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When Clayton Christensen described the innovator’s dilemma, he referred to the challenge that incumbent businesses face when new entrants introduce a disruptive innovation.

Too often, he argued, established industry leaders fail to adapt in the face of new technologies and new business strategies that target previously underserved markets. Examples of disruptive innovation include the introduction of the personal computer, the subcompact automobile, digital retailing, streaming media, online encyclopedias, ride and apartment sharing, yes, and online learning.

In each instance, the innovation, at least initially, offered lower quality than existing products, but that ultimately didn’t matter. In the end, lower price, greater convenience and increased efficiency outweighed deficiencies in quality.

But there’s another kind of innovator’s dilemma that is especially applicable to higher education. Many educational innovations share a set of common goals: to increase access, affordability and attainment, while accelerating time to degree.

All are reasonable objectives. But these aims run the risk of impoverishing a higher education.

If there’s anything we should have learned from MOOCs and from the pandemic shift to remote learning, it’s that a quality education, especially at the undergraduate level, requires an engaging, highly interactive experience tailored to the needs of particular students.

We can certainly offer instruction or training at scale, but that isn’t the same thing as truly educating a student.

As I approach the tail end of my academic career, I feel it’s ever more important that I, as an educational innovator, push back against the idea of a faster, cheaper education as it is usually conceived. A truly holistic, well-rounded, immersive education can’t be reduced to a set of “competencies” or “learnings” or “literacies” or “outcomes” or “marketable skills.”

Those innovators who are truly committed to quality need to echo their inner Euclid. As you no doubt recall, when the Egyptian pharaoh Ptolemy I asked whether geometry could be made easier to learn, the Greek mathematician Euclid is said to have replied, “There is no royal road to geometry.”

In other contexts, I’ve embraced the Ignatian principle of cura personalis, of educating the whole person. Our goal as educators is not simply cognitive or skills development, but, as the educational researcher and student affairs specialist Arthur Chickering prescribed, helping our students to manage their emotions, establish an identity and direction in life, and cultivate mature interpersonal relationships and moral integrity.

When traditionalists decry the impoverishment of higher education, they often condemn (quite rightly, in my opinion) declining reading and writing requirements; decreasing exposure to canonical works of literature, art and moral and political philosophy; and a retreat from a liberal education.

But here I want to talk about another kind of impoverishment: four concepts that students need to engage with as undergraduates.

  1. Irrationality. That our behavior, as individuals or as members of larger collectivities, is often motivated by emotions and seemingly irrational and often unconscious drives is an idea that should not be confined to psychology classes. Virtually all social science disciplines, each in their own way, question the conception of people as simply rational actors, whose choices and calculations can be understood in terms of cost-benefit analyses. I believe it’s essential that our graduates acquire a rich understanding of the power and influence of the nonrational sources of behavior.
  2. Ambiguity. Our students should also acquire an appreciation of ambiguity: of expressing doubt or skepticism about received ideas and conventional wisdoms and being open to multiple interpretations and an appreciation of paradoxes and contradictions. My own field, history, should raise powerful questions about the ambiguities of progress and reform and help students understand that even history’s supposed heroes are almost far more complicated and problematic than we too often assume.
  3. Irony. An appreciation of irony -- of unintentional outcomes, of the contrast between expectations and realities, of the gap between what actors and observers know -- is a hallmark of a mature mind. Often confused with cynicism or sarcasm or caustic mockery, irony is an essential intellectual attribute. As the German journalist G. Jay Magill Jr. puts it, “Irony undercuts the violent passions of true believers; punctures hypocrisy, pretentiousness, and self-righteousness; and shields us from degradations of human dignity. Irony is actually a method of protecting earnestness and patriotism and democratic values such as tolerance and intellectual independence.”
  4. Tragedy. Americans, we often hear, lack a tragic sensibility. The only tragedies that Americans like, William Dean Howells supposedly said, are those with a happy ending. The hopefulness, optimism, cheerfulness and a sunny positivity that are, supposedly, Americans’ trademark traits are not bad things. Indeed, these attributes can help individuals weather setbacks, mishaps and calamities that might otherwise prove crushing. But it is also essential to grasp the senseless, the pointless and purposeless, the futile, the meaningless and the tragic. Empathy, understanding and compassion require no less. But we must not only identify with individual or familial tragedies, and recognize that virtually everyone around us suffers from some grievous wounds. We must also acknowledge the more profound tragedies that define American history: how the best intentions and the highest purposes have often led to horrific outcomes; how easily privileged Americans blind themselves to the consequences of their policies and behavior; how claims of American innocence serve to obfuscate the uglier motives that drive our behavior in foreign affairs.

A higher education that doesn’t contend with irrationality, ambiguity, irony and tragedy isn’t, in my view, a true education, one that reflects the German notion of Bildung: forming, shaping and cultivating an adult.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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