Higher Education: Improvise, Adapt and Overcome

Daniel Luntzel, Class of 2017

Imagine the world before the internet: no smartphones, no apps, no Google, no Wikipedia. It was a dark age, ruled absolutely by the tyranny of distance. A few times a year, perhaps, you might get to talk to your extended family over the telephone (but never without concern for the bill). You might fantasize about seeing someone on the other end of the phone, but real-time video telecommunications seem about as likely as a flying car. Untold hours of your childhood are sacrificed to the mysterious art of writing in cursive, presumably so that one day you could write near-unintelligible letters to your grandchildren on their birthdays – and so that you could sign the accompanying five dollar check. Information was hard to access, communication was slow and expensive and though fashions came and went, institutions endured.

It is easy to forget how dramatically the world has changed in recent times. Before most current undergraduates were being born in the mid-90s, our world as we know it today simply didn’t exist. Stop and think about that for a second. Ignore the poo-pooers for a moment and take in the magnificence of what we have wrought. And yet, so much remains unchanged; so many problems unsolved.

There is a disconnect, a fundamental incompatibility, between the old world and the new. The old model rewarded middlemen for providing and restricting access. The surest path to wealth and power was to become situated as a gatekeeper.  Wealth comes from charging to open the gate, power from the threat of closing it. Our society is shaped, ruled and utterly dominated by gatekeepers. They are cornerstone and foundational institutions; take universities for example. Just as surely as aerial delivery drones would undermine castle walls and gates, modern communications technologies have made many of these institutions obsolete.

Higher education falls squarely into the class of institutions that are existentially threatened by the coming disruptions. All of the improved amenities and new facilities in the world won’t be enough to paper over the hole. And yet, while higher education’s core competencies are being threatened by free access to quality educational materials, this is how universities spend their money. It’s as if a generation is being razzle-dazzled into a lifetime of crushing debt. Did you ever stop to wonder how much SPW costs, or what MC Hammer’s engagement fee is? You probably should, since you’re paying for it …

Even worse, universities are perpetuating their obsolescence. Aristocratic institutions rooted in the middle ages (an era of illiteracy, intellectual incuriosity and tyrannical theocracy) using pedagogues derived from the industrial revolution are trying to prepare us for a world that didn’t even exist 20 years ago. If it weren’t so terrifying, it’d be hilarious.

When the pace of change is breakneck and accelerating, preparation for the future is preparation for the unknown. Unfortunately, most of the typical college experience is one  of coddling, hand-holding and infantilization – just about the exact opposite of what is needed.  

It’s not all gloom and doom though. Fortunately, Colgate is doing a lot right, with an emphasis on teaching and a commitment to the ideals of a liberal arts education. The Thought Into Action Student Incubator is exactly the kind of program that inculcates the character traits needed in the face of uncertainty: adaptability, flexibility, creativity and perseverance.

This coming weekend, the TIA Institute will be hosting Entrepreneur’s Weekend.  On display will be booths from all of this year’s student ventures. Come out and see what your classmates have been putting into action: there are non-profit charitable organizations, physical products, apps, all sorts of commercial services and even one cultural campus initiative. If you are interested in how higher education can preemptively adapt and survive, drop by my booth, disruptEd. Maybe you’ll be inspired to apply to next year’s Student Incubator and take one of your good ideas from thought into action.

Improvise, adapt and overcome.