Universities are funny organisms, self-describing with language like “innovative” and “cutting edge,” but in practice being quite conservative in maintaining their internal status quo. Curriculum is particularly slow to change, with faculty perpetuating the style and content of their own teachers, graduating students who join the workforce with similar mindsets in each generation.
Culture change that alters traditional disciplines is unusual, but occasionally the sun, moon, earth and stars align and a new learning paradigm emerges with earthquake-like force, potentially shifting how graduates practice their craft.
I came across one such paradigm-shifting program the other day, Narrative Medicine at Columbia University (http://www.narrativemedicine.org). Their goal is to replace impersonal and high-turnover patient care with careful listening and empathic attention, but it’s the method that’s most interesting: the students read fiction in order to understand that astute diagnosis is about stories.
Through literature, the students improve in their narrative competence, learning to weave initially disconnected details together into a full tapestry of a patient’s health that leads to more accurate diagnoses. Responsiveness to patients also increases with improved awareness of the character, plot and setting behind their illness, just as empathy for characters in a novel increases as we proceed deeper into the story.
My curiosity piqued, I began seeking out other examples of culture-busting university coursework, and soon a friend sent me The Senior Reflection: When Art Meets Science at Stanford University (http://www.stanford.edu/~suemcc/TSR/index.html). This Biology Department course offers students the opportunity to do a creative project that connects a scientific subject with the arts.
One student wrote and performed a compelling prose poem about his conservation work with elephants, while a second created a mixed media sand art performance exploring the precarious position of frogs threatened with global extinction. A third student composed a jazz piece, “Improvising Infections.” Since the course began in 2011, dozens of students have used the creativity of art to explore their scientific interests while engaging the broader community outside of university.
It’s difficult to assess whether these and a few other university programs I found are curricular outliers or trendsetters, but their scarcity suggests that culture-busting coursework is still far from becoming a movement.
There is an educational crusade going on today, but it’s happening outside of traditional universities, through a growing cornucopia of social enterprises providing discipline-bridging programs in tune with today’s rapid evolution of how work is viewed.
One of the leaders in this new model is the Asheville, North Carolina group Mycelium (http://mycelium.is), whose tag line asks the questions “Is your education getting in the way of your learning?” They offer 12-week sessions in which participants, who are called “Change Makers” in their lexicon, identify their own project or life question and explore it through a custom-designed learning program.
Their Journey includes clarifying their question, raising funds, mapping out the skills and network needed to address their issue, three-day retreats with fellow Journeyers, and a tailored set of relevant workshops offered at various sites across the United States. An extensive support universe provides feedback, including a personal coach, a personal advisory team, a practice group in which to try out ideas, and Curated Connections to People in the Mycelium Network (capitals are theirs, not mine).
All is available for $4400, discounted slightly if you sign up early or with a friend, a fairly reasonable fee considering that a semester in a typical US university will cost five times or so the Mycelium fee. And they promise results: after 12 weeks, Change Makers will leave activated to do their project and connected to a community that can support their plan.
Once you get past the self-consciously hip jargon of Change Makers on a Journey with Curated Connections, the world of social enterprise education is more vibrant and imaginative than the more staid education offered through universities.
But both have value; students benefit from the knowledge transfer that universities do well, but need a change-making journey through which to find their own unique voice in the world.
A wise university would note the growth potential in these change making social enterprises and incorporate similar models into their undergraduate curriculum.
One Change Maker who participated in Mycelium, Kate Morales, summarized well where this potential sweet spot between education and learning at a university might reside: “My biggest insight was finding a learning structure that worked for me — something between the rigidity of formal school and the unsupportedness of wandering.”