Thursday, September 9, 2004
When talking about his new book, The Quiet Crisis, How Higher Education is Failing America, Peter Smith is careful to emphasize that he did not write about CSU Monterey Bay. But he concedes that the school’s values are in there.
“I think the book is an argument for more institutions like CSUMB,” Smith says. “And although it’s not primarily why I wrote the book, it does describe why we have adopted the major polices we have.”
Smith, the founding president of the school, and former Vermont state senator, lieutenant governor and member of Congress, says that while the book is partly autobiographical, it’s also partly philosophical.
The Quiet Crisis argues that the needs of today’s students cannot be met without a major overhaul to the educational system.
“Americans have inherited, without significant modification, a system of education that is as outdated, outmoded, and outlandish as an ox cart plodding down Interstate 405,” he writes.
Smith says that in order to serve students (and he stresses that it is the college’s job to “serve” the students), learning needs to move away from the traditional model of a professor lecturing at the front of the classroom.
“I went to Princeton, and people tend to romanticize that,” he says. “But there was a huge chasm between the fourth row of the lecture hall, where I sat, and the professor who was 20 yards away, who you never met. Our commitment is to try and turn that upside down.”
With technology such as e-mail and Web-based materials, Smith says, the connection between student and professor can be enhanced.
“Most of our curriculum is now online, and we have students who will download the curriculum rather than going to the lecture,” he says. “Then they meet with the teacher in [smaller] groups. Technology isn’t a replacement of face-to-face time, but it’s a far more valuable way of using time.”
A table in the book shows the miserable percentages of students making it through high school and college. (Only 18 percent of ninth graders nationwide graduate from college; 32 percent of California students never finish high school.)
Smith says it’s not the fault of the family, the student, or the teachers, it’s the problem of the system. He says that Americans have both a moral responsibility and an economic need to find a way to make college work for all kinds of students.
To keep students interested in college, Smith says, it’s crucial to allow them to connect the dots themselves. At CSUMB, a “service learning” requirement takes students to places like Dorothy’s Kitchen, a homeless shelter in Salinas.
Smith tells a story of a CSUMB student who drew parallels between his required reading of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Dorothy’s Kitchen. Smith says that the student was able to understand the relevance of Dickens in the context of a real life experience.
“When you connect the meaning of the learning to the meaning of the student’s life, then very great learning can occur,” he says.
This kind of learning can be more fun than the lecture-hall model, he says.
“When it’s fun, it’s almost always because you’re doing something you’re good at and learning in a way that’s highly congruent with the way you learn best,” he says. “We are trained that if it doesn’t hurt, then it isn’t learning.
“My assertion is that there is a hell of a lot more learning capacity in students than we are getting.”