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THE University of Toledo is participating in an important public debate regarding the future of higher education.
Dr. Lloyd Jacobs, the UT president, contributed to that public debate on April 2 when he made a dramatic proposal for UT to become a more "student-centered" university that allowed students to individualize their educational choices much as a person does when ordering a personal computer online.
Almost everyone associated with the university agrees that the University of Toledo must cultivate a student-centered environment. Yet this begs the question, what do we mean by "student-centered"?
The president's proposal represents a trend emerging in higher education to view the student as a consumer, picking and choosing the courses that fit his or her interests and anticipated career path. Education is thereby transformed into a commodity to be purchased and consumed within the educational supermarket which is the university.
The proposal is built on the assumption that the student is the best judge of what should comprise the substance of his or her education - an assumption many parents and faculty would challenge! It also presumes that the university exists primarily to provide professional training for its students.
Many students, administrators, and faculty are convinced, like I am, that this view of "student-centeredness" in fact serves students poorly. When education is reduced to a commodity it becomes a mere product subject to easy consumption and rapid obsolescence. What a student is likely to receive within this framework is hardly an education for a lifetime.
An alternative approach to "student-centeredness" places the student within the context of a learning-centered university. The university must not be reduced to an educational emporium; it must be a community of wisdom and inquiry - a teaching and learning community committed not only to the search for information and legitimate professional training, but to the quest for that insight that gives meaning and value to human existence.
To affirm the learning-centeredness of the university is to recognize that we are all learners: students, staff, administrators, and faculty. Within such a learning-centered community faculty members contribute in a special way by embodying lifelong learning in their own pursuit of scholarship; their research should exemplify to their students the quest for knowledge and insight.
As teachers, faculty do not just convey an educational product. It certainly belongs to their charge to see that their students have the foundational knowledge and necessary competencies proper to their chosen discipline.
But their responsibility does not end there. Faculty must make common cause with administrators and staff to encourage and support an educational environment that helps students develop the habits of lifelong learning through interdisciplinary conversation, sustained ethical inquiry, critical thinking, and the cultivation of an openness to new perspectives.
These are enduring habits that transcend the market forces of rapid obsolescence. These habits of learning are as necessary to human flourishing today as professional competence and technological aptitude.
A learning-centered university must always be "student-centered" insofar as it must provide students with more than educational consumables; it should, in some modest way, help them acquire an informed understanding of the cosmos and their place within it, enabling them to navigate in a dynamic and changing world over the course of a lifetime.
Richard R. Gaillardetz, Ph.D., is the Thomas and Margaret Murray/James J. Bacik Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Toledo.