It’s my job to be better than the rest…. Jimmy Buffet from It’s My Job

Sometimes I read something and it just strikes me, “this is really important — and what are the implications for what we do in Outreach and Engagement?” Two of these were op-ed pieces written several months apart.

One of those pieces was Thomas Friedman’s op-ed piece, “The election that wasn’t” (New York Times, Oct. 23, 2010). Friedman makes the point that if we are to get out of our current economic rut, we need to have a well trained and productive workforce that brings something extra to their work. What does it mean to bring something extra? To answer this question, Friedman quotes Lawrence Katz, Harvard University labor economist: everyone needs to think of themselves as an artisan, a craftsperson, someone who brings something distinctive to their job.

Related to bringing something “extra” to the job, Heather Wilson’s recent piece, “Our superficial scholars” (Washington Post, Jan. 23, 2011) raises the concern that as institutions of higher learning we are graduating students who have a very narrow undergraduate specialization. Wilson suggests, “As a result, high-achieving students seem less able to grapple with issues that require them to think across disciplines or reflect on difficult questions about what matters and why.”

The concerns raised in these op-eds have ramifications, I believe, for the curriculum we develop and deliver for undergraduate and graduate programs for our adult students. Many of us are offering certificates and degree programs that focus on specific workforce areas and are by design intended to enhance our students skills/knowledge in a specific area. While this is extremely important, I also feel that we need to create opportunities for our students to use these skills and knowledge in wrestling with what Wilson suggests are “issues that require them to think across disciplines or reflect on difficult questions about what matters and why.”

As no secret to anyone, we can best do this in the curriculum development stage, assuring that there are links not only between courses but links to “why” what they are learning is important in addressing pressing societal issues. We certainly can also use course assignments and capstone projects to assist students in understanding that most problems are multi-disciplinary and thus require multi-disciplinary solutions.

The “aha” for me is that as we develop programming for adult students we have the opportunity, I think the obligation, to help our students understand that the age of average is over and that we are in, as Friedman indicates, in the age of “extra.” And that the “extra” must include an ability and appreciation to “think across disciplines and reflect on difficult question about what matters and why.”

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