A New Kind of University

May 22nd, 2012

Attending university—public or private—now requires not only a huge investment of time from students, but also capital. It means starting out a career saddled with tens of thousands of dollars of debt. And it most assuredly does not mean you’ll get a well-paying job, or a job you couldn’t have done without a degree.

In other words, college costs too much and provides too little to students. We need to re-think what it’s for and how it works.

Last year, I argued that rather than seek to get students jobs, the education system should seek to teach students how to think and to be passionate about what they do:

The only way we are going to compete in the future with an expanded world is to think strategically, to see connections between things that no one else sees, and to bring the same passion to our work as an artist does theirs. Improving our education system is imperative for the continued success of our nation in this new century.

I wanted to build on this a bit. The basic university model is students attend and take courses that the school has said are necessary toward receiving their degree. Students listen to lectures from professors, read their textbooks, write papers and take exams on the material.

Why is that the model we use? Why should students declare majors—business administration, human biology, art, English, et cetera—and focus exclusively on that major, when it doesn’t even necessarily map to a specific path after school? Why should students listen to lectures from professors in person, read their textbooks, study for exams—all passive activities? How does that encourage critical and creative thinking, and ownership of work? Why should thousands of professors across the world teach the same material and courses?

Here’s what I think universities should do: they should be laboratories where students experiment, learn and build things. There should be two parts. First, students should receive a diverse, basic education in arts, sciences, and humanities to provide them with a firm understanding of the world (humanities), how to interpret it and test it (sciences), how to think (humanities again), and a sense of what’s beautiful and meaningful (arts). This liberal education will form the foundation for the second part.

After they receive their foundational education, every student will have to choose something to build. It will have to be ambitious in scope and push the boundaries of whatever field it’s in. It will be the project they work on for the time they’re there. For some students, this could be a novel, or an ambitious painting; research on an under-studied psychological condition, or a business.

The projects should define the classes students take after their foundational education. A student could decide they want to improve digital records in medical offices by moving them toward iPads which sync with, say, a secure cloud-based system that allows data to be exported to other systems and other offices, so people’s data is never lost and follows them (perhaps that’s a bit too ambitious, but they could certainly work on a subset of it as their project). The student would, with help from an advisor, design their curriculum for the next 2-3 years. They might take computer science classes to help learn how to build the software, design classes to help with designing it, business classes both to help with building a company around their product (if that’s what they intend) and how health organizations are designed, and health-related classes to understand their needs.

Perhaps majors would be retained as a designation for degrees to denote what the student primarily focused on, but each student’s curriculum would be planned and set by the student themselves, and is planned to complete their project. Under this system, classes would not merely be requirements to receive a degree. They would be resources for students to mine for their work. This is an important difference, because students will approach each class differently than they would under the traditional university approach. Rather than be drudgery to suffer through (and therefore pay as little attention to as possible), students will see each class as an opportunity to learn something that will help them build what they’re working on. Not only will class discussions be more meaningful because students are more engaged, but students will get much more out of each class.

More generally, students will build something tangible and real in a certain field which will undoubtedly be more useful when attempting to get a job. One of the biggest issues students have when attempting to get a job after graduating is that many employers require experience even for entry-level jobs, and graduates usually have little or none. This would not only give them some experience within the field, but it would be something unique that employers probably haven’t seen before. This would help solve that problem.

Students will learn, too, how to learn—how to start out with an idea but very little idea how to complete it, and how to go about learning what they need to know. This is especially important to learn, perhaps more important than everything else, because it is unlikely students will do the same thing throughout their career. Even if they stay in the same field, they will change jobs, and how jobs are done will change, too.

What’s important about this, too, is that students will control every part of their education. Their education will no longer be something that happens to them (as it is now), but something they design and are actively involved in. Their education will be for the purpose of giving them the knowledge and tools to build something meaningful to them. They will learn how to take an idea for something they would love to build, find out what they need to learn to build it, identify each sub-component of the larger idea, and then they will make it. It will be a couple years of sustained work toward a larger goal, and when they are finished, they will know what it means to take something from a spark of an idea to reality. They will know what it means to be passionate about something.

That’s an especially important thing to learn because in this century, work will be increasingly done by individuals or self-organized groups. As I wrote last September, gains in the new economy will primarily center around making products, services, processes and structures better for people in a qualitative sense—which means thinking about how things can be improved or dramatically changed, taking ownership and doing it. This is true both for newly-formed organizations to achieve this change and for existing, large organizations: this kind of change will result from individuals believing in something so passionately that they will work tirelessly to make it reality. That can only happen when people know what it means to be passionate about something and experience with learning something completely unfamiliar to them to build it.

I believe that experiencing building something that means a lot to you changes how you look at the world, too. When you’ve gone from idea to reality, you begin to realize that everything that exists in this world was created by people, and if that’s the case, it can be made better. You begin to look at things—products, services, organizations, whatever—and think about how they’re designed and for what purpose. The world becomes something malleable and full of potential and opportunities for greatness rather than a fixed reality that must be respected and lived within.

I think that’s how people need to think in this new economy: nothing is perfect, so how can I make it better? And I believe that’s the most important thing universities can teach students. If students think that way, they’re much more likely to be successful, whatever field they decide to enter.

Universities now are fundamentally broken. I believe this would make them much more useful for students, and much more meaningful for them, too.