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Identifying Higher Education’s Secret Sauce
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Identifying Higher Education’s Secret Sauce

The goal of a postsecondary education is to provide graduates with the tools they need to succeed in any given field.

When students can take classes from qualified professors via Udemy, Coursera or StraighterLine, why do we need universities? When students can access any library in the world through the Internet and e-textbooks are available for free, why do we need universities? When everything from food service to student advising to faculty development can be outsourced, what is the secret sauce that makes a university a university?

Last year I became an apiarist, or a beekeeper. To begin, I took a class hosted by the local park district and taught by an experienced beekeeper with a Ph.D. in entomology (the study of insects). The highlight was opening a real hive and observing the bees inside. I ordered the materials for a two deep hive body, assembled everything and then purchased two pounds of bees and a queen from a grower in California. Observing the queen begin to lay eggs and the colony expand was exciting. A good queen can lay a thousand eggs or more per day, and it takes 21 days to go through the birth cycle. My hive expanded quickly.

That first winter, all of my bees died, probably because they didn’t have enough to eat. I added a second hive this year and both are doing well. I was able to extract about 75 pounds of honey and they are well set up heading into the winter with plenty of honey on hand and strong queens.

I have learned a great deal about beekeeping; some lessons the hard way. Bees need to be protected from diseases such as nosema and varroa mite parasites. The hive needs to be inspected regularly to insure the queen is healthy and to look for signs of swarming behavior. Other bees may try to rob the hive of honey. Learning how and when to extract the honey and how to prepare the hive for winter are important. Early on, I felt anxious and ignorant. The Internet has been a tremendous help in my learning. I regularly watch You Tube videos veteran beekeepers have made. The Bee Man from Georgia is one of my best teachers. I consult blogs and forums regularly. I don’t follow a set curriculum; rather, my education follows the life cycle of the bees. This could be described as “learning on demand.” Gradually, I’m becoming more knowledgeable and proficient.

In contrast, my formal education as a college administrator was planned and organized by the faculty. Each professor outlined the course in his or her  syllabus, assessed my learning and awarded grades. The curriculum included required and elective courses arranged in a sequence intended to ensure proficiency in my field and mastery of general skills and abilities. When I accumulated the requisite credits, I earned a diploma that verified my knowledge. The university surrounded the faculty and students with a set of services to support learning. Included was a library, a counseling center, a bookstore, Registrar’s office, recreation center and more. The entire enterprise was authenticated by an accreditation system that ensured eligibility for government financial aid.

Which is better: my do-it-yourself education as a beekeeper or my formal, faculty-directed education as a college administrator? My informal education is validated by the bees in my hive (if they make it through the winter) and the honey sitting on the pantry shelf. My formal education is validated by the diploma hanging on my office wall and the paycheck I earn every month.

My formal education made the informal possible. The general education classes taught me to read, research, analyze and problem solve. I use those skills to learn beekeeping. My formal education also taught me the fundamentals of my discipline and I layered on experience year after year. It enabled me to communicate with peers, put my experiences in perspective and create new knowledge to advance the profession. I use that knowledge to earn a living. The recipe for the secret sauce of higher education is the list of degree requirements in the catalogue which codify general education and major field skills and knowledge.

The genius of American higher education is that the recipe varies slightly from college to college based on the mission and collective wisdom of the faculty and administration. Some recipes call for more of one ingredient while others combine them in unique ways. One university serves up the secret sauce in elegant silver ladles. Others use plastic spoons. Many parts of the university can be outsourced. Faculty, part time and full time, come and go. All of the ingredients can be changed and exchanged. What makes a university a university is the sum of the parts expressed as the degree requirements. People can and do learn a great deal on their own that can be useful and enjoyable, such as beekeeping. A university organizes learning into a coherent whole and prepares graduates for a profession.

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3 Responses to Identifying Higher Education’s Secret Sauce

  1. WA Anderson Reply

    2013/10/30 at 11:29 am

    I would say both formal and informal educaition can have immense value if they fulfill the purpose for which they were pursued. With programs that help to develop portfolios, individuals can now organize their learning in a coherent way without the help of institutions.

  2. Linda McAdams Reply

    2013/10/30 at 1:34 pm

    This is a rather enjoyable read looking at the different components of higher education and what makes it special. It is difficult to quantify, but Clinefelter does a good job of describing some of the ways we learn and what role institutions play in the process.

  3. hickman Reply

    2013/11/01 at 5:23 pm

    A very good look at the book-knowledge vs experience debate. They’re both important, it just depends on what your outcome goal is. Use both help build the bridge. You need both to survive in the real world.

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