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Century of Triumph, Millennium of Challenge

Opinion: Stephen L.Weber

The close of the 20th century is a crossroads at which we take a reflective pause and look back at the evolution of our society over the past hundred years to get some sense of our future. For those of us in education, it is an opportunity to both see how far we’ve come and to evaluate the strategies we can take to meet the demands of a rapidly changing world.

In 1900, education was still very much a privilege. Now, happily, it is viewed as an enlightened social investment. As a society we have come to recognize that education is essential to both success of individuals and to our success as a community. Most importantly, although many hurdles remain to be cleared, education is no longer the exclusive province of the wealthy as it once was.

The definition of what it means to be educated has also evolved. Equipping students with the tools to meet the new demands of information and technology has implications for educators that we’ve just begun to understand and think through. We are departing from the notion that there is a certain set of ideas that an educated person should know. We face challenges that people a generation ago could scarcely have imagined.

Today, our graduates must function in a rapidly changing world, be guided by a sound moral compass, have the capacity to sort through an enormous quantity of information to determine what is truly of value and, most importantly, the ability to raise the right questions.

The Global Village

As technology expands, our planet seems to be contracting. The concept of the global village, once mere rhetoric, has become an undeniable fact of life. At San Diego State University, we have resolved to provide a variety of opportunities for our students to have an international experience as part of their degree programs. We believe those experiences will be the foundation of numerous contributions to transborder collaborations.

As educators, we need to practice what we teach; if we ask students to change, we must be prepared to adapt teaching methods and philosophies to bring about that change. Education has been defined as “Socrates on one end of the log and a student on the other.” Education is basically an exchange between human beings. You still need to have Socrates on one end of the log and the student on the other. What’s changing is the log.

Distance education provides the means for teachers and learners to link in ways never before possible. Fifty years from now, there will still be classrooms and teachers, but new opportunities for people to learn at their own pace, in their own time, will continue to emerge.

New Pillars

A century ago, indeed just a few decades ago, many disciplines we now consider pillars of higher education did not yet exist. A hundred years from now, some of today’s pillars will doubtless be quaint reminders of a bygone era. That inevitability crystallizes the challenge for educators and students as we prepare to enter a new millennium. How do we insure that the education we so carefully provide will serve our graduates well as they face challenges we cannot imagine?

For all our technological advances, education will always remain a process of differentiating between information and knowledge, of self-discovery and a healthy challenge to the assumptions of our present moment. As the 20th century has clearly shown us, the past is indeed prologue. It pleases me to know that San Diego State University and its graduates will be writing wonderful new chapters in the ongoing human adventure.

Weber is president of San Diego State University.

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