Is American Higher Education in a 19th Century Rut?

Is American Higher Education in a 19th Century Rut?

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Our system of higher education in America was modeled after the 19th century mass production assembly lines. While the business world–to some degree–has moved on to more fluid and creative solutions, because their survival depended on it–the world of higher education continues to be bound by this antiquated model.

In the 1950s, Reginald Revans developed an alternative to the assembly line model. He called it Action Learning. I won’t go into the technique itself, but I do want to share a quote with you where Revans is contrasting the two models. He explains it as the difference between

those who look backward and below
as the cultural precipice is climbed,
upon what has already been experienced and esteemed,
recorded and ritualized, on the one hand,
and those who look upward and ahead,
solving their own problems,
making their own judgments and
setting their own standards, on the other.

It is the contrast between the establishment,
that decides what must not be done, and
the entrepreneur, who takes the risk of doing something.

It is the contrast between those who answer questions
in the light of yesterday and
those who pose questions
in the darkness of tomorrow.

It is the contrast between the expert
who can read with facility
what the book already has to tell us and
the leader who has to decide
what must be entered upon its still blank pages.

It is the contrast between those who teach management
from books that are supposed to record
what happened to other managers,
and those who expect their managers to learn
through the confirmation or rejection of their own devices.

 

It should be apparent that Reginald Revans did not revere the “experts,” which we in academia like to be perceived as. He championed the common people as fully capable of solving their problems by following a simple process and discipline that he espoused. Using his system, ordinary people could bring their various points of view to bear upon real-time problems through a cyclical or spiral process of learning through experience.

Revans did not totally disparage experts. Instead, his view was that the experts should be brought in AFTER those working on-the-job to solve the problem had already been through several cycles and had come up with real solutions. THEN they could hone their solution or add something to it from the “experts.”

Why does this not work in America? I have a lot of questions so I’m hoping some of you reading this can add some wisdom to the comments section below. For instance:

  • What are the economics of the production line education model?
  • Whose power base is threatened by an Action Learning educational revolution?
  • Is it possible to incorporate Action Learning into the mass production model or are the two completely incompatible?
  • What price have we paid as a society by separating education from real work?
  • If you agree this is a problem, what are some steps we can take toward a solution?

I know there are schools doing some innovative things, but it still seems to me that we are stuck in an educational rut. The exception seems to be in the field of medicine. My understanding is that medical education is heavily invested in the Action Learning methodology. It has to be because of the life-and-death stakes involved.

What do you think? Am I wrong about this? Misinformed? Overreacting? I would love to hear your opinion.

provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at]leadstrategic.com to discuss the needs of your organization.

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