Higher education, language and the 21st century

This interview with DCU’s Brian McCraith (aka my boss!) got me thinking about expectations. It is quite clear from the interview that if you are to have any conversation about higher education these days and generate one of those word clouds, it would be filled with words like: creativity, innovation, adaptability, emotional intelligence, problem-solving, critical thinking, literacy (digital and otherwise), learning-to-learn, etc.

It’s not just employers that are using these words; plenty of academics use them as well. Last week we had an online brainstorming session here in DCU (we called it DCUFuse) and I was struck by how often phrases and words like ‘problem solving’, ‘critical thinking’ and ‘creativity’ came up. There was lots of good debate as to whether these ‘skills’ can be taught and whether they are domain-dependent (they are!). It was all healthy stuff – and fun too.

But it did occur to me afterwards to ask myself why the language that we use in higher education has become so dominated by these words and phrases, and why we no longer seem to use words like ‘knowledge’ or ‘enlightenment’ or ‘wisdom’ or even what seems now like a quaint term, ‘educated’.

I think there are a few reasons. First, higher education has become dominated by the STEM disciplines. In Ireland, for example, all of the Presidents of our seven universities are trained in science, engineering or medicine. I suspect that is part of an international trend. Furthermore, hardly a week goes by without an article appearing in the paper about some aspect of STEM education. And words like problem-solving and innovation are part of the natural vocabulary of STEM. Indeed, when academics try to defend the humanities they tend to default to the language of STEM, emphasising the value of the humanities for helping students to develop – you guessed it – their critical thinking / problem-solving skills.

Second, there is a widespread belief that the 21st century is ‘different’ and that the skills that humanity always had, and always needed, are now needed more than ever. There is a vaguely defined sense that this century is more complicated, and changing at an “exponential” pace, and there is even a suggestion that our very survival depends on our ability to solve problems and innovate our way out of danger. Personally, I don’t buy any of this. I think the whole 21st century ‘thing’ is little more than lazy thinking. It involves people extrapolating from the obvious fact that digital technologies are developing very quickly to adopting a belief that everything is changing and, for some ill-defined reason, becoming more complicated in the process.

The third point is perhaps the most worrying. Although academics use the language mentioned above, it is really employers and recruiters who tend to speak in this ‘language of the 21st century’. The question is, therefore: are employers speaking like this because they are dissatisfied with our graduates? Do they see them as being immature, unable to think for themselves, lacking in initiative and ambition, followers rather than leaders, fearful even. If they do, then is it a case that the expectations of employers are unrealistic or is it that the graduates we are ‘producing’ are lacking the skills and attributes that it would be quite reasonable for an employer to expect in any century?

If there is a widespread belief among employers that our graduates are seriously deficient in certain areas, then we have to ask ourselves if this is a new phenomenon that is related in any way to the changes that have occurred in higher education over the last twenty years. And what has changed? A lot actually: widespread use of continuous assessment to ‘incentivise’ students to study consistently; more exams of shorter duration and covering smaller ‘chunks’ of content; a general reduction in content and contact time; increased use of feedback; provision of lecture notes on Moodle/Blackboard; a general sense that students should know precisely what is required of them to achieve certain grades; learning outcomes; increased expectations of academics to be ‘there’ for students.

In short, the gap between higher education and secondary school education has narrowed. You could argue that the former has become an extension of the latter.

Have the changes we have made improved our ‘teaching’ but fundamentally changed the nature of what we are doing? And are employers seeing the effects of these changes?  It’s worth thinking about.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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