Has undergraduate education lost its way?

  • Business
  • Saturday, 11 Jul 2009

Tan Sri Lin See-Yan forwards the poser of how people educated in some of the finest and smartest global universities are responsible for some of the financial problems since 2000.

THE excesses since 2000, especially the latest financial meltdown from Wall Street to the city of London, and from Paris and Frankfurt on to the other end of Asia, Tokyo, have broken the public trust. Madoff-proof is the new by-word. Yet, those responsible are educated in some of the finest and smartest global universities. It just doesn’t make sense. What went wrong?

I know it’s always difficult to generalise. So, let me pick the best – Harvard University. Also, I happen to know more about the goings-on at this university than any other. I have been associated with it through a number of formal Harvard appointments as an active alumni since 1993, both at the university in Cambridge and in Asia.

As I see it today, Harvard’s challenges are not unique – they are as relevant to us in Malaysia as they are to the best British, French, German and Japanese counterparts.

Harvard College (its undergraduate wing) has an overarching role to educate students to be independent, knowledgeable, reflective, and creative thinkers with a sense of social responsibility.

Towards this end, it provides students with the knowledge, skills and habits of mind to enable them to enjoy a lifetime of learning and to adapt to changing circumstances. It does all this through repeated reaffirmation of its commitment as America’s oldest university (since 1638) to a liberal education in the arts and sciences.

Harvard strives to be the best in many things; it often succeeds. Yet, over the years, it has allowed its key mission to drift; from education towards increasingly, stakeholder satisfaction, developing more and more as an international brand, and assuming the role of an education market-enterprise: i.e. from harvard.edu to harvard.com, so to speak. Mind you, Harvard remains consistently the first-rate world-class research university.

Developmentally, youngsters at ages 17-23 are ripe to become immersed in life of the mind, and to draw energy and inspiration from their evolving independence. And, as they begin to shift the burden of responsibility from dependency on parents to caring for themselves and society. Yet, it would appear universities seem oblivious to the opportunity to shape their lives.

Why this drift?

Relentless competition for research excellence has produced a university system optimised for research. Of course, this brought untold prestige and prosperity through scholarly discoveries and scientific inventions. But, I think, at a price to the real quality of undergraduate education. For example, there are no KPIs (key performance indicators) for effectively imparting knowledge and inculcating committed habits of mind to make students wiser and productive adults. University structures rarely consciously promote responsible citizenship and an obligation to leave the world a better place.

Professors are rewarded for academic excellence. But no marks for helping students find meaningful lives, and a sense of their eventual place in society. Simply put, no one was looking at the big picture.

No one was monitoring for systemic failure – from the students’ point of view. T.S. Eliot (Harvard class of 1909) wrote in the Hollow Men: “Shape without form, shade without colour. Paralysed force, gesture without motion”. Herein lies the entrepreneurial challenge to the rest of world: How to capture the creativity of top US research universities, like Harvard, without importing their aimlessness as well.

What universities forgot

It is not that the great universities have been complacent. Indeed, over the years, deep and profound changes have taken place; viz. curriculum: now certainly richer, deeper and broader, but without clearly identifiable ideals; grading: now more disciplined even though grade inflation still exists but grades are now more credentials for employment and graduate schools, rather than instructional feedback from teacher to student; extra-curriculum activities have become broader and more diverse with competition going beyond the required intellectual undergraduate ideals; unfortunately, they are now greatly motivated by eventual materialistic incentives.

In the process, I think great universities including Harvard have forgot their basic job: to turn restless 17- to 19-year-olds into stable 21- to 23-year-old adults; to help them grow-up; learn who they are; search for a larger purpose in life; and leave university as better human beings.

The only trouble is that the greater the university, the more intense is market competition for faculty, students and research funds. Increasingly, at the university level, there is less serious talk of developing good character, of building personal strength, integrity, kindness, cooperation and compassion. Indeed, so totally has the goal of scholarly excellence overwhelmed the university’s education role that they forgot both aims need not be in conflict. It is not a zero-sum-game.

Curriculum reform

The answer must lie mainly in curriculum reform. Education should be more than what we learn. Pedagogy in the world’s best universities is often good; also, often not so good. Frankly, with age, we only remember the brilliant teacher but not what he actually taught.

