Larry Summers and the Future of Education

March 1, 2012


Whether you like or loathe Larry Summers (and sometimes its easier to make a case for the latter), the former U.S. Secretary of Treasury, President of Harvard University, senior economic advisor to President Obama and currently one of the leading contenders to take over as head of the World Bank…it is impossible to ignore him.

A few weeks ago, Summers wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that should be required reading for every university President, faculty member, administrator – and student. I encourage you to read the whole article, but its core thesis is that in a world that is changing very rapidly, the sector of society tasked with preparing young people for this world is not changing anywhere near fast enough to keep up with the times.

He specifically lists several areas in which universities and high schools need to evolve to help their students be prepared to thrive in the modern world. Here are the highlights:

  1. Mastery of facts and information is much less important than knowing how to process and use them.
  2. For most of the workforce, university is the last time you are evaluated based on individual performance.
  3. Watching lectures on video is increasingly a more effective way to learn than watching them in person.
  4. Learning environments need to move from facilitating passive acquisition of knowledge to active or dynamic ways of absorbing and deploying knowledge.
  5. Counterintuitively, as the world becomes more open, and translation technologies improve, the need to master any language other than English will decline. Yet having several international experiences will be critical.
  6. In high school, the need to study trigonometry is fast being replaced by the need to study probability and decision-analysis.

Do read the whole article – Summers is a lot more eloquent than this synopsis conveys. But, alas, my education focused more on acquiring than synthesizing knowledge.


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