fit for a free individual in a free society. The free mind thrives on the world of experiences, with all its contradictions, ambiguities, ironies and paradoxes. The ability to deal with these experiences – to address ambiguity confidently, to distinguish fad from trend, to make forward-looking decisions based on knowledge of the past – cannot come from a narrow background or from an ideological framework.

An education that prepares students for the future relies on a strong foundation built in the past and an equally strong preparation that enables them to continue to learn. We can ask no less of our universities, or of ourselves.


Shirvani is chancellor of the North Dakota University System.