A Core Curriculum To Create Engaged Entrepreneurs

It’s time to transform the focus, mission, and rhetoric of liberal arts and combine its focus on cross-disciplinary critical thinking with real world experience. Here’s one proposal.

Nearly 50% of students today leave college without earning a degree. The data suggests students drop out from lack of funds, interest, mentorship, and real world relevance. Even at elite private universities where student completion rates soar to over 90%, everyone is in reform mode, trying to find the best education students need for the complex, fast-action webby world they are inheriting. Some want to argue that online course offerings (including those offered free by universities like MIT, Harvard, or Carnegie Mellon) are the answer. Well-constructed online courses do work exceptionally well in certain fields, especially technical ones that yield to individualized, challenge-based learning. But skills-acquisition is no substitute for a college degree. Just ask companies like Google and Apple. They may pick the cream of the online student crop for by-the-job, outsourced tasks that come without benefits or job security, but typically they do not look at those with online diplomas for future innovative corporate leaders.

So how do we change higher ed to better fit an interconnected, globally volatile, politically vexed, and ever-changing world? It’s time to transform the focus, mission, and rhetoric of liberal arts. Surveys of employers reveal, over and over, that what they prize most in future managers are excellence in written and spoken communication, critical and creative thinking, an ability to collaborate across distances and cultural differences, breadth of knowledge and experience that takes students out of localism and provincialism, basic technical skills, quantitative literacy, and an ability to be flexible and take risks in changing environments. That’s a great syllabus for the new liberal arts. In a world where, according to the U.S. Departments of Labor and Statistics, people change jobs four to six times, it’s the highly specialized skills that become obsolete fastest.

The opposition of "liberal arts" and "vocational education" carries with it a lot of residual 19th-century class snobbery as well as 20th-century quantitative bias. In the real world of the 21st century, there aren’t "two cultures." We need both. As a cartoon circulating on Facebook would have it, "Science can tell you how to clone a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea."

To get us thinking about the possibilities of real educational reform, I propose a Start-Up Core Curriculum for Entrepreneurship, Service, and Society (hokey, yes: SUCCESS). Neither a Great Books common core (which, however profound, rarely connects to a student’s specialized major) nor the duck, duck, goose model of distribution requirements (where students are left to make coherence from a welter of rhetoric, statistics, art appreciation, natural science, foreign language or other course offerings), the Start-Up Core Curriculum isn’t just about content mastery, but about putting deep knowledge along with basic skills into practice to address intractable real-world global problems.

A Start-Up Core Curriculum would take up the first two years of college. The first year would center on a thematic cluster of problem-based courses. This is a model already in place at many institutions of higher education—including my own, where a subset of our first-year students take FOCUS, an alternative to distribution requirements. Let’s say our liberal arts topic is "Global Health Disparities." Students take interdisciplinary team-taught health-focused courses designed to span the required general education areas (humanities, arts, social sciences, and computational and biological sciences). Weekly meetings with all faculty and students aim at connecting intellectual dots.

That’s a great start. But it’s expensive and not as entrepreneurial as students today might want it to be, so let’s push the model further. To save costs, a SUCCESS program might include a mix of large lectures and online courses (in areas such as introductory statistics, foreign language, HTML, or another programming language where such learning works). Both formats would be supplemented by small group meetings with peers, teachers, TAs, and sometimes guest non-academic experts. Seminars would be devoted to the Great Books where students would grapple together with thinkers on issues of general social health and welfare, from Socrates to Amartya Sen, and would read philosophy, history, and literature along side classic economics, revisionist behavioral economics, and actual business and management classes. How do you come up with a cost-benefit analysis and an actual, strategic business and workflow plan that embodies Sen’s ideas? Sen insists we account for the intangibles that enhance or cripple our lives (inequality, life-expectancy, infant mortality, or disease). How do you design those into the bottom line of a business, a nation, or a globally connected world?

You don’t really know how to answer that question until you’re responsible for solving a real-world problem—and not in the safe confines of a classroom but in the actual "real world." That’s in the second year of the SUCCESS program. Simultaneously contributing to the world, and learning from it, an engaged practicum second year also addresses the very real issue of "sophomore slump" (where the drop out potential runs highest). It is also a targeted, engaged alternative to the typical year-abroad experience which even for the lucky 14% of current college graduates who can afford it is often unlinked to coursework, future careers, or any real-world experience abroad. Living with other American classmates in a dorm, cordoned off from the international scene, is the antithesis of the kind of engaged, targeted experiential year of "general education" that I’m advocating. A second-year in another country consisting of entrepreneurial, service-oriented, practical work application of a new liberal arts core could be the most eye-opening, expansive experience of a lifetime. And you do not need to go abroad to learn how to participate in and contribute to actual, lived work in the "real world" of diverse cultures and populations given the extremity of the gap between rich and poor in America. Many, if not most, colleges and universities are in locales where radical income and health disparities exist a few miles or even blocks away.

Students could be placed in local nonprofits, community organizations, small businesses, and after-school programs similar to those programs pioneered by Paul Farmer and Partners in Health, not only in Haiti but at home, too. Students would lend their new expertise, deep thinking, communication skills, leadership and collaboration skills to local organizations desperate for help in financially strapped times. In turn, students would learn more about the urgencies of deep and broad knowledge, the importance of general and specialized education, the necessity for computational and social networking skills, and the imperative for hard work and true dedication—not all of it well remunerated—than any classroom could begin to instill. Some version of tuition dollars could flow to hosting organizations for mentors working with SUCCESS professors in designing, guiding, and evaluating the students’ contributions.

