Volume IV: What works, what matters, what lasts

Why is Change Necessary for American Academic Institutions?

Remarks from the PKAL 2002 F21 National Assembly
G. Doyle Daves, Lehigh University

American colleges and universities serve our society in many ways. Among the most important are: educating the next generation, discovering and codifying new knowledge and serving as relatively unbiased marketplaces for the exchange of ideas and opinions. The beginning of the twenty-first century is a time in which society is changing rapidly, largely as a result of the dramatic technological innovations of the past half-century. Our present "high tech" society is a tribute to the past effectiveness of our educational institutions. However, a consequence of technology-wrought changes in society is a growing need for major changes in our academic institutions.

For the entire history of formal education up to the present it has been generally believed, if not openly acknowledged, that the primary function of educational institutions is the selection and advancement of the next generation of elites - those who will fill the professional ranks of society. Over the years, this sorting of students to select future professionals has become significantly more egalitarian and merit-based. However, there has never been a serious effort to educate a majority of citizens to the extent needed today. It is increasingly clear that the United States, and most other countries, have a growing need for higher level skills on the part of the entire work force and for more discerning, more sophisticated citizen participation in institutions of all sorts. Our complex, increasingly integrated world community needs citizens who are individually independent yet cooperative, who are critical thinkers with enough understanding of the processes and concepts of mathematics, science and technology to cope with the increasingly technological complexity and who recognize the need for and possess the mental discipline and skills necessary to sustain life-long learning.

As a result of these changing societal needs, we in the colleges and universities must completely rethink our fundamental assumptions about our students and our goals and suitably redesign our procedures and practices. If we do this thoroughly and effectively it will have far reaching consequences, not only for our students but also for us and for our institutions. We must restructure learning environments so that they reflect the widely varying skills, learning styles and goals of our students. To do this, we will likely have to give up the present course-by-course curriculum which is better suited to the preferences of disciplinary-bound faculty than it is for students who need opportunities which help them to develop intellectual and interpersonal skills and to broadly integrate knowledge and understanding. Indeed, the needed changes in what we do and how we do it will not be accomplished by incremental adjustments but will require deep, systemic changes.