One of the joys of being a provost is learning a bit about the cultures of diverse areas of study within the university. Some fields are relatively united around a strong conceptual framework identifying key questions and methods to answer them. Other fields are debating what key questions should be addressed or what methods, used to answer them.
The fields also vary in their nomenclature for research or scholarship. “Discovery” as a word implies facts waiting to be uncovered. “Interpretation” implies the existence of alternative knowledge from the same entity (e.g., a text, an object). Both require an invention on the part of the student. Sometimes we label the invention a new “hypothesis;” sometimes it is creating a novel interpretation or critical review of a pre-existing piece of work. So, the different fields have developed different words to describe these methods of advancing insight — critical thinking, imagination, creativity, interpretation, design thinking, problem solving, self-teaching, inquiry, scholarship, research.
These variations are relevant to challenges facing higher education today. We now know that most of our current students will live beyond 100 years. Further, the world they inhabit will repeatedly create and destroy whole occupational classes, industries, and life styles. It seems clear that the content of what we teach in some fields will be radically different 30-40 years from now, yet our graduates may then only be in the middle of their work careers. What will they need, when they’re 80 years old, facing the elimination of their third or fourth occupation, to retool, to learn a new field, so that they can enter their last occupation before retiring at 95 years old?
The leaders of the future must be nimble self-teachers. How do students learn to be self-teachers? Self-teaching is a lot like original research or scholarship.
Those disciplines with very well-developed paradigms, organized about a set of integrated concepts and practices, tend to have distinctive pedagogical strategies. They start with fact-based courses that introduce the student to key sets of knowledge, with successive courses building upon the early ones. In such fields, only the later classes in the major expose the students to the cutting-edge problems the faculty themselves are currently researching. At that point, they too can begin original research.
In contrast, fields that have diverse perspectives, looser frameworks, more open scopes, can allow the student more immediate participation in the process of invention within the discipline. Such disciplines can introduce students to original inquiry much earlier in their exposure to the field.
Regardless of the field, the faster we can get students working in original research, the faster they can acquire skills that will serve them in the later years of their lives. Ideally, the future of Georgetown liberal education will give each student research-methods’ skills from every major field of human knowledge.
In short, research in all areas of study depends on critical thinking (or whatever they call it). Graduates who know many different research methods will be more successful in the future than those who have a more limited set of tools. At Georgetown, the innovation in teaching methods, the integration of research and teaching into courses, and the developments in experiential learning will assure that students become familiar with multiple methods during their time here. If we continue to advance these initiatives, we can be more assured that the decisions of 80-year-old Georgetown graduates will be well grounded in diverse self-teaching skills.