" FOR WHAT SHOULD WE BE PREPARING STUDENTS?
FOR THE UNEXPECTED"

Remarks by Dr. William B. Allen, Director
State Council of Higher Education for Virginia

Faculty Senate of Virginia Fall Forum on
The Role of Higher Education in Workforce Preparation

 

Millington Hall
The College of William and Mary
Williamsburg, Virginia

November 14, 1998

        Good morning. I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you about a matter of real importance to me - the role of higher education in workforce preparation. It is a topic to which I've given a great deal of thought - as a faculty member, a dean, a public policy advisor, and now as director of SCHEV. What I have concluded is that while colleges and universities have a central role in workforce preparation, we should guard against slipping into the belief that workforce preparation is the central role of higher education. I hope that our discussions today can include consideration of how to balance multiple roles and how to order our priorities.

        We might keep in mind during our discussions Will Roger's comment that "Never did things look brighter for the working man, but none of us want to work." Nor is the picture much different for those in the professions if we judge by this definition: "A profession is something you study for years to get into, then work for the rest of your life trying to earn enough money to get out of." But, reckoning from the attendance here today - that definition does not apply to our chosen profession as teachers. Why else - other than love of our metier - would we be here, talking with colleagues about professional matters, when we could instead be grabbing seats at Zable Stadium to cheer the Tribe on to victory this afternoon?

        The question before this panel is "For what should we be preparing our students." My summative response is "For the unexpected."

        That may sound flippant, but I assure you that I am quite serious. Some may conceive of the work of college faculty as making students ready - that is, preparing them for conditions in their lives and their work that we can reasonably predict and for which we can supply the requisite training. But, as educators, we understand that our main role is one of leading forth - less a matter of our directing our students and more a matter of inspiring their efforts to direct themselves.

        Many of you, I am sure, have read Dicken's Hard Times - a moral tale written for a period of rapid, unsettling technological change. You may recall the insistence of the businessman, Thomas Gradgrind, that students are "little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim." In our current time of rapid technological change - still somewhat unsettling even after more than a century of exposure - some businessmen urge us to stuff our students' heads, not with facts, exactly, but with subject expertise and technical skills. Under either scenario, we would all do well to recall Yeats' advice that "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."

        My focus in these brief remarks will be on undergraduate education - the central mission of our colleges and universities - although I am mindful that we have other roles as well, particularly within comprehensive community colleges. In undergraduate education, we do not seek merely to inform students, but to form them. Our aim is to stimulate growth of the entire student - mind, body, and soul. By the time they graduate, our students should feel that their education has challenged every segment of their being. Within a supportive environment, we challenge our students to reconsider expected courses of action and familiar hopes. We challenge them to move from simplistic acceptance of precepts, information, and ideas that they have encountered in their early upbringing toward their own understanding of the ground on which they stand. A college education doesn't amount to a hill of beans unless it gives students the ability to look at themselves with a penetrating, critical eye, to understand why they stand where they stand and why they do what they do.

        The best education thrusts before our students unexpected opportunities to grow in intellect and character. Each year we faculty greet entering students who are bent on viewing their college education mainly - perhaps even exclusively - as their ticket to a high-paying career. Over the course of their time with us, we conspire in the hope of transforming our students' educational goals into something much deeper and more fundamental.

        We enter into this conspiracy because we see in the education of the young the only gift we have that adequately expresses our unconditional love. Education, properly understood, is the fullest expression of our commitment to posterity - to lives, economies, and civic practices that we will know only indirectly at best. The most prominent version of the commitment to posterity has been conveyed in the Preamble to the United States Constitution, in which "we the people" pray for the "Blessings of Liberty" not only for "ourselves" but also for "our posterity." We know that before our offspring can enjoy the "Blessings of Liberty" they must first enjoy liberty. Nor can they enjoy or benefit from liberty unless their souls first grow into able agents. They must grow to govern themselves, to attain such moral command of themselves as to be at liberty to structure their lives in accord with the "Blessings of Liberty." The cultivation of good habits of decision on sound moral and religious grounds is the single most important gift that education conveys.

        We conspire to offer this gift to our students because we seek to lead forth understandings that will serve them not only in their life of work but, more importantly, in the work of life. In an age that chants, "change is the only constant," we can be certain that our students will encounter the unexpected in their careers, in their civic duties, in raising their offspring, and in the spiritual and intellectual pursuits that can make their lives fulfilling. Through a liberal education, we invite them to develop the broad perspective, elasticity of mind, and confidence in their own judgement that will make such encounters fruitful.

