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THE ROLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION IN SERVING THE PUBLIC

by Robert A. Williams, President

In their article “Higher Education Isn’t Meeting the Public’s Needs” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct. 15), Frank Newman, Lara Couturier, and Jamie Scurry raise thoughtful questions about the role of higher education in serving the public interest. The authors see “a dangerous gap…growing between what the public needs from higher education and how colleges and universities are serving those needs.” They go on to identify areas in which the gap manifests itself. Some of them are already areas of concern and focus for us as a community college, such as the need to move beyond access to attainment, and the need to support elementary and secondary education.

The article makes the point that “ninety percent of college graduates have reported that their degree was useful in getting a job but did not prepare them with the necessary skills to succeed in the workplace.” This lack of adequate skills has implications for the nation’s competitiveness within a global economy. Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan has also spoken about the responsibility of higher education in preparing our workforce for the demands of economic change and in “unleashing the creative thinking that moves our economy forward.”  Because of our unique role as a community college, providing education that serves the public interest should be an area in which we are able to demonstrate strength. We are flexible, we place a priority on teaching, and we already work in close partnership with external stakeholders.  We are capable of fulfilling the public needs of government, business, and industry, as well as the private aspirations of individual citizens.

The Chronicle article refers to the need for “critical thinking, the ability to write clearly, and other skills.” It also speaks of the need to “determine whether actual learning is taking place” on campus. With our designation of this year as the “Year of Critical Thinking,” we are focusing our attention on understanding and teaching critical thinking. The intent is to provide our faculty with the resources to strengthen the critical skills of students and to incorporate critical thinking components in all disciplines. While no uniform definition of critical thinking exists, in its simplest form it may be thought of as a variation on the “teach a man to fish” theme, whereby rather than giving students information or an isolated set of skills learned by rote, we are providing them with the means to seek, interpret, and evaluate information independently. This allows them to think and act creatively and to form their own conclusions. I recently attended a class taught by Dr. Melinda Frederick, and it was a joy to see students wrestling with intellectual concepts and learning how to integrate disparate information.

An institution like ours has enormous pressure on it to be functional. Like other community colleges, Prince George’s Community College has met that expectation of functionality with a great deal of success. We contribute to workforce development. We produce highly trained workers who can enter directly into the workforce. We are known for our flexibility, our rapid response rate, and our ability to tailor our offerings to the needs of our community. At the same time that we have demonstrated success in being functional, we have also suffered to some extent from the narrowness that functionality alone signifies. Critical thinking and a practical education are not mutually exclusive. Integration remains a challenge. We need to continue to engage in conversations about how to synthesize the practicality associated with technical and vocational disciplines with the intellectual flexibility associated with critical thinking. The education we are seeking to promote cannot be simply one or the other. It must incorporate elements of both.

 

The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 20, No. 1 

Fall 2004