During the last two months I have participated in a number of meetings and seminars in Latin America. After several decades of enrollment expansion, the growth of the private sector, improved access for previously underserved socio-economic groups, the issue popping up in conversations more often is — What should universities be teaching. This is a critical question to be asking, now more than ever. Coincidently, I was reading Tony Wagner’s wonderful book, Creating Innovators (Scribner 2012), during my recent travels, providing me with more fodder with which to consider this question.
Given the uninterrupted tradition of professionally-oriented university study in Latin America, I was surprised by how often colleagues mentioned initiatives at their institution to create new undergraduate curriculum either adding a module of general studies or proposing new multi-disciplinary curriculum. But these initiatives have proven extremely difficult to integrate. Latin America remains locked into a content-laden notion of university education. After all, universities in the region have a long tradition of preparing professionals. In many countries the university degree is equivalent to a professional license, making it more critical to stuff a student’s brain with as much discipline-specific knowledge as possible. This paradigm may have been effective during the last century, but is it still the best way to prepare future generations of university graduates? A colleague recently observed, “ We are training, not educating, forging doers rather than thinkers.” And this is where Wagner’s book contributes significantly to the discussion. Wagner suggests that we are often stifling innovation by the way higher education is organized and delivered. I suggest that perhaps we no longer need to build university curriculum around content. Or at least not entirely around content. After all, most university students today have easy access to a great deal of content on their smart phone.
Wagner stresses that what societies need to move forward today are innovative thinkers and we do not cultivate this kind of creativity through years of intense study focused on a single discipline. Rather we need to give our students the freedom and opportunity to explore ideas across disciplines, to collaborate and (especially) to experiment with new ideas and question old ones.
Today, Latin America is participating more actively in the complex, competitive international economy. Brazil and Mexico are now counted amongst the world’s largest economies. Recent economic growth in many Latin America countries surpasses the US and much of Europe. More young people in the region have access to higher levels of education. If the region is to depend less on the north for innovation, technology, products, and ideas than in the past, local talent must be cultivated. This talent is less likely to flourish within the current pattern of university education that delivers and tests detailed knowledge of a single discipline.
It is with optimism that I listen to Latin American colleagues talking about the need for broad-based, interdisciplinary study but I worry about the obstacles that bar the way to truly innovative educational reform. Faculty are quick to reject change. The new accreditation agencies in the region typically measure education against very traditional models. What will it take to break through and explore new paradigms for undergraduate education in the region?