Robert Reich on Student Brains, Civic Education and Restoring Pathways...

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Robert Reich on Student Brains, Civic Education and Restoring Pathways to the Middle Class

By Sydney Johnson     Aug 3, 2018

Robert Reich on Student Brains, Civic Education and Restoring Pathways to the Middle Class
Robert Reich, Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley

There are few professors who are as popular on-campus as they are off. But that’s not the case for Robert Reich, a chancellor's professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. Reich is a former Secretary of Labor under the Clinton Administration, author of 15 books, and recently a Netflix star, with popular documentaries such as “Saving Capitalism.”

While he may be best known for his ideas on the economy, public policy and boosting the middle class, Reich is also an expert teacher. Lecture halls overfill with students and Berkeley residents eager to hear him boil down big ideas about inequality and how to fix it. And he has thoughts on ways that students today are different from the ones he encountered when he began teaching nearly 40 years ago—and why technology has both caused those shifts and can be used to improve the way education is delivered today.

EdSurge sat down with Reich last week at the annual summit for Course Hero, an online study platform, to talk about online learning, civic education and how higher education can create new pathways to the middle class. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

EdSurge: In your latest book you talk about the common good. How did we get to this moment where, as you’ve said, the idea of the common good is no longer fashionable?

Reich: There's been a deterioration in trust toward every major institution in our society. At the same time, we see an upsurge in what might be called just selfishness. People understand that they have to look out for number one, and number one is yourself, and lose therefore the sense of social connection that we have. And also our understandings of our obligations to one another.

Now, why did all of this happen? Well, I get into a lot of it in my book(1*), and I won't repeat it here, but I do think it's a huge problem for the country. And I don't want to necessarily talk politics, but Donald Trump is the consequence rather than the cause of a lot of what we are seeing.

To put the common good back into the national discourse, what do you see as higher education’s role in doing that?

Well, for one thing I think higher education does have to take seriously the issue of public service. Not just service learning(2), which has been around for a while, but also [to stress] what it means, why citizenship is a particularly important issue now, why the question of nationhood—and what a nation means—is important. Not just in economic and political science terms, but in moral terms.

We've come to a point where the old view of the nation-state as a kind of sovereign entity has given way to the reality of globalization. But there's been a backlash in the form of ethnic nationalism that we see both in the United States, and also arising in places like Europe and elsewhere, and that's very, very dangerous to the values that higher education has taken for granted for several hundred years. I mean, the enlightenment values that came out of the 17th and 18th century, they are in jeopardy.

Is higher education still the pathway to the middle class? If it's not, what do you think is necessary to reinvigorate that social and economic mobility, and having higher ed be a pathway to the middle class again?

First we've got to control the costs. The costs of higher education keep rising faster than inflation, which means that the very rich and the very poor [don’t] have access. Student debt is out of control(3).

Secondly, we've got to make every effort to keep people in college. One of the real tragedies is that people are being admitted, young people are being admitted, who don't have the background they need to stay in. And so we've got to make sure that they have a fair chance.

Thirdly, we've got to ensure that our K-12 systems and our early-education systems are good enough so that people, young people, have the background they need. By the time somebody is ready for post-secondary education, it's almost too late for many. Ideally, you want to begin pre-birth, when you can make sure that mothers who are carrying children have the right nutrition, and then immediately upon birth, recognize that those neural networks come together very, very quickly. And if they are not stimulated correctly and nourished appropriately, we're already behind the game.

Fourthly, I think it's important to develop pathways(4) to the middle class that are not simply dependent on traditional higher education. It's absurd that we carry around this conceit that every child has got to go to a four-year liberal arts institution in order to make it in society. That's wrong. It's morally wrong, and it's economically wrong.

And then, finally, we've got to be very careful that ... how can I say this delicately? There are many institutions out there in higher education that are not delivering. They range from for-profit institutions to not-for-profit, and they're not worth the money. They're not delivering the kind of education that really is valuable for people, for young people. And young people and their parents are essentially being defrauded.

You mentioned the need for additional pathways alongside the traditional four-year degree. That's something that we hear from Silicon Valley, with things like coding bootcamps and other for-profit education experiments. Are those the sorts of alternatives that you're envisioning? Or what would you propose?

Well, I'm envisioning something much more ambitious than that. We've got to recreate the vision of world class vocational technical education we had started in the 1950s and then we lost somewhere in the 1960s and '70s. Every young person should have access to a superb education, technical education, vocational education, that allows him or her to have mastery over a domain of knowledge that in turn gives that young person the ability to learn on the job forever after that point.

In other words, they're learning to learn skills in a domain of knowledge. There are a lot of good jobs out there. And technology is replacing many jobs, and we're going to see that even more over the next 10 years, as robots and artificial intelligence make inroads on the whole middle class.

But there will be, and there already are, many jobs that have to do with installing, upgrading, repairing and building upon technologies that are already there, and will be there. But we don't have enough workers who understand how to do that.

Do you think that the current higher education system is preparing students for that future right now?

Absolutely not. I'm going to make a crass generalization about the current system of higher education in general, but I think it's accurate. It is still wedded to a 20th century model of education, which in turn comes to us from the 18th century. I mean, it's based on lectures. It's premised upon the outdated concept that there are subject matter specialties, that you can separate economics from engineering, from politics, from everything else, and that students are essentially passive learners. It's antiquated.

It's like the QWERTY keyboard(5)—it's almost impossible to change, because everybody has vested interests in that old system. And I think what we have to do is shake it up.

Do you see more innovation happening in the vocational space and at community colleges, or do you think this will happen first in the four-year institutions?

It's going to happen last in the prestigious four year institutions(6), because they're so successful, quote unquote, that they have no incentive to change radically. It will happen first in community colleges. In fact, community colleges have been, for the last 50 years, the crown jewels in most education systems. I mean, it's not clear that most education systems know that, but the community colleges do extraordinary work.

