I’ve followed the emerging rules for higher education by the U.S. Department of Education with interest, but also trepidation. While I’m all for accountability in higher education, my concern is that what can be documented is not always the real learning and growth that a student experiences.
This past year I’ve seen two powerful examples of great college learning that are very different from the norm.
My first experience took place earlier this year when I was as visiting professor at the Stetson University in central Florida. There, I had the opportunity to teach an undergraduate course developed by Professor Greg McCann for young people who came from family businesses. The course didn’t just focus on concepts and ideas; it also focused on developing the individual as a leader.
The course asked the students to explore deeply who they are, what they want, and how they can develop skills and credibility as a professional. Challenging and often confrontative, the course forced the students—including those who want to work for their family business someday—to look at patterns in their family and personal life. It asked the students to consider whether they accept these patterns as-is or if they feel these patterns need to be modified. An experiential group experience, the major learning product of the course is a Personal Development Plan. Many students were deeply moved by it because it made them ask two, self-reflective questions: “Why am I in college?” and “Where am I going?”
Throughout the course, the students drew on several online, personal development assessment tools that helped them look at themselves in new ways. They learned personal leadership skills and thought about how these skills might be applied to their family business or another career. They struggled to define themselves to meet the course challenges in the hopes that the learning they received deeply influences their future life choices.
During the semester, I became aware that this course might perhaps be one of the only undergraduate courses that focus on self-knowledge and personal development, and I began to wonder why this form of education wasn’t a regular part of education. In four years of undergraduate study, why shouldn’t every student be given an opportunity to ask these questions and be mentored to find the best answers for them? I am concerned that the focus on accountability in the form of pages of reading, assignments and demonstration of learning will not allow such personal learning to even be considered as part of a curriculum.
My second experience was with my son. He is in college and, as part of his regular learning, he has four years of intensive leadership training aimed at helping him develop skills in achieving results, building teams, and meeting unexpected challenges. I am impressed with what he is learning and the quality of the instruction, which builds over his four years of undergraduate study, leading him to develop a high level of skill in the personal demands and challenges of being a leader. Where does this curriculum lie? No, it is not on the football field, though that is also a place where such skills are nurtured. He is a member of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or ROTC, a college-based, military training program that focuses on leadership development, strategic planning, problem solving, and professional ethics. While this year ROTC has been added to a number of distinguished schools, the notion that it is only by joining the military that a student can develop leadership skills in the school curriculum is also disappointing. Where can a student learn about non-profit or social leadership as an undergraduate?
The challenge we face as we expand new types of distance learning and education is how to make sure that we don’t simply focus on skills and knowledge without some focus on who we are as people and the “emotional and social intelligence” we need to make a difference in society. The new rules and accountability don’t make our task any easier.