Amid claims that emergent technologies are leading to a sea change in higher education, small colleges like Lafayette and Ursinus are wagering that liberal learning will continue to have value. Our colleges are committed to dimensions of liberal education that are not replicable by online technology.
I believe there is a difference between education as a commodity and education as practice. Clayton Christiansen talks about the commodification of knowledge and of teachers, so that these can be presented as standardized modules for easy consumption. By contrast, liberal education is more a matter of inculcating habits of mind and heart.
In a recent New Yorker article, physician Atul Gawande muses over why certain innovations spread quickly while others do not. One key has to do with the difference between adopting a technological advance that proves easily accessible and achieving a reformation of habits that requires high-touch mentoring. Learning is arduous: It is one thing to master information and another to understand how to know and how to judge. In that latter enterprise, the difference that teachers make as role models and mentors cannot be overestimated.
For those concerned only about certification for careers, passing a course by demonstrating content mastery may be good enough, and in essence a limited form of learning may drive out demand for more complex forms. Liberal education is like a bespoke suit rather than buying one off the rack, more an apprenticeship than an assembly line. My wager is that there will always be demand for such suits and apprenticeships that technology won’t replace.
Bobby Fong, President, Ursinus College