There's an ongoing trend we're seeing now, where some small, often private colleges have shut down. Meanwhile, some larger institutions, Purdue for example, are either purchasing online institutions or adding online programs to get more students that wouldn't traditionally show up on campus. What do you make of these two phenomenons, and how do you see this affecting the economy in years to come?

Well, starting with your last question, the economy is already suffering from a large and growing cohort of workers who don't have the skills they need to continuously learn. And backing up a bit, online learning in my view, is extraordinarily promising. The problem is it's still viewed as putting lectures online. In other words, taking the 19th and 20th century form of education and simply making it more available. Well, that's not educational reform.

Have you seen examples of something better than that?

I haven't. It's not to say they aren't out there. I'm very interested in it. It's one reason I'm here. I have some ideas about how those new learning systems might actually be appropriate to the style of learning that many young people now need.

I've been teaching for 38 years—started in 1981(7). And the 1981 brain of somebody who was 18 to 22 years old was very different from the 2018 brain of somebody who is 18 to 22 years old. Now brains are very plastic, and the brain learns to learn. I mean, this is one of first things that the brain at the age of one day starts learning, that is: how to learn. And so it's not surprising that given that the world is so different between 1981 and 2018, and was so different for all of those young people leading up to their college years, that their brains learn differently. And yet we're using almost exactly the same tools and techniques to reach these two completely different sets of brains.

How are the brains different?

I think the 1981 brain, my students then had a longer attention span, but a more narrow attention span. The 2018 brain, by contrast, has a shorter attention span, but is much broader. That is, their brains are capable of multitasking in ways that the 1981 brain was not. Or, to take another example, the 2018 brain, by contrast to the 1981 brain, is much more visually acute. That is, young people today can see things in a video, let's say, that the 1981 brain could not see. But by the same token, today's young people are not nearly as verbal. They don't learn as well from words. They learn better from pictures.

Another example: today's young people learn interactively, their brains have been brought up on video games and all sorts of other interactive technologies. The old brain was much more passive, and was a more passive learner. The new brain is much more interactive, and depends on interactivity.

And yet again, if you look at those three kinds of changes I've outlined, universities are basically teaching the way they were teaching in 1981. In fact, '81 teaching was like 1921 teaching.

In your recent book, you also talk about civic participation and weaving that into curriculums more. Since we're talking about how students have changed, I'm curious, are you seeing a difference in attitude towards civic education and towards participation today versus 30 years ago?

Yeah. Not so much in the curriculum. I mean, a little bit on the edges. But students are much more interested in civic participation. Less interested in political participation, interestingly, because they're much more cynical about politics. But they're much more interested in, more broadly, civic participation: involved in their towns, in the communities, and involved in not-for-profit activities, going round the world, getting involved in various projects that improve the lives of millions of people.

Do you think technology has had any influence on that shift?

Yes. I think partly, information technologies have fed cynicism(8) about large institutions, because there's so much more information today about how they fail. But I think also technology has enabled people to become more familiar with what others need in their communities and around the world.

How do we weave more civic education into the sorts of alternative higher-ed programs we were discussing earlier, places outside of the liberal arts?

Well, first we can say it's not coming from the liberal arts anyway. And that's a problem. With regard to vocational, technical, it may be easier to weave civic education into those programs, because those programs really are, and should be, focused on very practical knowledge—and local needs.

It's interesting that you said it's not coming from the liberal arts. Do you think people who work in liberal arts institutions are thinking they're doing a good job at that, or do you think there's a lot of folks that would agree with you?

I think there are people who work in administrative positions in liberal arts who are doing very good work. But the actual faculty, who are doing the bulk of the teaching, they are not. They are immersed in their specialties, and those specialties have very little to do with civic education.

When we're talking about more civic education, what should college professors and instructors be doing? It makes sense that they have their specialties. So how much of this civic participation should, say, an engineering instructor weave into the curriculum?

Ideally a lot. I mean, an engineering instructor could be talking about the applicability of engineering solutions to all kinds of human needs—in their communities, in the nation, around the world. An economics professor could be talking about the biggest economic issue, which is widening inequality, and how that affects people, and what we can do about it. A political science professor ought to be talking about or could be talking about some of the issues I've already brought up, the idea of citizenship. That these are not part of the standard curriculum for, say, engineering or economics or political science, is I think a problem of academic specialization.

If you could go back in time, to when you were Secretary of Labor, and change anything, what would it be?

I emphasized job training a great deal(9). And I'm glad I did. But for purely political reasons that I was very frustrated with, it was terribly difficult to get community colleges into the system of integrated job training. That is, when somebody loses a job, for example, they shouldn't have to worry about which job training program or whether it's unemployment insurance or whatever have you, they should just have one place to go. And that's what I spent a lot of time working on, but the community colleges, because they were under the Education Department, under separate authorizing legislation, never were involved. I just banged my head against that door too often. And I regret that. I think we could have had a much better system.

Now, going along with that, we never were funded adequately. We've never had adequate funding for job training, or for creating a re-employment system. Somebody loses their job, they should get job counseling, job search assistance, income insurance when they're looking for and training for a new job, and they should get appropriate job training that is linked to a job, and often linked to community colleges. We don't have that.

The current administration is talking about merging the Education Department with the Labor Department, and given what you're talking about now, what are your thoughts and feelings about that proposal?

Well, I worked so closely with the Education Department, notwithstanding my frustration, that there's a natural fit. I worry, however, that the current administration would use that merger to simply cut valuable programs. The administration has not demonstrated huge interest in either education or in labor protections or job training.

*Footnotes can be viewed in the desktop version of this article.

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