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Reimagining the key to addressing educational crisis

Dr. Mike Rakes, Evangel University president

The word “crisis” comes from roots that signify a moment for making a crucial decision or judgment. This term often highlights a volatile or critical condition requiring immediate solutions. When discussing education, our choice of words to describe persistent challenges is vitally important, and we can’t blame it on this “darn digitalized” generation; something else is missing.

I argue that education at large and higher education—my area of expertise and vocational engagement—are in a state of crisis. Our actions or inactions in response to this critical juncture will determine the trajectory of not only the students we see in front of us now but also the character and soul of a nation.

Yet, a crisis invites something fresh and powerful to come onto the scene. One of my favorite books is Thomas Kuhn’s seminal work, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” Kuhn introduces the concept of paradigm shifts as transformative moments in scientific history that overhaul existing frameworks.

According to Kuhn, most scientists adhere to an established paradigm to solve “puzzles” that fit within that framework. Only when this paradigm fails to answer the questions at hand does it lead to “revolutionary science.” Similarly, education often proceeds under “normal” paradigms until educational and societal challenges accumulate to a point that demands a revolutionary rethink.

The discourse around an “educational crisis” often concerns challenges such as declining academic performance, widening achievement gaps, soaring tuition fees, and the increasing irrelevance of curriculums in preparing students for the job market. But am I the only one thinking that something else, something foundationally important, is also missing when it comes to education? 

Schools and colleges are more than just places to memorize facts and figures. They’re spaces where students learn how to think creatively and solve problems, thanks mainly to dedicated faculty members who do more than pass on historical content. Whether classes are in-person or online doesn’t matter as much as the meaningful exchanges between students and teachers. This relationship, along with the knowledge gained, stays with students after graduation.

Education isn’t just an isolated system; it’s deeply entwined with the social fabric that shapes how we create, share, trade, and absorb the rich tapestry of human ideas. Our educational institutions should be breeding grounds for cutting-edge thoughts that elevate society.

The dynamic interplay between students, faculty, and course content defines the transformative journey of the higher education experience. This rich exchange leaves an indelible mark on graduates, shaping them into the informed citizens our world so desperately needs.

Our goal should not be merely to maximize profits but to amplify each student’s personal and intellectual growth, equipping them with a range of career opportunities globally.

I must express my concern regarding the perception some educational systems hold, which suggests that certain traditional beliefs, often labeled “outdated” or “fossilized,” are incompatible with modern scientific education. In response, I want to raise the question: Isn’t the essence of all education rooted in understanding our past?

To dismiss certain fields of knowledge as “ancient” while upholding the importance of disciplines like biology, art history, or European literature seems inconsistent. These subjects, too, are based on historical knowledge and are certainly not considered irrelevant in a contemporary context. This selective application of what is considered ‘relevant’ is a curious contradiction that undermines the idea of comprehensive education.

The secret sauce of higher education, and perhaps a way through our current crisis, lies not just in the academic material presented, including both foundational and historical topics as well as relevant training for the careers of tomorrow, but in the dedicated educators who breathe life into that content. They’re mentoring our youth, imparting wisdom and guidance that can’t be replicated in textbooks alone.

I’ve generated the following questions that may speak into the growing educational crisis facing our country. Though certainly not exhaustive, consider the following:

1.  How can we better “on-ramp” students into the learned outcomes we want for them in the long run? How can we meet them where they are and make up for the COVID-19 years?

2.  How can we better prepare them ethically, technologically, and theologically for the complicated workplace?

3.  What can faculty change regarding their syllabi to be more relevant in the workplace and connect that to objectives, outcomes, and learning?

4.  Since corporate hiring practices are starting to favor skills over credentials, how might curriculums engage with future employers on what they see missing in today’s graduates?

5.  How can universities help small business leaders and large corporations deal with their human capital management issues and catalyze change?

In my view, we stand at a crossroads in education where systemic anomalies are invitations for transformative reform.