You Can't Replicate a Liberal Arts Education on an iPhone

As classes move into their third week and students lug their backpacks across The Quad, I can’t help but think of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s remarks on “The Daily Show” earlier this summer about higher education, its cost and the alternatives.

“Do you really think,” Pawlenty asked Jon Stewart, “in 20 years somebody’s going to put on their backpack, drive a half-hour to the University of Minnesota from the suburbs, haul their keister across campus and sit and listen to some boring person drone on about Econ 101 or Spanish 101?”

Governor, with all due respect, I sincerely hope so. And the feeling is never as strong as during these first weeks of class. A liberal arts education – with a real-live faculty, an honest-to-goodness classroom and a face-to-face discussion – can’t be replicated on an iPhone or IPad.

I understand your point about market forces and the need for changes in higher education. But I also know something about the value of the education under way at St. Thomas.

First of all, meeting in a classroom give students the opportunity to see the professor’s passion for his or her subject. The best teachers here are interested, involved and inviting and no, Governor, they don’t “drone on.”

They get students to respond to questions, talk to one another, question one another and stimulate one another.

They smile, they frown, they sometimes wave their arms. They’re alive, Governor, reacting to their professors and the subjects they teach.

For me, the classroom at the University of Wisconsin was where I learned to think for myself: about the Joe McCarthy era, the Korean War or whether you could prove that God exists. That theology class exploring the tenets of faith has comforted me for 50 years.

Critical thinking is the mission of St. Thomas education. I liked to begin my first class in broadcast reporting with a question. “All right, my friends,” I’d say, “what Impressed you, what distressed you in the last local 10 P.M. news show you saw in the Twin Cities?” Only a few hands would go up. We would talk a little about expectations and enlightenment. By the second week, most of the hands were raised.

I’d argue that learning how to think critically is a collective exercise, best done in a group among people who are inspired to do well or slightly fearful of being exposed to their colleagues of not caring enough to read the book. I discovered there’s something good about a little fear of public failure: You can’t hide behind the computer screen.

Finally, you can’t create online a fall morning at St. Thomas:

The maples turning red.

Students rushing to class, cell phones to their ears.

The chimes from the library tower.

The excitement of the new workout facility in the Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex.

You can’t get this, Governor, for $199 at iCollege.