Cool breezes, fresh thinking

The cool breezes of autumn are upon us, and I couldn’t be happier. This is my happiest time of year – as nature falls asleep and we have to bundle up to keep warm. I find that the coolness keeps my mind crisp and focuses my thoughts on what is important.

Last weekend, I went to watch the McMaster Marauders play in the Yates Cup semifinal against Queen’s Golden Gaels. It was a wonderful night out, with my colleagues and co-authors, David Estok and Terry Flynn. I found myself watching the game unfold and the crowd cheering as McMaster routed one of its perennial rivals to advance to the Yates Cup final.

As the final splashes of orange and crimson light glowed and faded over Ron Joyce Stadium, I felt the cold air  penetrate my fleece and black McMaster baseball cap. The cold made my skin tingle and focused my mind – I felt that I could watch the plays unfold before me with renewed clarity. As the game was a route, my mind drifted to  thinking about my work as an academic.

As we move to open higher education to a majority of the population, we need to rethink our offerings across the board. This means forging partnerships that span the divide between community colleges and university, and offer professional programs that are steeped in the liberal arts and sciences to provide a broad education, but also focused in on the skills, training and coop experiences that will make student ready to get a job when they graduate.

I teach professional communication and communications management. My field is really the liberal arts applied to organizational communication and strategic management. In our discipline, students can achieve a liberal arts education while learning skills that could grant them entry into the thriving public relations and communications management industry.

The reality of today is that a majority of young citizens are entering the higher education system. Letting in such a great proportion of the population means that we are welcoming people from a diversity of backgrounds – socio-economic and cultural. No longer are universities only serving the upper middle and middle classes.

To ensure a good start for everyone, a blended theoretical-practical education is the way to go. It is a way for universities to help transfer social capital and cultural capital and even the playing field for young people. This is how universities and colleges can work together to make sure education continues to be a solid path toward social mobility.

Blended programs need not be any less intellectually challenging, nor must the skills taught be watered down. In fact, I think that this kind of blended education will be more challenging and fulfilling – making young people more self-reliant and well-equipped to forge their own futures.

The road will not be easy. Offering this sort of education will mean a major mindset change for many academics – particularly in the humanities – who are used to living in a separate world from the business, government and not-for-profit sectors. Often the mindsets of such colleagues is mistrustful of entrepreneurship, business or professional studies. However, the humanities cannot sequester themselves in a shrinking critical and ideological circle. Splendid isolation only leads to loneliness and irrelevance.

The humanities used to be the “school of leaders”. Over the last 30 years, it has gradually become the “school of critics”. Society needs critics, and it certainly needs its citizens using critical thinking, but critics are, by definition, not leaders and doers. Critics are by definition voices from the sidelines or from the stands, leaders are always in the field, at the forefront of the action.

Action and enterprise are central to the social media world we are entering. As Chris Anderson describes in The Long Tail, the networked social media society that is upon us requires more leaders, more entrepreneurs and more innovators. Obviously not everyone can be a leader. Everyone can, however, develop enterprising and leadership qualities that make them more confident and engaged.

The winds of change are picking up for universities – especially in the  liberal arts! These are cool, crisp currents. The change will be exciting. I can’t wait.

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