New York Times columnists Frank Bruni and Thomas Friedman raise excellent points about what higher education must offer in order to serve both the students' needs and society's needs. And, as the representative of an institution dedicated to molding productive citizens of the world, I believe it is our responsibility to fulfill both.
On the one hand, Bruni avows that colleges shortchange students — and the rest of us — if they only provide a professional "on ramp" to a successful career. The college experience should also provide exposure to a diverse group of people with diverse viewpoints that challenge students to examine the ideas they hold dear.
As Bruni argues, this is the only hope for a nation paralyzed by "sharpening divisions, pronounced tribalism, corrosive polarization." Colleges and universities offer the perfect setting to "nudge" students out of their comfort zones, away from the like-minded viewpoints they embrace through social media and online news sources.
In truth, what Bruni describes is the mission of any liberal arts college. The goal of the liberal arts, as its Latin root implies, is to liberate students from ignorance, preconceptions and limitations — self-imposed or otherwise. Students at liberal arts institutions are intentionally exposed to a variety of viewpoints, to new and challenging ideas and perspectives, and then they are encouraged to examine each viewpoint critically. This is accomplished through expansive reading, writing, and discussion.
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This is the mission of Transylvania University.
Bruni summarizes his point beautifully: ".. .we should talk as much about the way colleges can establish patterns of reading, thinking and interacting that buck the current tendency among Americans to tuck themselves into enclaves of confederates with the same politics, he same cultural tastes, the same incomes. That tendency fuels the little and big misunderstandings that are driving us apart. It's at the very root of our sclerotic, dysfunctional political process."
This type of education may help address what ails us as a society, but does it provide the benefits expected by parents who pay dearly for it and students who want doors to lucrative professions to open wide?
Friedman argues that a contemporary college education must prepare students to move directly into the modern workplace, where technology and a changing society define new jobs faster than we can write the job descriptions. In this dynamic environment, it's important that educators communicate regularly with employers to understand what skills they need.
Friedman also cites a Gallup poll that reveals that graduates were more engaged with their work if they had a professor who mentored and encouraged them and cared about their success, and if they had an internship where they could apply what they learned in the classroom in a workplace environment.
While Bruni and Friedman may at first seem to argue for two very different models for successfully preparing students for the real world, it is possible to offer both. Transylvania boasts an exceptional faculty accessible to every student. Our professors choose to work on a campus where class size averages 13 students and there are ample opportunities to get to know each one. Over and over again students describe the life-changing experience they had when a professor took personal interest in their work, prodded them to take on bigger challenges, coaxed them to stretch themselves in new ways and ultimately provided references that opened doors to graduate or professional programs or new careers.
Transylvania is also launching a new mentoring program, 100 Doors to Success, that will pair first-year students with successful alumni and friends of the college who will help students navigate that path from college to a career. These professionals can identify the skills that will be in demand in a student's field of interest and share ideas on how to develop those skills in the relatively risk-free college setting.
These mentors can also help students recognize if they are considering a career that may not be the best fit for their interests or their personality, and then get them on a more suitable path. And, finally, these professionals can share their network of contacts, which may lead to internships or interviews.
We recognize the economic reality that our graduates face. We also understand that the typical graduate today will change careers seven times before retiring. We can serve them best by helping them learn to think critically, communicate artfully, respect the opinions of others working to solve the same problems, and build relationships with mentors, both academic and professional.