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Community Values Will Lead Us Through Cultural Crisis

By Michael Driscoll

During an interview in summer 2013 on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert asked Anant Agarwal, the founder of edX, the nonprofit distributor of massive online open courses (MOOCs), “Why send the cows to college if they’re giving the PhDs away for free?”

Agarwal, also an MIT professor, said of his product—offered at no cost to millions of students around the world—“Education in America is the absolute best education in the world. That’s why we have to give it away. Think of this as an enlightened self-interest. We are giving away education, and an educated world is a better world for everybody. Our campuses are going to get better. Online learning is like a rising tide that will lift all boats on campus or elsewhere, and this is a good thing for everyone.”

While his vision of delivering significant components of a higher education experience to those who cannot otherwise obtain it is noble and, perhaps, altruistic, it is also important to note that Agarwal went on to say campus learning offers something of greater value to students—something worthy of society’s investment.

Face-to-face learning affords young minds fuel for intellectual growth—personal and spontaneous interaction, the chance to debate issues, and, most important, the chance to do so outside of a classroom environment. We know that often, students learn as much about themselves from social interaction as they do about academic subject matter in the classroom or lab.

As many question the return on investment graduates receive on their traditional higher education, I am more impressed today than I ever thought I could be with the power and importance of a traditional, residential education.

Ties that Last Longer than the Tweet

I came to IUP having spent my career at two large, urban universities. A generous share of the students at those two institutions never resided on campus. The majority commuted starting their freshman year, coming to campus for classes and then departing. I didn’t think much about that until I arrived here and began to immerse myself in the IUP community, meeting with the faculty, staff, and students and, perhaps even more enlightening, meeting with alumni.

Alumni, our very product—a symbol of our brand—tell me regularly that what they benefited from most during their years here was the sense of community. So many of them cite the relationships they forged with their professors and their peers as a key strength of their time here, that the value they place on their investment in IUP is as much about the interpersonal skills and relationships they garnered as the knowledge in class.

The Essence of Who We Are

Rebecca Chopp, president of Swarthmore College, asserted in an article published in the Association of Governing Boards’ Trusteeship Magazine that American culture faces a “serious and pervasive crisis, a crisis deeply lined to the failure to find common ground in the midst of deep-seated differences.”

If you agree with President Chopp, being intentional about our commitment to face-to-face education is the only true course we can take for solving the crisis.

The residential experience here at IUP holds value for those who have experienced it. Our living learning communities as well as heightened campus programming meant to fortify classroom learning are part of that. They force students to put down their devices of choice and interact with one another. Anonymous communication can be easier, but it is also so often misunderstood or ineffective. And what skills do our students learn in the art of negotiation, the appreciation of the differences of others, and the importance of common courtesy and civility when communicating through impersonal, anonymous means?

Of course, we must prepare students for our evolving world and the digital means that have become standard, but we cannot abandon what makes IUP the special place that it has been to so many. We can’t deny what makes us what we are—a place where a student can learn the value of living in a multi-faceted community.

For example, if our students missed out on exposure to interpersonal graces and spent time concentrating on learning mathematics without the benefit of faculty interaction, peer camaraderie, and a strong liberal arts core, they might understand the calculus, but would they possess the broader perspective of its aesthetic beauty? Would they understand how it might be applied to solve real problems? Would they possess the ability to make others understand it?

I can agree with Anant Agarwal that American higher education is the best in the world and that our knowledge is worth sharing. I also am grateful that one of the stars of the recent MOOC craze acknowledges rightfully that there is value in the campus experience.

I also agree with Rebecca Chopp: It is the well-planned and -executed campus experience—one that builds character, capitalizes on a strong work ethic, and sparks wonder—that will lead us out of the greatest cultural crisis of our nation’s time.

Educating the whole student always has been our aim at IUP. We will continue to adapt our practices, and we will be a leader in solving the cultural crisis.

Michael Driscoll is president of Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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