Work, careers, hobbies, sports, and life in general is becoming more complicated every day. Achievement and success in most endeavors takes aptitude, motivation, and quite often a highly developed skill set. Therefore, it really was not much of a surprise when I recently received an inquiry from a member of my state’s legislature about “what skills are students in your major developing?” I do not think this legislator was wondering about critical thinking, historical perspective, and other “meta-skills.”
While I generally do ascribe to the belief that college is more than just a sum of skills in a particular discipline, I occasionally wonder if we could not achieve both but a different way. For instance, in my area of marketing students, often students do not start on their major course work until their third year. With each year costing the student anywhere from $15,000 to $40,000 in direct costs, not to mention opportunity costs of lost income, it is a fair question to ask if there is a better way.
However, in today’s rapidly changing society, one key meta-skill regularly refutes the accelerated program approach. That meta-skill is the ability to learn to learn. Most people upon even a short reflection will recognize that skills developed three, two, or even one decade ago are insufficient for today’s demands. In this evolving work place and society, skill sets can rapidly become obsolete. This can be as mundane as the ability to program and use a VCR (videocassette recorder for those too you to know) to learning a computer program language such as FORTRAN (now I am really dating myself). Knowledge of how to perform these tasks was seen as essential skills during the day.
There is little doubt that anyone can learn to learn. However, as mentioned in previous posts, over the centuries the liberal arts program of study as a basic of the college education has had phenomenal success. In addition, it is not just the college courses that help students learn to learn. Learning to learn comes from the college experience with its inherent introduction to divergent views and lifestyles. Learning to learn comes from the college experience that challenges and changes or reinforces students’ preconceived worldviews. Learning to learn comes from the college experience with all its uncomfortableness in combination with periods of sublime connectedness.
Of course, these same activities in college build other strong traits and characteristics such as flexibility and tolerance of others. However, for today’s student, these must be combined with current skills. There is little or no argument against engineers learning how to understand material stress loads or chemists grasping fully the implications of molecular structure. Both historians and experts in literature need to understand the search devices available today. And all students need skills in tools such as WORD, EXCEL, and others. With that said, there is a caveat. The need for some of those skills can and will decay.
So for the legislator or any person wondering about the skills being developed by the current group of students, it is important that they remember the bigger goals of college that are relevant. Those skills are extensive and momentarily relevant. They provide a great launch point. But they cannot replace the continuing need for development of new skills. Moreover, those skills are very likely self-taught. Therefore, the final skill or trait that we most want of college students is that they have learned to learn.