We live in times of diminished reputation of the higher education sector within the US. In the last few years public opinion has leaned toward less trust in the institutions of higher education, either because of their perceived ideological homogeneity and/or their high cost. The Great Recession forced attention on getting jobs, as the labor market swelled with the unemployed. Many, therefore, focused on the content of the classroom that advances one’s work career.
The discussion of the value of higher education has morphed a bit over time. For example, more people seem to know that lifetime earnings tend to be $1 million or so higher among college graduates versus others. There seem to be fewer calls for young people to reject going to college in favor of immediate entrepreneurial activity.
However, I find that even many college graduates hold in rather low regard the role of research (versus teaching) within universities. Some say glibly, what is the value of a published article in an obscure journal read by 20 people? (Said that way, I must admit, even I have my doubts.) This is less often said about research in the lab sciences, in my experience, but quite common concerning those fields in which the scholarship is often done by single scholars.
One hypothesis I have about this attitude is that most college students see the lives of their faculty members only as instructors. Their exposure to faculty is in formal classroom settings. The research lives of their faculty members are often not as visible to them. Especially in fields where faculty research and scholarship is done in archives or in the solitude of one’s office by oneself, students don’t see their faculty members engaged in research. It evokes the metaphor of thinking that an attorney only argues cases in court, ignoring the assembly, evaluation, and synthesis of evidence outside the courtroom.
I worry about two phenomena: 1) the need for every undergraduate to develop research skills, and 2) the need for universities to articulate why research and instruction are inseparable.
First, we know that large portions of undergraduates now entering college will live to be over 100 years old. This means that their undergraduate years will form less than 4% of their life course. The notion that all learning to prepare one for adult life must be packed into 4%, placed very early in life, seems unwise at best. We expect our graduates to have multiple careers, not just multiple jobs. We should have no illusion that the content of many courses will remain the same 40 years later.
We expect that many will find in their 40’s or 50’s that their chosen career line has been completely disrupted by technical, social, or political change. How can they cope at that moment? At those turning points, they must identify options; they must learn whole new knowledge domains; they must self-teach; they must assemble volumes of information, some relevant, some irrelevant; they must synthesize and form judgments about the way forward. These are precisely the steps exercised in scholarship and research projects. Providing students with 2018 content without giving them the skills to assemble and synthesize 2058 content is a mistake.
This leads to my second worry. If we organize the work of universities to separate instruction from research, we fail to prepare our students for their own original inquiries so necessary to their long-term success. We want our faculty to be active in research because they can convey to our students the then state-of-the-art content of a field. We also believe that it is through research that major contributions to the common good are made by universities. It is rather easy to document that almost all major improvements in our lives built through new knowledge have some of their roots in university research. But it seems increasingly obvious that we also need to integrate research and instruction in order to truly serve our students. Georgetown faculty are active in experimenting with organic integration of research into courses. With this development, we give our students the ability to continuously refresh their lives and careers throughout their 100+ year lives.