        I maintain that a liberal education is the best way to prepare students for the unforeseeable twists and turns that they will encounter on their career paths. We can, and do, help our students acquire a specific set of job-related skills - although such customized preparation figures more significantly in certain academic majors than in others. But we must admit that the half-lives of these skills grow shorter with each passing year. Even those who emphasize career preparation in collegiate education recognize the central importance of the broad skills and abilities that liberal education has long conveyed. For example, in his article in the latest issue of Change, Craig Swenson, Vice President of the University of Phoenix, cites these as the skills our graduates need to become "productive as knowledge workers" - "the ability to write clearly and persuasively, to articulate and present ideas to others orally, to work capably and in group and team settings, and to analyze and think critically about problems."

        If we take the long view, we will acknowledge that we do not primarily educate our students to solve the problems that we know today. Rather, we educate them to solve problems that we cannot yet imagine. A strong liberal education encourages the original thinking and the wide range of knowledge that makes creative breakthroughs possible. We know, too, it is creativity and innovation - not technical skills - that stoke the engine of the strong U.S. economy.

        There is perhaps no arena in which we must look more to the rising generation for creativity and new ways of thinking than that of civic life. Here in Virginia, where Washington and his compatriots saw education as the guarantor of democracy, we surely understand this aspect of our higher education mission. Yet, our public discourse about education is oddly silent on this role. The declining turnout in recent elections signals that we should turn fresh attention to whether and how our college programs contribute to our students' understanding of and commitment to civic responsibilities.

        As Jeffrey Wallin, President of the American Academy for Liberal Education, recently wrote, the purpose of liberal education with regard to civic education is "neither to venerate nor to subvert, but rather to inquire about the most important matters, regardless of where answers to them may lead." Our aim must be to help students grow in intellect and character so that they are "well able to engage in the most serious issues we face as men and women and as citizens: What is the best way of life? What is the best regime?" Surely the rising generation will face unforeseen challenges and opportunities as they fashion their own answers to those vital questions. And, they may surprise us by answering these questions in unexpected ways.

        If they are fortunate, our students will also encounter the unexpected in the evolution of their own interior lives. We aim, through a liberal education, to convey to students that an "examined life" is the only sort worth living. We point them toward the philosophic, literary, artistic, scientific, and political avenues they might travel to grow in understanding of themselves and the world around them. In this journey toward understanding, the most important of our lifelong learning pursuits, we learn not by treading the safe waters of the known but by venturing into the unknown, perhaps even by seeking the unknowable. The best gift we can offer our students is to start them on this odyssey. We may hope, in return, to hear from our students an appreciation like the one that Susan Saltrick expressed in a talk she gave last year. "My teachers gave me the world; and they honed my faculties to appreciate it, and in doing so, they gave me myself." But whether or not we hear such appreciation from our students - or from others - we can take satisfaction in knowing ourselves the enduring value of our work and in seeing its cumulative expression in the lives of successive generations.

        I want to take this opportunity to convey my appreciation of the work you do. You are likely, from time to time, to hear me urge the faculty of our colleges and universities to approach this work with renewed vigor. You will certainly hear me press for a more in-depth and extensive approach to assessment. You will hear me say that restructuring and reform must continue.

        I will entreat you to acknowledge that like physicians only a few years ago, the faculty now experiences pressures to reform that you dare not ignore. The physicians tried to ignore the fact that economic realities no longer could leave their god-like status unchallenged. Managed care filled the vacuum and imposed reform on them. Universities have undergone restructuring and performance based budgeting, but we must face the fact that the reform process has only just begun. The public - and public bodies - still await demonstrated results from these processes. There is good news and bad news in this. The good news is that they are still waiting for us to do something on our own, and the bad news is that they are still waiting for us to do something on our own. Unless we are timely in responding, they may stop waiting and our fate will surely not be different from that of the physicians. It is up to the faculty to assure all of our publics - businessmen, legislators, students and their families - that we can move smartly toward controlling our own fate.

        As you hear me say these things, I hope you will also hear, underlying each call for growth and change, an unswerving conviction that education is one of the most noble, courageous, and optimistic acts we can undertake - both the act of educating oneself and that of educating others. It is an act for which you and I share great expectations.

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