Blended Learning, Domestic, Education Quality, Opinion, Private education, Public education, Required, Students, University & College - Written by on Thursday, January 26, 2012 6:00 - 1 Comment

Heard: Larry Summers’ Vision of Universities’ Future… More Tech, Less Foreign Language

Larry Summers by World Economic Forum via Flickr under Creative Commons

Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard University and White House economist, weighs in on “What You (Really) Need to Know” in the New York Times OpEd pages recently. He postures that American colleges and universities define what high schools teach and what it means to be a modern adult. But he suggests these institutions of higher learning are not as cutting edge as society give them credit for. He argues that U.S. colleges have not evolved and look too similar to the way they did in the 20th Century. The man who lost his post at Harvard when he once suggested women were not as genetically gifted at math as men now opines that the dominance of English means foreign languages may not be so important for American students to learn in the future. His other speculations on how universities will be different:

1. Education will be more about how to process and use information and less about imparting it. This is a consequence of both the proliferation of knowledge — and how much of it any student can truly absorb — and changes in technology. Before the printing press, scholars had to memorize “The Canterbury Tales” to have continuing access to them. This seems a bit ludicrous to us today. But in a world where the entire Library of Congress will soon be accessible on a mobile device with search procedures that are vastly better than any card catalog, factual mastery will become less and less important.

2. An inevitable consequence of the knowledge explosion is that tasks will be carried out with far more collaboration. As just one example, the fraction of economics papers that are co-authored has more than doubled in the 30 years that I have been an economist. More significant, collaboration is a much greater part of what workers do, what businesses do and what governments do. Yet the great preponderance of work a student does is done alone at every level in the educational system. Indeed, excessive collaboration with others goes by the name of cheating….

3. New technologies will profoundly alter the way knowledge is conveyed. Electronic readers allow textbooks to be constantly revised, and to incorporate audio and visual effects. Think of a music text in which you can hear pieces of music as you read, or a history text in which you can see film clips about what you are reading. But there are more profound changes set in train. There was a time when professors had to prepare materials for their students. Then it became clear that it would be a better system if textbooks were written by just a few of the most able: faculty members would be freed up and materials would be improved, as competition drove up textbook quality.

Similarly, it makes sense for students to watch video of the clearest calculus teacher or the most lucid analyst of the Revolutionary War rather than having thousands of separate efforts. Professors will have more time for direct discussion with students — not to mention the cost savings — and material will be better presented. In a 2008 survey of first- and second-year medical students at Harvard, those who used accelerated video lectures reported being more focused and learning more material faster than when they attended lectures in person.

4. As articulated by the Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman in “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” we understand the processes of human thought much better than we once did. We are not rational calculating machines but collections of modules, each programmed to be adroit at a particular set of tasks. Not everyone learns most effectively in the same way. And yet in the face of all evidence, we rely almost entirely on passive learning. Students listen to lectures or they read and then are evaluated on the basis of their ability to demonstrate content mastery. They aren’t asked to actively use the knowledge they are acquiring.

5. The world is much more open, and events abroad affect the lives of Americans more than ever before. This makes it essential that the educational experience breed cosmopolitanism — that students have international experiences, and classes in the social sciences draw on examples from around the world. It seems logical, too, that more in the way of language study be expected of students. I am not so sure.

English’s emergence as the global language, along with the rapid progress in machine translation and the fragmentation of languages spoken around the world, make it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile. While there is no gainsaying the insights that come from mastering a language, it will over time become less essential in doing business in Asia, treating patients in Africa or helping resolve conflicts in the Middle East.

6. Courses of study will place much more emphasis on the analysis of data. Gen. George Marshall famously told a Princeton commencement audience that it was impossible to think seriously about the future of postwar Europe without giving close attention to Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War. Of course, we’ll always learn from history. But the capacity for analysis beyond simple reflection has greatly increased (consider Gen. David Petraeus’s reliance on social science in preparing the army’s counterinsurgency manual).

Lawrence H. Summers is former president of Harvard University and former secretary of the Treasury. This essay is based on a speech Dr. Summers gave at The New York Times’s Schools for Tomorrow conference.



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Benny Profane (Golden Fang Ent.)
Feb 6, 2012 8:05

Summers is obviously good at number 1 i.e. reading Howard Gardner’s Five Minds for the Future and then making that author’s points his own.

His argument against the study of language is typical American solipsism particularly when western economies need to be tapping into developing and non-Euroamerican economies. Look at the figures on internet language use growth – Russian, Chinese and Arabic are the fastest growing languages. Do you think that Citibank’s launch of the first western bank credit card in China happened without knowledge of Chinese language or culture?

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