Friday, July 16, 2004

The 21st Century College

Timothy Burke has written a proposal for what he calls the 21st Century College. It's too long for me to reproduce here, but you can read the whole article on his website. From the prelude:
I have come to the conclusion that so many of the problems of contemporary academia are wrapped up together in the same knot that incremental reforms may not be able to deal with these issues. I think we can do a better job that we presently do, though I also think—and have been scolded for saying so—that at its best, contemporary academia is good enough and performs many useful functions. While I perceive an overall crisis, a failure to live up to expectations, I also think things are not as dire as the strongest critics claim. I think liberal arts colleges can continue credibly as they are with some reforms, though I also think research universities, particularly public ones, are staring some more fundamental problems in the face in the near-term future.

However, I’m also attracted by the idea of trying to imagine a radically different kind of institution that carries forward some of the virtues of higher education but implements them in a radically new form, partly precisely because I think it’s not necessary to storm the ivory tower and burn it to the ground.

There are discussions of the essay on Critical Mass, Cliopatria and Crooked Timber. His ideas and comments apply mostly to liberal arts colleges in the US, but they got me thinking about how one could apply them in an Indian university. More specifically, can one redesign an Indian science/engineering university curriculum in this fashion? Some of you may remember that I spend a significant part of last semester considering a change in the curriculum of BITS, Pilani. The idea was to simultaneously increase a students preparation in his/her (Oooh... politically correct, are we? - ed. Not any more... too tiring!) own subject and improve his general education. Lest I sound presumptuous, let me clarify that. I don't mean that students of Indian universities are generally uneducated, but that students from American universities often seem to have a broader knowledge of subjects outside their own disciplines. Colleges outside India seem to have more of an emphasis on the humanities and subjects of general interest. How many Indian engineering colleges require (or even offer!) courses in political science, economics, or history? The purpose of an undergraduate education shouldn't be only to provide you with the skills to do a particular job - that's what a vocational education is for! Even the so-called 'professional' colleges should turn out students educated in a variety of fields, students who are able to pick up any subject they find interesting and gain a reasonable appreciation of it.

The problem, though, is that students here - and their parents - often obsess about a professional education, pushing their kids to become doctors, engineers, etc. An engineering / science college which reduced the professional component of its degrees to teach social sciences would find itself rapidly becoming unpopular. I know I wouldn't have wanted to attend a college that didn't teach me a substantial amount of Computer Science. (And yet you went to BITS! - ed.) These conflicting needs to generalise and specialise makes curriculum design particularly challenging.

How does one resolve this tension? Stay tuned for the next post.

Hat tip: Critical Mass

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