NDSU Magazine logo - Fall 2009

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FALL 2009

Vol. 10, No. 1


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Excerpts on education


Betsy Birmingham

Betsy Birmingham
{Associate Professor, English}

Educated people used to be able to know everything there was to know. Now we have so much more information out there that people need to know. People know smaller chunks of things, though they might have more depth in those areas, so knowledge is becoming more collaborative. We need more people who know their own little things to work together to share that information. So, for me, an important piece of being well-educated is being able to know where to find information, who to tap for that information and how to work with others to synthesize that information.

I don't think any of us can know enough anymore, and I think we need to honor the things that other people know in order to help ourselves be educated and knowledgeable. I don't always see that. Sometimes I see even us as teachers saying, "Oh, these kids don't know anything today." That always surprises me. They know different things than I know, but they know a lot about those things. In a pluralistic, multicultural society we're going to have different takes on things. Being educated means different things in different little subgroups, so we've got to hang out together and learn what other people know.

There has been an amazing mushrooming of content too. I think there's more stuff out there to know about more things, things that we hadn't even thought about in the past.

We used to have this notion of what it meant to be an educated man, right, because they typically were men. That meant probably some basic science, rhetoric and a classical education, being able to speak well, all of those things. Now we expect people to have sort of general medical and scientific information. Things that would have been very specialized even a hundred years ago, we expect people to know those things.

I think there's much more to know as the world expands. A stick writing in the dirt, chalk writing on slate - small, small numbers of people had access to those technologies even though they were simple technologies. Now our world is becoming more and more literate - certainly at the functional level, but even beyond the functional level. We have more and more highly literate people in the world than we ever did before. Which isn't to say that everyone has good access yet. So, while those technologies might be the same, I would say our information retrieval technologies are much more sophisticated. So I don't need to know all the best that's been said and written. To paraphrase Matthew Arnold, I need to know how to access all the best that's been said and written and I need to make sure my students understand how to access that and then how to use it and pull it together.

David Berryhill

David Berryhill
{Director of Special Programs, College of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Natural Resources}

An educated person would have heightened abilities to analyze, synthesize, understand and communicate plus a desire to continue to learn.

I think the things I just described also would describe a person who was considered well educated centuries ago. Certainly the environment in which we exist is different. NDSU, compared to when I arrived here in 1971, is considerably different. A lot of that is good, but not everything.

These are skills that are developed and hopefully will continue to develop throughout one's life. My education did not stop in 1971. In fact, I had an opportunity to reinvent myself, if you will, in 2002, taking on a new disciplinary area within my professional background. Virtually all of that was self-taught to the point that, in 2007, I co-wrote a book on the subject. That's what you can do in five years.

It was something that I'd never had any course work in. I had an awareness. But really, for my first years at NDSU, I was much more focused on bacterial genetics, molecular biology, those kinds of things. That's what I was teaching. Now, I am teaching about infectious diseases. These are the infectious diseases that are of concern with regard to bioterrorism because these are zoonotic diseases - they go from animals to humans and occasionally in the reverse direction. For instance, anthrax, which has been around forever, was the first agent of mass destruction released upon the United States. Rabies and the current "swine flu," more correctly known as "pandemic H1N1 influenza," also are zoonotic diseases.

The technology has changed dramatically. My workday had to do with yellow legal pads, overhead transparencies and overhead projectors that I printed on by hand with Sharpie markers, as opposed to projectors in the room, computers, the Internet and all of these new tools. Students sitting there instead of with paper notebooks, sitting there with their laptops. It's different, not necessarily better, but it's different.

Will Bleier

Will Bleier
{Professor and Department Head, Biological Sciences}

One way to look at education is what knowledge a person has or what tools he or she has that can be used to survive. I've often thought that if one took a Neanderthal at birth today and raised him or her in our environment, would he/she turn out to be a competent biologist, or a rocket scientist or whatever? I think probably so. It would be an interesting experiment that we can't do.

I think an educated person needs to be someone who is well versed, whatever that means, well read, well versed in a variety of areas. I think today maybe too many of us, and I include myself, focus in on a particular area. I don't consider myself educated in the same sense as a variety of people I've known during the years. The other part is that an educated person needs to have a historical perspective. The molecular biologists, the population geneticists, all these people are doing very, very sophisticated studies today. I would argue it is important to place the studies into the historical context of where population genetics was a hundred years ago, where cell biology was a hundred years ago. Then, the other thing I think an educated person needs is knowledge of the global community. How can one really be educated if one doesn't have a sense of the global community?

