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August 25, 2013

MICHAEL HICKS: Essentials of education are unchanged

Higher-education debate shouldn't matter to students.

Last week, students arrived on campus at Ball State and at colleges and universities around the nation. Their return is a welcomed tonic for this professor’s soul, but new students arrive in the midst of a grand debate about the future of higher education.

On the face of it, higher education today is undergoing a metamorphosis. Cost-saving measures such as online learning and the ubiquity of technology might seem to make today’s undergraduate experience vastly different from their forebears. That is a mirage. The most essential elements of an education are unchanged. For that we should be most thankful.

A typical college student will take 40 courses over four years. Two-thirds of these courses are not directly related to their major, but are the building blocks of a well-rounded education. They provide the skills for real higher learning and a foundation for a civil society. Some schools do better than others at rendering this experience effectively, but all try to do it well. The remaining dozen or so courses are dedicated to a particular major, but more than half are further building blocks to very specialized learning. This leaves a handful of courses, maybe one or two professors, who make all the difference in an education for each student. Of course, just who those transformational professors might be depends on the student, the major and the professor.

Sometimes these transformational classes are traditional lecture, though I think the better ones are truly innovative courses like the ones offered through Ball State’s immersive learning initiative. The only sure thing is that they are challenging to teach and challenging to take, and that is what makes them so memorable. It is an inelegant comparison, but real learning at a university is just like weight training: It is the last bit of effort, not the first that builds strength.

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