What You (Really) Need to Know

What You (Really) Need to Know January 23, 2012

What do you need to know? Really? And how might you be able to learn this?

Lawrence Summers. From Flickr.com.

Questions like these are addressed in a tantalizing piece that appeared recently in the New York Times. Written by Lawrence Summers, former Secretary of the Treasury and President of Harvard University, “What You (Really) Need to Know” examines our quest for knowledge in light of changes in our world.

Summers begins by noting that universities set the standard for what students should know and how they should know it. Yet, ironically, university education is often way behind the times. Is this so bad? Summers is unsure:

It may be that inertia is appropriate. Part of universities’ function is to keep alive man’s greatest creations, passing them from generation to generation. Certainly anyone urging reform does well to remember that in higher education the United States remains an example to the world, and that American universities compete for foreign students more successfully than almost any other American industry competes for foreign customers.

Yet, Summers wonders how university education might change in light of what is happening in the world today:

Nonetheless, it is interesting to speculate: Suppose the educational system is drastically altered to reflect the structure of society and what we now understand about how people learn. How will what universities teach be different? Here are some guesses and hopes.

He outlines six possible transformations in the way we learn, in the university and beyond. Here are his main points, with some explanatory excerpts:

1. Focus on Learning Process.

“Education will be more about how to process and use information and less about imparting it. This is a consequence of both the proliferation of knowledge — and how much of it any student can truly absorb — and changes in technology.”

2. Collaboration

“An inevitable consequence of the knowledge explosion is that tasks will be carried out with far more collaboration.”

3. New Technologies

New technologies will profoundly alter the way knowledge is conveyed.”

4. Active Learning

“Not everyone learns most effectively in the same way. And yet in the face of all evidence, we rely almost entirely on passive learning. Students listen to lectures or they read and then are evaluated on the basis of their ability to demonstrate content mastery. They aren’t asked to actively use the knowledge they are acquiring.”

“’Active learning classrooms’ — which cluster students at tables, with furniture that can be rearranged and integrated technology — help professors interact with their students through the use of media and collaborative experiences.”

5. Cosmopolitan Education

“The world is much more open, and events abroad affect the lives of Americans more than ever before. This makes it essential that the educational experience breed cosmopolitanism — that students have international experiences, and classes in the social sciences draw on examples from around the world.”

6. Data Analysis

“Courses of study will place much more emphasis on the analysis of data.”

“As the ‘Moneyball’ story aptly displays in the world of baseball, the marshalling of data to test presumptions and locate paths to success is transforming almost every aspect of human life.”


I find all of this quite thought provoking. It is relevant, I believe, not just for higher education. It challenges all sorts of activities and institutions. If Summers is at all right in what he proposes, or in some of it, at any rate, I wonder what implications this might have for the church? Plenty to ponder here. As you think about all of this, let me encourage you to read the original article: “What You (Really) Need to Know” by Lawrence Summers.

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