“Education is what is left after all that has been learnt is forgotten.” (James Conant, Harvard president, 1933-53). At Harvard, the undergraduate mission remains largely intact: to transform teenagers, whose lives have been so structured by their families and schools, into adults with the learning and wisdom to take responsibility for their own lives and for civil society.

The intent is to reflect this idealism in any new curriculum in order to realise their potential – they won’t be able to (and can’t) get it anywhere else. Fortunately for Harvard, its strength lies in having the best students, first-class faculty and excellent research.

Emphasizing strength of character and scholarly excellence, the new curriculum is intended to help students understand complexities of the human condition, challenge them with issues that are disturbing in society, come to grips with the basic questions of life, and fit seamlessly into its multi-talented, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-national student body. In the process, the idea is to turn dependent adolescents into wiser adults.

Dignity, honour and responsibility

In my view, restoration of the right balance between scholarly excellence and its education role requires developing in students a philosophy of life that brings dignity, honor and responsibility to oneself.

For Malaysia, this means helping them to believe in themselves as individuals, and not to see themselves first as members of any identity group. This simply entails creating community out of diversity. The building of self-understanding and confidence in one’s own principles remains key to the educated person and leader we all want to emerge from our universities.

Within this context, universities have proceeded to redesign curriculum that includes seven basic requirements: (i) more flexible purposeful-course requirements; (ii) written and oral communication; (iii) foreign language; (iv) quantitative skills; (v) basic science; (vi) moral reasoning; and (vii) specialisation.

Hopefully, to be able to engage the increasingly complex world, new graduates should by then have the ability to compose a literate and persuasive essay, know-how to interpret a famous humanistic text, capacity to link history to the present, understand foundation science and scientific methods to unravel mysteries of the real world, and enough quantitative reasoning to sharpen analysis of problems.

In essence, tomorrow’s world will not accept graduates not knowing the difference between a gene and a chromosome. Or, not familiar with select Nobel Prize winning works in literature. The building of confidence involves a capability to speak cogently, persuade others, and reason on moral and ethical issues. They are also expected to know how to collaborate with others on divisive issues, and to engage each other.

Balance between the sciences and humanities

After World War II, the sciences and humanities became the foundation for curriculum thinking. The sciences were regarded as the transforming force, while the humanities were seen as both the conserving element and the secular instrument for moral uplift. In the US at least, the power of the disciplines has since become overwhelming; they have become increasingly autonomous and self-justifying.

There is little choice in this. Students will need to know how to use disciplines outside their academic context; indeed, to put a “human face” on whatever they learn. They must appreciate the global context and temporal depth of the human experience. And, develop and build capacity to analyse without being intimated by the disciplines.

Like it or not, science will grow in stature. As a practical matter, the basic understanding of science and technology is a crucial element of being an educated person.

At the same time, how can universities nurture and inspirit the humanities especially when humanists today feel increasingly marginalised? Critics retort the humanities have lost their way by indulging in obscure post-modern theorising about race, gender and class. Such tensions are easily exacerbated by the growing emphasis on science. This leaves humanists feeling more and more neglected. This should not be.

New advances in the sciences offer possibilities of prolonging human life, destroying human life, transforming human life artificially in ways that challenge the very meaning of what it is to be human.

With such a prospect, traditional focus of the humanities on questions of value, of meaning, of ethics, is now more important than ever before. Unfortunately, they do not lend themselves to testable theories or to empirically verified results. If we are to make sense of the thrusts life-sciences place upon us, we need a society in which scientific advances are made to serve humane purposes.

Obita dictum

Any meaningful reform is complex and difficult. Former Harvard president Derek Bok compared just such an exercise in his time to moving a cemetery. But I cannot see a higher priority than this awesome task at real undergraduate reform.

Our world is shaped by leaders, good and bad – even the mediocre. They say we get the leaders we deserve. Yet, leaders develop their thinking, their ideas and beliefs, their biases, attitudes and capacities for change, including their advisors, at the universities. Let’s give our future leaders a fair shake. We all deserve better.

Former banker Dr Lin is a Harvard educated economist and a British chartered scientist who now spends time promoting the public interest. Feedback is most welcome. Please email to starbizweek@thestar.com.my.

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