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Larry Summers on the Future of Education

The former president of Harvard put forward some important thoughts on higher education in a speech to the New York Times Schools for Tomorrow conference. He proposes six “guesses and hopes.” Here’s a quick excerpt:

Suppose the educational system is drastically altered to reflect the structure of society and what we now understand about how people learn. How will what universities teach be different? […]

New technologies will profoundly alter the way knowledge is conveyed. Electronic readers allow textbooks to be constantly revised, and to incorporate audio and visual effects. Think of a music text in which you can hear pieces of music as you read, or a history text in which you can see film clips about what you are reading. But there are more profound changes set in train. There was a time when professors had to prepare materials for their students. Then it became clear that it would be a better system if textbooks were written by just a few of the most able: faculty members would be freed up and materials would be improved, as competition drove up textbook quality.

Similarly, it makes sense for students to watch video of the clearest calculus teacher or the most lucid analyst of the Revolutionary War rather than having thousands of separate efforts. Professors will have more time for direct discussion with students — not to mention the cost savings — and material will be better presented. In a 2008 survey of first- and second-year medical students at Harvard, those who used accelerated video lectures reported being more focused and learning more material faster than when they attended lectures in person.

The article continues, and is worth a read. American universities, as Summers says and I’ve written before, are not keeping pace with our quickly-changing world. New ways of teaching are just around the corner, yet still out of sight.

Change is coming.

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  • Corlyss

    “Professors will have more time for direct discussion with students.”

    Would professors be passing off all their instruction time to TAs if they actually liked dealing with students? I don’t think so. And who says the students want that?

    I propose evolution to a system of autodidactism under loose supervision rather than what exists now.

  • Kris

    “New ways of teaching are just around the corner, yet still out of sight.”

    Despite being around a corner, they are nonetheless out of sight? You don’t say! 🙂

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Kris: somewhere tonight, an intern is weeping as the thumbscrews come out.

  • Anthony

    Larry Summers as both trained economist and reflective thinker insightfully intimates changes aligned to WRM’s proffered 5.0. Dr. Summers correctly conceptualizes implications of technological conveyance of data/information/knowledge and its inevitable impact on educational delivery. He illuminates a paradox and infers that education has to “recast” in a changing world.

    In line with Dr. Summers’ future of education, leading universities will continue to establish template and expectations for what comes from below educationally and structurally they will begin to reflect what we now understand (cognitively) as the way people learn.

  • WigWag

    Larry Summers is right about educational reform and he was right in the economic policies he recommended to President Obama to help the United States crawl out of the current economic mess.

    Summers was a reformer when he was President of Harvard which is why the faculty there, especially in the College of Arts and Sciences, despised him. The tenured Harvard faculty, ensconced for life in the cushiest of cushy jobs viewed Summers reform agenda with horror. Why wouldn’t they? After all tenured faculty at Harvard make six figures for teaching at most two courses a semester or a grand total of a maximum of six hours a week. More often than not they’ve taught the same course for years and they don’t even need to spend any time preparing. Most college faculty, especially at Harvard could teach their courses in their sleep, which they frequently do.

    Given their good fortune of making a lot of money for doing essentially nothing you would think the Harvard Faculty would keep their heads low and mouths shut for fear of attracting attention to the fact that they are criminally underworked. If you think this, you’re wrong. There is not a group of people in America who do more complaining than college faculty and the faculty at Harvard is the worst.

    The Harvard faculty was aghast at Summers’ reform agenda and worked overtime to undermine him. When he made an innocuous comment about women in math and science (which happens to arguably be true) the legions of politically correct, leftist, multiculturally worshipping Harvard gas bags pounced and the Harvard Trustees were too mealy mouthed not to cave in. Next thing you know, Summers was gone.

    Of course given the nature of Summers’ comment, Harvard’s Trustees just had to replace him with a woman; it mattered not an iota if she was capable. To replace Summers as President Harvard selected a weak historian who recently wrote one of the dumbest books on the American Civil War you will ever read, Drew Gilpin Faust. The new President wouldn’t understand a reform agenda if she tripped over it. The Harvard faculty is happy as larks.

    I hope that Professor Mead is right and that higher educational reform is coming. Nothing would be more just than for tenure to be abolished, the Harvard faculty replaced in mass and the spoiled brats who make their living pretending to teach required to get real jobs. Maybe they could haul shingles on to roofs, sweep streets or drive taxis. Anything for them to see what real work is.

  • Chase Crucil

    This is a joke! Video links in a history book, give me a break. If anything we need to get back to old fashioned reading, writing and thinking, not watching videos on some canned “e textbook.” These internet courses are to real education what Celebration USA, a town that is owned and controlled by the Disney Corporation, are to a real community. The joy of attending a lecture, in a liberal arts college at least, has to do with the fact that the person who composed and delivered the lecture is available for discussion as soon as the class is over. If you’re right that this is the wave of the future, I can give thanks tonight that I went to college in the past.