The students’ core web programming skills would be drawn upon as each student contributed to developing a closed collaboration space for the cohort dispersed physically but in online communities. They would share ideas, resources, and support (as well as insights into IP, privacy, security, and other 21st-century communication issues). They would decide which part of their online sharing should be public and how best to communicate new ideas to reach targeted audiences, in some cases with splashy lush corporate-style graphics, in other cases with plain text messages accessible via low bandwidth and basic mobile phones. Each student would also be building her own online portfolio, a far more convincing demonstration of employable skills than a GPA.

Even if a student were not to go into one of the many fields related to global health, such a foundational first year and experiential second year models how the "wisdom of the ages" can help us deconstruct some of the "real world" cant of our era. The real world itself needs some serious critical thinking.

The SUCCESS model I’ve sketched is intended to inspire new ideas about how we can redesign the siloed, hierarchical, pre-professional U.S. research university that was designed in the late 19th century. With a backlash against higher education in full swing, what better time than now to take up this challenge? As Thomas Friedman has recently suggested, "big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary." Let’s get started.

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  • squaredeye

    I like what you're advocating here, but I'd also suggest that universities on the whole aren't able to keep up with advances in technology, science, or art. Most university systems are bohemoth by nature because of their business model and this is why its so poor at keeping up. Like a massive ship, it cannot turn or maneuver as it needs to.

    A small business must be agile to stay afloat and be profitable. A startup must be lean and think and react quickly to market shifts or new insights or it will die. Even homeschooling or parenting are more able to react according to life changes or individual needs.

    I suspect we need more diversity in educational platforms including mentorship, apprentice programs, expedient technical degrees, and reform in our rigid understanding of accreditation in addition to "higher" education reform.

  • Drjz

    While online courses might be an efficient use of teaching resources, as a former online grad school course teacher, I have to say it is an ineffective learning tool.

  • Tom

    Why is it that when people think about making education--K12 or Higher--relevant to the "outside" world nowadays they think first about preparing students for jobs in business?  You know there are a lot of other worthy lives than those in business.  Think of the professions, e.g.   Schools are doing the work employers should be doing.  We are all born learners; look what infants do before schools get their hands on them.  But beyond, say, 2nd or 3rd grade, students are learning what they are told to learn, or they won't pass tests, move from one grade to the next, get a diploma or degree.  Or job.   How about asking the students what they want to learn?  They learn now far more outside than inside schools.  And the opportunities for learning outside are increasing.  But as students get on in their schooling, they lose touch with what they want to learn.    Along comes someone who says, Hey, how would you like to learn how to get a job?  Å good job that pays well.  Well, I note you say nothing about those successful entrepreneurs who drop out of school--or do poorly, Steve Jobs did in high school,  But according to this proposal he should not have been as  successful as he was. 

  • Cathy Davidson

     By no means is business the only way to earn a living.  You'll notice I write: "Students could be placed in local nonprofits, community organizations,
    small businesses, and after-school programs similar to those programs
    pioneered by Paul Farmer and Partners in Health, not only in Haiti but
    at home, too."   The SUCCESS plan I've outlined is a great pre-teacher training program, works for artists and musicians (in those after-school programs), and also for entrepreneurs.   Does everyone need such a program?  Of course not.  Case in point:  Steve Jobs.  Sadly, though, the statistics remind us that for everyone who drops out of college and goes on to own Microsoft, Apple, or Facebook, there are lots of people unemployed or underemployed.  My aim is not to solve all  the problems in the world but simply to provide one model to help inspire others to experiment with new forms of education that break the tired binary (it never did work) of the arts, humanities and social sciences "versus" science and technology and between the liberal arts, on the one hand, and the vocational.  I think Humpty needs to be put back together again for a true holistic form of motivated, inspired, deep, critical, and practical, imaginative, inventive learning.

  • Bob Grant

    For years as a science teacher I told students we have never launched a man to the moon.  We launch men toward the moon and then the greatest contribution of NASA comes into play.  The mid-course correction.  I have seen many ideas that die for the fact that those who develop the idea are so narrow in their thought that they cannot and will not look at a mid cours correction to refine the idea.  The risk is in being rigid from the get go.

  • Sarah Yang

    Love this idea as well! It's definitely what we're aiming for at our little start-up - somehow incorporating practical educational elements around engaging gaming experiences.

    Would definitely love to find out if this kind of curriculum/movement towards blending practical+theoretical concepts in higher-level courses takes off. Thanks for the post!

  • Jim Ewel

    Cathy, I love this idea! As a liberal arts graduate (from Furman, another Duke endowment school) and someone who has made his career in high tech marketing as well as entrepreneurship, I'm doing my small part to teach students some practical skills in entrepreneurship. I teach a course at the University of Washington Bothell campus in e-marketing, where I ask my students to start a company (initially, just an idea and a web site) and build it over the quarter. They learn practical skills (how to build a web site, how to blog, how to engage in social media, how to run a Google AdWords campaign, etc) and more theoretical lessons about marketing.

    If I can help in any way, please let me know.

    Jim Ewel
    Adjunct Faculty, Univ of Washington - Bothell

  • Rachit Kasera

     Hi  Jim,
    I am actually a big fan of fast company and just to perspective of liberal arts was browsing through this post when i read your comment that you have graduated from the same stream. Can you tell me in a few lines what liberals arts is? I am a finance guy and say i want to pursue liberal arts. Does it makes sense? you can reach me at rachitkasera .com.
    Many thanks