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The American style of higher education: An invitation to human development

Last updated: Tuesday, November 13, 2012 12:51 AM

 

Dr. Haifa Reda Jamal Al-Lail And Dr. Richard A. Detweiler

 


AN effective education system is vital to the success of a nation and the well-being of its people. The Kingdom’s great commitment to education cannot be questioned: over the past 30 years there has been a 250 percent increase in literacy and more than a 2500 percent increase in enrollment in Saudi universities and colleges.

What kind of educational experience should a student who earns a first university degree have? In the past few years a number of systems have been developed to rate universities internationally – to assess whether they are “world class.”

Many nations in this region are now involved in an expensive race to ensure that their universities are among the best in the world according to standards set by these Western groups. The rankings are based on criteria such as amount of money spent, number of publications by professors, and other variables which have little to do with the student’s actual education – at least at the level of the first, four year, university degree. Yet it is this first university degree that most students are seeking.

How should we judge what makes a quality higher education? To be successful in today’s globally competitive environment many people think specialized or technical study is essential – that narrowly focused knowledge is what best prepares a person. Yet this kind of thinking is misplaced, for the essential and consistent characteristic of this global era is not a fixed body of knowledge but continual change. Estimates of the “half life” of knowledge – the time the information one has learned remains up-to-date – ranges from less than a year in computing to a few years in engineering. For Saudi society the rate of change seems even faster, with new kinds of business, new ideas, and new political and social pressures a daily occurrence.

So the most essential need today is to educate people who know how to continuously learn; who seek good information; who can think, imagine, and invent; who see the opportunities which can come with change. At the same time we need educated people to be equally committed to the betterment of the human condition, for if individual economic motivation is not balanced with a commitment to the betterment of humanity, then society will fail.

People who have active minds and a commitment to society will become leaders in their professions, be successful themselves, and will contribute to both the economic and social vitality of their nation.

How can we provide an education that creates both the learning person and the caring person? One need look no further than the first word of the Holy Qur’an – Iqra (“read”) – to know that being educated is a fundamental precept of Islam. The words of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) saying “He who leaves his home in search of knowledge walks into the path of God” has led to intense educational activity and a rich Islamic intellectual tradition. The Golden Age of Islam involved major advances in human knowledge in science, mathematics, astronomy, and other fields at a time when Europe was in disarray and much of its accumulated knowledge lost.

 

Indeed, without the actions of the Islamic scholars of that era who preserved and advanced the works of antiquity, most of the writings related to classical Greece and the early Romans would have been forever lost.

Islam’s commitment to the ideal of the educated, informed, thinking and humanity-serving person has deep roots.

Modern conceptions about what makes an effective education follow this history. Early ideas developed in Ancient Greece, with an emphasis on the development of breadth of knowledge, the ability to think analytically, an understanding of the human implications of decisions, and a focus on the development of these attributes in each educated person. The fundamentals of this approach were formalized in the fourth century by the North African Capella who described seven fundamental areas of study. These Ancient Greece-based ideals were then preserved and integrated by Islamic scholars, whose knowledge was later transferred back to Europe, leading to the development of the first European universities many hundreds of years ago.

About 250 years ago European settlers to the American continent brought these ideals to their new land, where in the early 1800s they further refined these concepts into what has become the modern American conception of higher education. Called education in the tradition of the “liberal arts,” it is neither liberal in a political sense nor an art, but an approach to learning which has the goal of liberating the mind.

It focuses on two things: what students should learn and how they should learn it. It is sometimes called an “American style” higher education because it is practiced at almost every US university, and is very different from the European approach used in most universities around the world, including in Saudi Arabia, where the emphasis is on specialized knowledge.

According to this mind-liberating approach, what should be learned? For a first university degree this approach to education believes what is most important is not the exclusive study of a particular technical or professional area of knowledge, but a study of the knowledge underlying all domains of learning. Students should study broadly in the social sciences, sciences, and arts.

In doing this they learn to be analytical thinkers and information seekers, to clarify their own beliefs, to have the ability to learn in many areas of inquiry, along with gaining an awareness of the implications of their actions. It is this type of education which prepares people for a rapidly changing world, because with this kind of understanding people are able to keep learning new things as the world of knowledge changes, and to develop creative, constructive, and values-based ways of responding to challenge.

While depth of study in a particular area of study is included, this happens within the context of the development of a broader understanding.

Specialized professional knowledge comes later, in the form of a graduate degree after this bachelor’s level study is complete.

How should learning occur according to the mind-liberating approach?

This approach to education focuses on the development of knowledge in the individual by the method found to be most effective: individual engagement in learning. This happens not through memorization or by students listening quietly while the professor lectures, but by a direct intellectual relationship of professor and student in which the professor knows what each student understands and can, in a very personalized way, advance the thinking of each student. Students are respected for what they know; the professor sees the limits of their knowledge not as a deficit but as an opportunity to assist them to increase their knowledge. And, based on many years of experience, these collaborative approaches to learning — students working to solve problems with each other or with the professor – have been found to be most effective and have a lasting impact on learning.

There are several dozen universities outside the United States that have been taking the lead in changing first university degree education from the narrow, specialized approach, to this kind of education that better prepares students to be contributing citizens to the rapidly changing global environment in ways appropriate within their own national and cultural context. Effat University in Jeddah is recognized internationally as a leader in this approach to education, ensuring that every student’s knowledge is developed in a respectful way through breadth of study, small classes, and the use of collaborative methods of teaching and learning.

Indeed, Effat invited a group of respected small universities from the United States to come to Jeddah on November 12 to talk with students and parents about this mind-liberating approach to higher education, and to explore options for such study in the US as well as at Effat.

So as you think about preparing Saudi youth for the rapidly changing world of the future – a world they will not only live in but we all want them to be successful in – think not of universities with professors who publish many articles, nor of specialized degree programs, but think of universities that develop people who can continually learn, are capable of thinking analytically in many important areas of human activity, can conceive creative approaches to new challenges, and are motivated to serve humanity in all they do.

— Dr. Haifa Reda Jamal Al-Lail is the President of Effat University, Jeddah and Dr. Richard A. Detweiler is President of the Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA), USA

 
   
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