Many years ago, when a new dean at my university referred to the faculty as “content providers,” my colleagues and I rolled our eyes. It was the latest hokey label for an old profession.
There was “sage on the stage” (the distant lecturer on the podium), “guide on the side” (the collaborative, student-centered instructor) and, in the laptop classroom in which the teacher meanders behind the students, the “peer at the rear.”
Like all catchphrases and buzzwords, they served a short-hand purpose. But ponder them, and you could discern far-reaching trends in U.S. education.
Students, too, are redefined. The terms have varied – “learners,” “critical thinkers,” “meaning makers,” “problem solvers.” The hot one now seems to be “entrepreneur” or “student-entrepreneur,” at least at the college level.
Entrepreneurship programs have exploded on U.S. campuses, and administrators love to talk about them. They aren’t just for business students. Kansas State University’s Center for Advancement of Entrepreneurship declares, “The mission of our award-winning center is to promote entrepreneurship among all academic disciplines,” while at Arizona State University, “The Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative provides funding, mentorship and office space to teams of students within all university disciplines.”
The advantages of the entrepreneurship label are considerable. It’s an improvement over “customers,” a term that popped up in the late 1990s and recast higher education as a service industry.
“Entrepreneur” also reaches well beyond “learners,” which ties students to a set content, the books they read and labs they complete, while “entrepreneur” anticipates each student stepping forward to form and share something wholly new. Student entrepreneurs aren’t just learning – they’re doing.
In the mouths of administrators and on school websites, “student-entrepreneur” is more than a descriptive term. It is an endowment and a marketing strategy with a target audience: the high school student who is starting the application process.
Colleges compete feverishly for more applicants and higher selectivity in admissions, a crucial component of the U.S. News & World Report ranking. The honorable title “entrepreneur” doesn’t say, “You are an industrious, inventive, smart youth”; it promises, “Here at our campus, you will be an industrious, inventive, smart youth.”
The students’ role model isn’t LeBron James or Albert Einstein or Hillary Clinton. It’s Mark Zuckerberg, the student who turned a floating idea into Facebook Inc., or the guys who founded Instagram Inc., or Sean Parker.
Entrepreneurship seeks precisely the opposite – ends, added value, a difference in the world.
Yet colleges would do well to incorporate humanistic learning into this curriculum. Maybe an entrepreneur who has read Thucydides or Edith Wharton is more prepared, more savvy and imaginative about new products and solutions than an unlettered competitor. •