In Conversation with Leaders in Higher Education

Conversation

In Conversation with Richard Corcoran, President of New College of Florida, on higher education.

FOR YEARS BIG THINKERS TALK ABOUT HOW OUR SCHOOLS SHOULD SHOULD PRODUCE INNOVATIVE STUDENTS, BUT THE SYSTEM ALWAYS GRINDS BACK TO PRODUCING WORKERS. WHY DOES THE SYSTEM NEVER SEEM TO REACH THIS GOAL?

This is going back to the formulation of public education in America and the roots with Dewey. They had two huge events that occurred at the turn of the 19th century. One, we had a massive influx of Europeans who didn’t speak our language and they came through Ellis Island. The other is the Industrial Revolution. The Dewey school of thought was, “we’ve just got to take these people”–it’s almost demeaning and demoralizing in a way– “and make them widget makers. If we can teach them just enough skills to get on the assembly line and help us with this Industrial Revolution, everything will be great.” And that line of thought–it’s also what you saw in Eastern Europe in the last 100 years or so–still exists today. Even the great thinkers were saying, “no, we need to get these kids out of school and they need to get a good job.” And it’s just completely missing the forest for the trees. History’s replete with these great stories [of success born of a liberal education]. The one I tell often is about a mathematician who started at University of Michigan. She became one of the first females involved in the Apollo mission. She worked with other scientists, mathematicians, engineers on Apollo 11. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are there trying to land on the moon and all of a sudden it has a breakdown and everything’s collapsing. They weren’t going to land. The mathematician comes and she solves it in two seconds. She anticipated the problem could happen and then she solved it when it did happen. [This is what is possible] if you’re not just training people to be engineers, but giving them a broader education-this skill set of wrestling with the great questions of all time; what does a just society mean? What does it mean to be a citizen in a free market? If you don’t wrestle with those thoughts, you’re not prepared to make the intellectual leaps when innovative thinking is needed. Keep in mind, all the other scientists, mathematicians, engineers, all credit her with resolving this near catastrophe. And guess what? She was a double major–mathematics and philosophy. That’s it, the intersection of technology and liberal arts.

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