As a Gen Xer, the context for higher education I experienced is fading like a sign post in a rear view mirror. If not a professor, I doubt I would think little more of the issue. However, I'm caught up in the thick of it. Particularly, in the daily lives of younger generations, like my students, compelled to answer every text message as soon as it comes and to surf the web during a discussion designed to help them "pass the class".
Mass and accessible technology had not arrived in the mid-1980s when I went to college. My generation prided itself on playing the first video games, CD players and VCRs to the wonderment of tech illiterate parents. In college we "typed" essays on computers (if one was open in a lab), encountered the great works in western civilization and completed required units in a major to earn a degree.
I think the same is true for my students, but there is a sting to getting a college degree today. In addition to the decrease in affordability, students do not know how degrees translate into this increasingly "do-it-yourself" world. Blogs, YouTube, TED, Facebook, iTunes, reality TV and the like have become vehicles for information, communication, collaboration and innovation at work and home, and units and degrees seem meaningless in the face of gaining expertise and competency in these new currencies.
However, new currencies are only part of the picture. The inquiry, research, critical thinking and evaluation skills at the core of the university are hugely valuable to the acquisition and application of 21st know-how. Further, since 21st century work and communities still center on the needs and interests of human beings (and organizations and institutions they create and sustain), the humanities and social sciences (and their applications to everyday life) are crucial for a college-educated person today. While Millennials are optimistic about themselves and the future, they may not realize that the vast information at their disposal requires discipline, dedication and rigor to mine it successfully, something I learned from my higher education experience. Their openness to change and desire to make a difference are assets to democratic pursuits, but they are also essential reasons universities should provide college students with socially responsible and meaningful civic engagement.
I see a moment where my version of higher education and a re-imagined student version based on their needs, interests and circumstances converge to create a higher education appropriate, applicable and relevant for a 21st century world.
**Most photographs on this site are the creative property of Dr. Christina Chávez-Reyes.