  • Chase Crucil

    And by the way, Wigwag is definitely wrong about one thing. Gilpin Faust is an outstanding scholar on the civil war era, and of the old south in particular. If you don’t believe me, do a Google search and check out the reviews of some of her books.

    Also, if you think that technology in classrooms is so great, read this article. It’s about a school in Silicon Valley where many of the students have parents who work for leading tech companies. And guess what? The students are not allowed to use computers in class, and the school discourages their use at home.

  • WigWag

    Chace Crucil, I will acknowledge that Gilpin Faust is what passes for a historian today, but that’s not saying much. Her most recent book, “Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War created a stir when it came out; it was a best seller, it won a national book award and the author participated in a triumphant book tour. I read it; the book was garbage. Don’t take my word for it; read it yourself. But please don’t waste your money; take it out of the library.

    “This Republic of Suffering” was supposed to be about how all the death in the civil war changed America. It is a worthy subject for a book but in this case the suffering was experienced by Gilpin Faust’s readers.

    Not only was the book tedious but it was derivative. Thirty three years before Gilpin Faust’s book came out, Paul Fussell (a real scholar) published his magisterial “The Great War and Modern Memory” about World War One. Gilpin Faust basically took Fussell’s approach and applied it in a far less compelling way to the American Civil War.

    If Gilpin Faust’s subject interests you, you would do far better to read Walt Whitman’s civil war poems from one of the later editions of “Leaves of Grass.”. You could even get a better insight than the Harvard President provides by reading a good biography of Whitman. Alternatively you could read some Stephen Crane or Carl Sandburg.

    It is astounding to me that Gilpin Faust could write such a dry, unemotional and even banal book about such a sad subject.

    But that must be why the spoiled brats with tenure at Harvard appreciate her. She’s no iconoclast. Unlike Larry Summers she’s one of them; a known quantity who won’t rock the boat.

  • Lorenz Gude

    My father taught me how to read the NY Times. He said. “Go ahead and read the article, but if you can “read the transcript.” Then I went to Columbia and we read Aristotle and Spinoza and Shakespeare and so on, not material that had been prepared for us by ‘the best’ professors. Generally textbooks are to university students what dummy rifles are to recruits. Summers reminds me of Edison who thought the main use of his invention would be to film that one, best professor in each field and be done with it. I like the British expression that you ‘go down to Oxford to read philosophy or physics.’ Or whatever. That’s what you have to do. Engage the material directly. You want to study John Ford – you watch his Westerns. Not kid yourself with a predigested book, movie. or iPad Author presentation about John Ford. There is an old fashioned word for that: gloss, from which we get glossary and glossy. Don’t get me wrong. I downloaded Author to my Mac yesterday and am about to start a training presentation on how to manage a WordPress blog for a client. But last week I fixed an Android phone that the owner and the phone shops had given up on by ‘going down to Oxford’. That is getting on the Internet and reading the forums and downloading the SDK and swotting. It works – even on the trivial glossy bits.

  • Estragon

    For some reason (maybe it’s that old “can-do” American optimism!), the belief persists among our elites that people of average and sub-average intelligence can be turned into geniuses if only they’re given the right hi-tech gadgets.

    Really, you need two things: 1) ability to learn; 2) desire to learn. Absent one or the other or both, results will be disappointing. And let’s face it, a lot of people lack one or the other or both. Flashing lights and sounds aren’t going to change that. Real education (as opposed to training) will always be for the minority.

    For another example of this addiction to hi-tech fixes, check out Nicholas Negroponte’s scheme to drop laptops all over Africa. I can think of a lot of things that need to be fixed immediately in Africa; dropping computers on the poor kids there isn’t going to make much difference.

  • Eurydice

    It’s an interesting discussion overall, even if Nr. Summers’ specific conclusions aren’t all that interesting, or even well thought out. If an experienced military leader finds Thucydides is still useful 2,000 years later, who is Summers to say no? And the point of learning (or even trying to learn) another language isn’t to make oneself understood, it’s to understand how other people think (a problem we’re seeing today with the members of the EU). As for all that data-mining and probablities and statistics, I’m not sure how that works along with the realization that the human brain isn’t a rational computer, but perhaps Mr. Summers is trying to give his chosen field of study some future purpose – certainly, the current models have been problematic.

  • Mrs. Davis

    @Chase, Do you mean this Waldorf School? There’s demand for choice even in Silicone Valley. Doesn’t make every choice the right one.

  • RSC

    From my unscientific observations at a university library: collaborative projects are way over-rated. Think “lowest common denominator.” Group study is 25% study and 75% off-topic conversation. Useful only in catching up on the classes you cut. The best students still go mano a mano with the material.

  • Kris

    WRM@5: “somewhere tonight, an intern is weeping as the thumbscrews come out.”

    Nor was the intern particularly delighted when the thumbscrews went in.

  • dearieme

    Does Summers tell us how the chem lab is to be replaced? If you haven’t yourself analysed this or synthesised that, you ain’t had a chemical education.

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