I’ve been doing some prep work for next semester’s courses, when I’ll be teaching the new edition of Friedman’s The World is Flat. I don’t necessarily agree with Friedman or share his enthusiasm for globalization, but he does a good job of laying out some of the challenges that face us, at least in terms of presenting an argument to students.
Anyway, there’s an anecdote I recall either from that book or something else of Friedman’s in which he recounts a conversation with Bill Gates where Gates asks if you’d rather be a B- student from Poughkeepsie or a genius from Shanghai. 20 years ago, perhaps you want to be from Poughkeepsie, now you want to be from Shanghai. Or at least that’s their argument.
The point, obviously, is that 20 years ago, a middle-class American student had such a competitive advantage over the rest of the world, simply by being American, that s/he didn’t have to give much thought to the possibility of global competition. Now that’s no longer the case (and it’s no longer the case for that late thirties, B- grad heading into his/her 20th HS reunion).
From my perspective as a SUNY-Cortland professor, teacher to the great B- HS student population of upstate NY (including Poughkeepsie), this shift has a regular effect on how I imagine our curriculum. My guess is that the exceptional American student will continue to have an advantage, at least for some time. And some of our students are exceptional. They come to us rather than Binghamton or Albany as a SUNY school b/c we offer Professional Writing or for some other idiosyncratic reason. However, many of our students are of the more typical American student variety.
Our program is a more liberal arts type of program than a technical program. We don’t have many students interested in technical writing. Furthermore, we see the global context Friedman describes as one where technical proficiency will not provide the return it once did.
Instead, our students will require something different. With a liberal arts degree, the "skills" you learn are of a more general variety, reading, writing, cultural knowledge. Professional Writing gets you practice writing in a variety of genres, working with emerging technologies, and experience analyzing different workplace rhetorical situations. But those are really the kind of specific skills you might see listed in a job ad. But the idea is to help our students develop their identities as writers and a sense of creativity that will help them invent a place for themselves in the professional world.
But more importantly, from a curricular perspective, as faculty we have to imagine new approaches. For the most part, these are students who have had no particular success in education, who have not really been sparked by school experiences, and do not identify strongly with learning. They often have ambivalent relations with schools. I can sympathize with this. I’ve never identified that well with schools either. However, these students need to find a way to take the opportunity of higher education to make something happen for themselves. Clearly the traditional approaches have not produced great results for these students, acceptable results perhaps, but that’s not good enough in this context.
Looking for a new way to make things happen for students. That’s a big part of this job.