Lawrence H. Summers – How Higher Education Will Change!

Dear Commons Community,

Lawrence H. Summers, former president of Harvard University and former secretary of the Treasury, had an essay yesterday in the New York Times based on a talk he gave at the Schools for Tomorrow conference.  I attended Dr. Lawrence’s talk and he was quite impressive as a speaker, standing in the middle of the stage, never referring to notes, and making a clear, precise presentation.  In essence, he speculated on how undergraduate education will change.  His comments were directed to all of higher education but they may be of particular interest at CUNY as we contemplate significant changes to our degree requirements.  Here are some excerpts.

He opened his talk:

“Part of universities’ function is to keep alive man’s greatest creations, passing them from generation to generation. Certainly anyone urging reform does well to remember that in higher education the United States remains an example to the world, and that American universities compete for foreign students more successfully than almost any other American industry competes for foreign customers.

Nonetheless, it is interesting to speculate: Suppose the educational system is drastically altered to reflect the structure of society and what we now understand about how people learn. How will what universities teach be different?”

He then presented six changes:

  1. Education will be more about how to process and use information and less about imparting it.
  2. An inevitable consequence of the knowledge explosion is that tasks will be carried out with far more collaboration.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  6. Courses of study will place much more emphasis on the analysis of data…Of course, we’ll always learn from history…the capacity for analysis beyond simple reflection has greatly increased…

His conclusion:

A good rule of thumb for many things in life holds that things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then happen faster than you thought they could… the next quarter century will see more change in higher education than the last three combined.”