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Higher Education and the World of Tomorrow

Throughout history, humankind has demonstrated extraordinary brilliance as well as an almost-incomprehensible dark side. With today’s tools, knowledge, and leadership, let’s choose to make use of higher education for that higher purpose.

By Roseann O’Reilly Runte

Crystal balls, planetary alignments, reports from the European community, and the stock markets are no more reliable indicators of the future than the old-fashioned rearview mirror. After all, as Canadian critic Northrup Frye once pointed out, history is our only sure guide to the days ahead. The past, while replete with negative examples of human error and frailty, is also filled with the hope and promise of the capacity of humankind to aspire to greatness through imagination, cooperation, and hard work. Education has been the foundation for success in the past and continues to be the first step toward achieving the full potential of each individual and of civilization in the future.

The mantra of change is omnipresent. We believe the world is changing at a more rapid rate than ever, and the way we educate our youth must also evolve to meet the unknown demands of uncertain times. We understand that since life expectancy has increased, the possibilities for learning have expanded, and we must be students throughout our lifetimes, informally or formally learning to adapt our behavior and understanding new concepts. Our individual opportunities to contribute to the creation of a better world have expanded just as the challenges of doing so have grown. Only a generation ago, world travel was rare and the problems occurring on other continents were reported with a time lapse of several months.  Today, crises anywhere in the world are played out on television screens in our homes in real time. Both the capacity for massive destruction and the imperative to solve problems that might lead to disaster have increased. Solutions must be far-reaching, instantaneous, and brilliant.

Informed by the past, we note the role of technology in sparking change. Many centuries ago, a Chinese emperor had the scholars, healers, and poets of his reign inscribe the sum of their wisdom on a series of massive stone tablets, so numerous that they are known today as the Stone Forest. The intent was to make knowledge available to all who wished to visit and rub rice paper against the tablets, essentially printing a personal copy. Access to knowledge on a local basis was rendered possible. Then Gutenberg with the printing press made knowledge accessible around the world. Early colonists to America not only brought books with them, but established their own presses.

Today, the computer has conquered the barrier of time as well as distance. Information can be shared with immediacy across the boundaries imposed by nations. The next technological revolution will be the hundred-dollar (or less) computer, requested by India's Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal, effectively conquering the economic barrier—perhaps the final obstacle—to the universal sharing of information.

We can imagine that the concept of space will change and that our classrooms will stretch virtually around the world. Universities will not look the same. Infrastructure will be invisible and ivory towers, already replaced by energy-efficient structures, will become ever more concentrated hubs surrounded by networks. Researchers, part of ever-expanding international consortiums, will solve problems cooperatively. Studies will be done across boundaries over the course of our lifetimes, and we will return to the campus periodically to retool our minds and refresh our creative energies.

Just as major issues around the world know no boundaries, solutions must be global. Environmental issues do not stop at national borders. Poverty is unfortunately a reality in every part of the world. Population health, the use of resources, employment, and meaningful work-all require the attention of the best minds in the world. Education will likely be focused thematically and dedicated more than ever to resolving world issues. When we bring together researchers from different disciplines and different cultural backgrounds, the chances of innovation and creativity expand. Technology provides the basis for hope and a building block for new vision.

Humanity has always striven for greatness and people have been prepared to make enormous sacrifices to achieve lofty goals. Whether we think of Marie Curie in her laboratory, of Neil Armstrong stepping out on the surface of the moon, of Roman workers building miles of towering aqueducts, or of international teams of physicists working today to find new sources of energy, the desire to explore the unknown—to discover new lands and new ideas, to serve the greater good—has been a powerful force in human development. The results have been the achievements of which we are most proud and which have most profoundly benefited the world.

Education is not only the pursuit of knowledge but a process of socialization, which will be increasingly important both as an interface between humans and machines and among people of different cultures, backgrounds, and experiences. First-generation scholars face incredible challenges but bring with them extraordinary potential. Sixteen-year old Shouryya Ray, an Indian-born teen studying in Dresden, recently solved a mathematical problem first posed by Sir Isaac Newton more than 300 years ago.

The potential for excellence is matched only by the possibilities for the misuse of information. For many years we have avoided teaching values out of respect for differences. Yet lack of such discussions can contribute to future Enrons and other calamities caused by misleading communication and unethical behavior. Courses in global ethics and civil society will be ever more needed. Egocentrism and the sense of entitlement can be replaced by humanitarian ideals and a sense of responsibility and a commitment to civic engagement, when world concerns are understood.

Education is required for global survival and success, especially in our changing world. We can use technology to enable human potential to soar, making the next century truly remarkable. President Abraham Lincoln modestly stated that the world would little note nor long remember what was said and done in Gettysburg. Yet he was wrong. We will never forget the contributions of the generations preceding us. Let us make our page in history a success story—of higher education for higher purpose and higher goals. Our children and the world deserve nothing less.

ROSEANN O'REILLY RUNTE is president and vice chancellor, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.