Confronting Tradition in the Classroom

April 13, 2015 Updated: April 13, 2015

It’s April, and those of us residing in the northeastern United States continue to shelter our bodies in sweatpants and hide away under blankets, waiting for a sign that spring is just around the corner. While the weather may not be inspiring much hope, there’s one thing Mother Nature can’t take away: Major League Baseball’s Opening Day.

But professional baseball has come under scrutiny in recent years for a decline in overall viewership and an appeal to an aging demographic, with some saying that our national pastime’s heyday is already behind us and, therefore, beyond saving. I’ve heard this sentiment before in my line of work—one that is equally as mired in controversy—in education reform.

In fact, I see a lot of similarities between baseball and higher education. First and foremost, they are both revered American establishments. Especially in this region, they have storied histories, and with history comes tradition. And tradition isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Don’t get me wrong, tradition is important and in some way should be respected. After all, baseball wouldn’t be baseball without a pitcher, a hitter, and a ball. And higher education would cease to exist entirely without students, teachers, and degrees. But it can also be unnecessarily constraining, making our institutions obsolete in a world that offers alternative options. We are so scared of changing, of violating tradition, that the very thing we are seeking to protect becomes inaccessible to the general population.

Recognizing that people couldn’t always take time off from work, baseball took advantage of the spread of electricity and the invention of high-powered lights to introduce night games. Of course the “traditionalists” cried foul, but the keepers of the game recognized that the game had no value if people couldn’t access it. And as technology has advanced, they’ve gone even further to ensure access by allowing indoor stadiums with turf fields that can be played regardless of weather.

Similarly, in education, history tells us that the “credit hour” is king, and that students must attend a two- or four-year college in a physical classroom to prove they’re worthy of a degree. But in a world with new technologies, where an aging workforce and soldiers are in search of postsecondary education opportunities, it can’t be the only option for students.

Higher education must find ways to ensure a changing population for whom the traditional model is all to often an ill-fated option to access and succeed in higher education. These include expanding the use of “prior learning assessment” or “competency-based education” models. These systems allow for a college experience that is tailor-made for each individual student. They take into account an individual’s prior career experience, community service, and professional certifications, for instance. And their popularity is growing, with states like Ohio looking to implement these programs statewide.

After all, it’s difficult for me to believe that a returning veteran who served as a translator has something to prove in Arabic 101. And that a certified personal trainer turned physical therapist hopeful isn’t deserving of a single credit in anatomy and physiology.

Traditionalist views of higher education don’t account for the reality that the “typical” student demographic is drastically changing, and that a decreasing percentage of those seeking a college degree are 18-year-old recent high school graduates. They are adults or other “nontraditional” students—oftentimes with families—to whom artificial barriers make degree completion a never-ending journey.

Through all of these changes, it’s important to keep in mind the impact on the practitioners. Baseball players have adapted to changes in equipment, longer travel schedules, faster pitchers, and stronger hitters, and all while under the microscope of sports news writers.

Similarly, we must not ignore the pressure put on higher education institutions. Teachers must adapt to new technologies, evolving content, and flexible degree programs, all while being challenged to produce competent and well-trained students.

Change in higher education won’t come easy, it never has. But to shrink from the challenge because it requires change would be to hold on to a false sense of what makes education valuable.

While tradition should be cherished, by instead embracing change, we hold the opportunity to elevate higher education and better serve students from all walks of life.

Martha Snyder is a senior associate at HCM Strategists.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.