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.

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5 Responses

  1. Carlos da Cruz, Saint Paul

    I was surprised to see your article a few weeks before Mr. Pawlenty will go on in his political career, but ending his second term as governor of Minnesota. I remembered clearly an interview he gave to MPR about the time of his first campaign, where he declared that he supported education through online classes. That meant to me that if we did not pay attention to our politicians when they are campaigning, it is useless to complain about them when they are leaving … leaving behind all the damage that he has done to education.

  2. Matthew, St. Paul

    Thomas, I appreciate your concern over the rising cost of tuition, but you should know that a lot of financial aid is available to students considering attending St. Thomas. That initial $35,000 price tag can be reduced drastically thanks to large amounts of available federal loans, work study, scholarships, grants and need-based financial aid. The great part about a university like St. Thomas is that its giving community also recognizes the cost issue, and as a result generously donates to reduce these costs. When you look at the average financial aid award for students at UST, I’d say the price of education here compared to its potential benefits makes it a very wise investment.

    In regard to your comment about needing a good job just to pay off the school loans, I’m afraid I have a hard time following your logic. If an education that can provide you access to a good job is NOT the outcome of attending a university, then what is? I doubt there are many college students pursuing an education merely for enlightenment’s sake. I doubt there are any degree paths available that provide no ability for graduates to make a living, and even if there were, students have the responsibility to be well aware of what they can do with their education.

    I hope I haven’t driven this conversation too far off topic!

  3. Thomas Engrav, Farmington

    I like Dave’s post, but Tom King’s post also makes sense. $35,000 is just crazy, no matter how you look at it. A UST degree provides the opportunity to receive a good job after college, but if I’m working at this job just to pay off the loans, for many many years, then what’s the point? Especially with business degrees, I feel there’s pressure to take on jobs that, although they don’t interest us or don’t fit our career paths, pay well enough to allow us to get by. And this isn’t how selecting a path through life should work.

    I agree, students should be in a classroom, along with other students, listening to and engaging with a live professor. But if we have to sacrifice our career interests to do something that will help pay loans, then what’s the point?

  4. Tom King

    No, Dave…you can’t get a liberal education from an iCollege app.

    But, in the spirit of discussion, this well-seasoned observer wonders if future college kids will be able to afford the more expensive alternative.

    $35,000 per annum. Anyone? Anyone? What will be the cost if 10 years when my grandkids are ready for higher-ed? Not being a millionaire, will I be able to take them on a tour of the UST campus?

    We have made a tremendous investment in physical infrastructure here in recent years. Only recently have we seriously looked at alternatives, such as more online learning, or hybrid learning combos of onsite and online.

    We are still a long way from effective uses of these new tools. But they are here to stay. Cost-effectiveness will make it happen, like it or not.

    To tell you the truth, I’d rather look at a lecture on an iPad than sit in a stuffy lecture hall with 250 other learners, most of whom are texting others in the room.

    Most of the liberal education I got in the, yes, “good old days” long before the iPhone came from good profs, smaller classes and seminars, reading widely (it didn’t have to be a textbook, per se), seminars, classrooms after class with other students, and that grand, olde Grill, over coffee, where ideas were parsed and purified for our consumption.

    Time marches on, and no matter our struggles, the current bears us to the new shores, no matter our oar strokes or GPS’d iPhones.

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