On his blog, Ian Symmonds muses about how higher education is responding to global problems. The list of issues, drawn from Jean Francois Rischard's book High Noon is heartbreaking and incomplete. The assumption behind Ian's question--that colleges and universities ought to prepare students to fix the problems of the world--is both commonplace and reasonable. And almost no one argues that education ought not take on these problems.
But what makes us think that they can be tackled by colleges and universities? In asking this I do not mean to suggest that higher education is ineffectual. I am simply wondering two things: Are colleges and universities the sort of organizations that solve problems?; and Can these problems be solved? I think the answer to both these questions is no.
Here is what I mean; colleges and universities excel at helping students resolve certain sorts of problems--narrow problems in disciplines, problems that respond to experimentation, and personal problems. None of the problems listed in Symmonds post are these types of problems. Instead they are all wide-spread, multi-causal problems without simple solutions.
This is not to say that colleges and universities ought to do nothing. Instead, they ought to focus on three things: (1) helping students to resolve their own problems, (2) framing the problem so that it can be worked on in smaller, more local pieces; and (3) trying out local solutions to certain components of the problem at hand.
So, for example, it is unlikely that colleges and universities will solve poverty. It is too widespread, too intransigent, and too complex to "solve." But colleges and universities can help resolve poverty in their own neighborhoods. And they can help their students avoid poverty.
To do these things, though, higher education will have to be more focused and less given to grandiose rhetoric. While we may live in a global village (or some other version of the "flat earth" world) but our ability to influence society is decidedly narrow. There is nothing wrong with this fact, as long as we acknowledge it. Unfortunately, few colleges and fewer universities do.