Learning for a Lifetime of Choices

Refined from President’s blog

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A little while ago, I had lunch with a childhood friend, Marlene.  We have been friends since we were both thirteen years old, and that has been decades ago. Our lifelong friendship began on the Southside of Chicago where we discovered personal commonalities, as we explored the public libraries together and devised many less intellectual adventurers.  On a Wednesday in November 2013,  we met in Union Station in Washington, D. C., and it was indeed a reunion of epic proportions.  Between the two of us there were four children–all with college degrees.    It was our prayer, and our spouses’ too, that we had prepared these talented young adults to lead responsible, worthwhile, and altruistic lives.

When we looked into each other’s faces, we bore witness to a half century of American societal forces that had shaped the lives, and choices of two women who grew-up with limited resources, but who dreamed of nearly endless possibilities.  My friend earned a MBA from a big ten university, and I earned a PhD from a top-ranked national university.  Besides the fact that both of us have done well, by American standards, we also gained so much more from our college experiences than the academic content and subsequent jobs.  The value of our higher education included exposure to options, consideration of diverse perspectives,  and development of skill sets beyond our imaginations.

As we seek to grapple with the finances surrounding colleges and universities, the debate about the value of colleges and universities has reached a louder pitch with proponents on all sides.   As states struggle with competing priorities for revenue, and the economic recovery continues, there is more concern about the value of a college education in relationship to the cost of attendance.  While nearly half of my college experience included the private and well-regarded University of Chicago, it still does seem possible for students to choose from a range of institutions which correlate, as closely as possible, with their family and financial support systems.

Now I know that from a lifelong learner and educator, much of what I think about the value of a college education could be discounted–since I liked learning so much–it did not occur to me to leave the college/university  structured community of learners.  However,  as my friend and I shared stories in Union Station, it also occurred to me how fortunate we have both been to have spent so much time learning from the perspectives of others,  and how our expanded worldviews had influenced the activities we engaged in with our children and probably the choices and lives of our children and their future grandchildren. It seems that an expanded worldview is in itself a legacy–possibly just as precious as an inheritance of a land estate.

Engaging in various structured classroom or hybrid learning experiences also seems to help build a sense of confidence in the learners.  Without a doubt this confidence can be gained from other experiences rather than a college experience, but the efficiency and sequencing of these experiences in a college environment might take years to acquire without the talented and caring professors serving as learning guides.

Thus, one value of colleges and universities, is that we offer options to assist learners enjoy a lifetime of choices and to leave a legacy of options.

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