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LETTERS

In reshaping college, let us not lose our grasp of what higher education is

Olin College of Engineering in Needham held a "Fauxmencement" on its campus in March for seniors instead of May 17, when it was scheduled. It was a last-minute idea for the close to 85 seniors who attended along with faculty and other students.
Olin College of Engineering in Needham held a "Fauxmencement" on its campus in March for seniors instead of May 17, when it was scheduled. It was a last-minute idea for the close to 85 seniors who attended along with faculty and other students.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

As a retired professor of English and humanities from Wentworth Institute of Technology, I am both heartened and disturbed by David Scharfenberg’s analysis of the challenges facing higher education (“Disrupting college,” Ideas, May 24). I have taught (mostly) in the traditional classroom form, but also in hybrid courses. There are two points Scharfenberg does not address sufficiently, in my view. The first is a definition of education and the second is the student him/herself.

Learning job skills is training, not education, and that is, indeed, what many adults and older students need in order to prepare themselves to reengage in a changing workplace. Hopefully, these older students, through earlier education or life experience, have learned the other lessons that a traditional college experience provides their students. As Amy Slaton, a history professor at Drexel University, points out, “there is no such thing as a bargain education.”

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An 18-year-old is not a fully developed adult. There is a vast difference between teaching a freshman and a student in his or her junior year. The skills students acquire from their college experience (such as self-discipline), and from exposure to a variety of disciplines (such as critical thinking and reading, understanding social movements, the significance of the arts, and the structure of their own political system), also prepare them for success. Students benefit most when testing and defending their own understanding in face-to-face discussion.

Moreover, fully online learning is difficult for some students with certain kinds of learning challenges, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

I strongly recommend that, as colleges and universities move forward, educators focus on these two critical issues: the definition of education and the importance of the intellectual developmental needs of the students.

Marilyn R. Stern

Pittsburgh