Tradition vs. Nostalgia in Higher Education

The discussion surrounding the creation of a dynamic system for revitalizing today's colleges and universities is often mired in the debate over the loss of tradition, the time-honored practices of relatively modern learning institutions. It is no wonder since this is what we have to associate with higher education.

We refer to schools being "steeped in tradition", as if this means that everything related to the way a college has operated in the past, even if little has changed in centuries, is worthy of preservation. This reverence creates a sense of authority, where schools continue trudging forward as they have always done, reluctant to see that the world around them has been transformed by an explosion of technology and now demands something altogether different. The calls for keeping with tradition are the engine of inertia which prevent many of these institutions from moving off the path toward diminishing significance.

There seems to be confusion between what is called tradition and that which should be labeled nostalgia.

Nostalgia in higher education can take the form of the desire to keep the college model the same, where students fresh out of high school walk through the front doors of an institution and are lectured on various subject matter, then they demonstrate what they have been taught in essays and examinations. This has been the approach for the past century or more, and one that served the businesses of that era well. This model has been so successful, and so rarely challenged, that it is no wonder that higher education avoids changing their roles and looking toward the future. The past is known, static and safe; a new approach, although dynamic and better serving, introduces both uncertainty and risk into the equation. It also brings new players to the table -- businesses and the community -- to have a voice in the curriculum.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that much of this longing for the past focuses more on the social aspects of the college experience, and the ease of a one-size-fits-all delivery method geared toward traditional students, rather than the value of the education, and the lifelong return on the investment. And while non-traditional students have been embraced albeit reluctantly, there has been an attempt to fit them into the traditional model of education, often sacrificing the needs and demands of not only the student in the process, but businesses as well.

In the workplace of today, the idea is long gone that employees are automatons performing the same duties until they retire with their gold watch. Education and training are not endeavors that end with a degree, diploma or certification, and knowledge gained is useful and relevant throughout the entire course of the worker's career.

Businesses and the larger community require individuals who are problem solvers, and will continue to grow as they face new challenges. Society wants people who can learn lessons from what has been done in the past and apply that knowledge with a fresh approach to modern problems, and create a new vision for the future.

The real value of higher education is fulfilling this need. The tradition of learning dates back centuries and is about engaging individuals in this type of an exchange of ideas, creating an environment where one develops the skills and thought processes to solve the complex problems of their society. In this way, colleges and universities create innovators who are not given the answers to the challenges of their communities, but the framework to find the solutions and to communicate those ideas to a broader audience.

Nostalgia centers often on the place and many times the loss of the experience; the tradition that we should all strive to protect in education is creating a forum for ideas and developing the talents of the individual. This tradition says nothing about the institution itself, the ivy-covered buildings or the structure of the classroom. If we were to be reflective, most often we would see that tradition speaks to a level of excellence in education, where students succeed in their careers and lives due to their association with a respected school or university who prepared them for the challenges ahead and taught them well.

Tradition says that our finest schools produce our greatest minds -- students armed with the skills and knowledge to lead their generation to higher and greater goals. Today, higher education, in and of itself, cannot solve the problems of the global economy. What higher education can provide are individuals armed with the tools and skills who can find the solutions, who have been taught how to think creatively and to innovate.

The future of higher education is dependent on colleges and universities moving from their comfort zone where learning is a static experience. Higher education must stop fearing that change means abandoning tradition. Schools must stop attempting to replicate the past and embrace a new paradigm, and in the process create new traditions of excellence.

The successful educational institutions of the future will offer a dynamic learning experience while keeping true to the best traditions of the past. In this way, all of us -- students, schools, businesses and communities can meet the challenges of the new economy.