I think it's harder and harder. I don't know the exact numbers, but people say we are in a situation now where we double our knowledge every x number of years. Let's just assume it's every 10 years. No one, at least very, very few people, can keep up with that. I may be too old to think about an educated person in the current situation. All of us think that we can go to Google and do a search and we're good at it. No, most of us are not. I tell students all the time, "If you want to find somebody who really knows how to find information, you go talk to a reference librarian, because they are experts in that."

An educated person not only has either in his or her brain a wealth of information, but each also knows what to do with it. Today, a lot of people can quickly access information, but where's the critical thinking, where's the integration of it, where's the problem solving?

One can't be educated one day and then 20 years later still claim to be educated. It's a life-long learning process to maintain this educated state. Whether libraries are shelves of books, or whether a library is a computer where one can read anything that can be accessed around the world, an educated person still has that curiosity and that drive to learn and to ponder things.

Kalpana Katti

Kalpana Katti
{University Distinguished Professor, Civil Engineering}

In my mind, somebody who has formal education only (higher education) does not constitute an educated person. I think an educated person, besides having that formal education, is somebody whose mind is open to ideas. Especially in engineering and science, the content of what we learn evolves. So 20 years from now, what we're teaching in classes now becomes less significant. A person who's educated is somebody who, besides their formal education, has that open mind to new ideas that can continue to grow. If somebody's mind is closed, it doesn't matter how many degrees they have because in a few years what they have learned will become redundant.

What I understand education is has definitely evolved in my lifetime. When you are younger, you think an educated person is someone with a Ph.D. or who went to law school or has some college degrees or things like that. I think it is really about your mind having the ability to grow. Education is where you can continue to grow and your mind doesn't stay closed on a certain theory, a certain philosophy, even a certain discipline. I think there have always been people in this world who have understood that. If you think of how the scholars were a hundred years ago, the scholars have the same mindset today.

What is scholarship and what is education also has stayed the same for centuries. What has changed is the actual content of education. If you have a degree in mechanical engineering, civil engineering, chemistry, etc., certainly the content of that has evolved, but really what education means has not evolved. That's why you have brilliant professors who got their degrees 30 years ago, and certainly what they learned in their college years is not even close to what they're teaching today. They have the ability to do so because they really got something out of their education.

The person who is studying needs to have their mind engaged. The teacher's role depends on their maturity level. If their maturity level is very high, they don't even need a teacher. But often with younger people, their maturity level is low and they need somebody to engage them, and so there is a teacher who is concerned about their well-being, who is knowledgeable. That is a basic tool of education, i.e. the student-teacher relationship, and that's been the same for centuries. The physical tools have evolved such as paper pencil versus blackboard versus whiteboard versus projectors and laptops and pocket PCs and PDAs and now Facebook, and will continue to change. Those are just generational things, I think. The basic tool of education is the student-teacher relationship, a concept where the person who wants the education needs to have their mind engaged, and the person who is facilitating it is concerned enough about the student. This is an ancient concept that never will change and which goes back millennia and is documented in Eastern cultures.

R.S. Krishnan

R.S. Krishnan
{Professor and Associate Vice President, Academic Affairs}

My sense of an educated person is somebody who is knowledgeable, has an understanding of the world, and has skills requisite to what he or she wants to accomplish in particular areas, perhaps, and who uses that knowledge either through formal education or through experience as a life-long process. I went through what you call a British system of education. That is, you go through a formal educational process, get a degree, and that qualifies you as an "education person." But, I think that has changed, especially because of technology. I think knowledge comes to us through a variety of sources. How we formalize that knowledge through a curricular process or through a particular process or through a system of formal educational process allows us to expand the area of our understanding.

I try to remember Aristotle's quote, "It is a mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it." That to me suggests that you have to be able to contain contradictory ideas simultaneously.

The delivery of the content has changed certainly. I think most students who come to college nowadays are visual learners. They have far more understanding of technology, I think. They take to it very well. That requires a delivery system, knowledge has to change as well. That's what they expect. So the traditional methodology, while still very useful, I think, has to expand to include what it is that students need to know in a way that they will more easily access that knowledge.

That's how I look at it. I was lectured to most of the time. We would pay careful attention and try to understand what's being taught. An examination would be a focal point of our trying to retain or indicate how much knowledge we had retained.

It has its points. But, at the same time, we are a visual culture with social media. There are a lot more easily accessible ways of imparting news, information, knowledge, and students tend to gravitate toward that much more quickly than to the traditional ways. Take online education. You have the ability to learn the same or similar things without being in the classroom. Technology has allowed the space, the virtual space, to be the classroom. It allows you to multi-task, too. And that phrase was not in the lexicon 10 or 20 years ago. We always have new ways of learning new things.

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