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A Higher Ideal

A Higher Ideal

As the world experiences change at an exponential rate, whether advancements in technology, political instability, or climate change and beyond, education’s guiding hand has never been more significant than today. But are we doing enough?

STRIDES talks to Dr. Joseph Jabbra, Member of the Board of Trustees at The American University of Bahrain, and President Emeritus of Lebanese American University for his insights on how education can stay relevant, foster the values required for progress, and meet the needs of future graduates.

What values does an American education confer on students?  

American education has a set of three intrinsic values that are at the core of the academic and personal development of young men and women:

Academic excellence. It is a demonstrated ability to excel in scholastic activities, to read and write well, and to understand and work with numbers. Academic excellence has been identified in American education with achieving superior academic performance.

Habits of the mind. These consist of the ability to think critically, write cohesively, communicate clearly, and reflect logically. 

Principles. Access to education, affordability, equity, non-discrimination, and social integration.

These values are instilled gradually in K-12 students and begin to intensify at the college level with the many choices offered to students in terms of majors and electives, and with a liberal arts core to be completed by all students. All these values are fundamental to the development and strengthening of democracy, responsible freedom of expression and assembly, and the rule of law. 

Can a traditional American Liberal Arts education hold its relevance in the future?

Yes, it can, and especially now in the wake of breathtaking technological developments, and in particular, the rise of robotic culture and artificial intelligence (AI) that invade every aspect of our lives. AI progeny (e.g., Chatbot, ChatGPT, Bing Chat, AlphaGo) are beginning to think and change things independently of human intervention. Humanity cannot afford to graduate automatons into a world buffeted by exponential change. Rather, we need to graduate young men and women who are well versed not only in the technological brave new world, but who also are endowed with the gift of critical thinking, who can articulate their thoughts well, question and understand the world, and make decisions to help society meet its many challenges. For of all the living creatures on this earth, and despite challenges of AI, only human beings have the capacity to understand the machine and go beyond it. The liberal arts enrich our spirit, and knowing where we came from can prevent us from repeating the mistakes of the past. Critical thinking skills can be transferred to new settings in a changing world where market forces and technological innovations will force an individual to change jobs many times and constantly upgrade their education and professional training.

We need to graduate young men and women who are well versed not only in the technological brave new world, but who also are endowed with the gift of critical thinking, who can articulate their thoughts well, question and understand the world, and make decisions to help society meet its many challenges.

Why is accreditation important for universities and schools, especially in an international setting?

Any institution that intends to offer an American education will be judged by American standards. Being accredited has become a sign of academic excellence and an important criterion students consider before choosing an institution for the pursuit of their studies. Moreover, achieving accreditation is not an endpoint; rather, it is a journey of continuous improvement. Accreditation assesses the institution's means, financial and organizational, of achieving its goals. It also has an impact upon enrollment because students and their parents view it as an indicator of quality.

Are American universities in the Middle East currently delivering an education that is on par with their US counterparts? Which reforms would you recommend as top of the priority list?

Yes. Institutions such as American University of Beirut (AUB), Lebanese American University (LAU), American University in Cairo (AUC), American University of Sharjah (AUS), and American University of Bahrain (AUBH), offer academic programs as good as their sister institutions in the United States. I strongly recommend that institutions of higher education that intend to offer an American education begin to make major reforms in the following areas: 

The traditional model of American higher education is dated and needs to be replaced.  American opinion leaders are not happy with American institutions of higher education because they allege that the universities do not deliver what they promise to do. Underfunding, decline in enrollment, tuition fatigue, and doubts about the worth of a university degree are seriously challenging the traditional status quo.

The challenges that American higher education faces today make recruiting visionary leaders very difficult.  Their job has lost its glamor and become much more challenging. The pressures have taken a significant toll on them and their families.  As a result, the average length of tenure of a president or chancellor has shrunk to five years. Faculty are leaving the academy because they are disillusioned with their jobs, and seeking employment elsewhere.

About 25% of the student body in the United States is apathetic, questioning the use of higher education. American institutions of higher education must face up to the fourth industrial revolution, with its powerful technological instruments which range from robots to invasive artificial intelligence. American higher education needs to come to terms with artificial intelligence and begin to make proposals for its regulation and the ethical dimensions of its implementation.  

Current teaching methods need to change. The two cultures of academia need to come together. We need more cooperation among academic units within institutions. The universities themselves must form partnerships with each other to transcend insularity. Lifelong learning and training must become mainstream, not left on the fringes of the academy. 

How should higher education evolve to better respond to the needs of society? 

Our current society is divided between well-educated and ill-educated, between higher social classes and lower ones, between urban and rural populations. It faces a deep political gulf. This runs contrary to the ideals of American higher education in terms of access, affordability, and non-discrimination. It has deleterious consequences for the future of democracy.

Higher education should continue its focus on liberal education. The core curriculum, general education, has the potential of bringing together the two cultures of the sciences, mathematics, and business on the one hand, and the humanities, arts, and social sciences on the other. Our graduates still need to understand their larger world, to understand their past so that they might not repeat its mistakes. At the same time, universities should make sure that students' major fields of study are up to date, meeting modern standards. Finally, our faculty, students, and administrators should care about the society they live in, aspiring to close the social, economic, and political gaps now afflicting our society.

How can students gain the most out of their university experience?

They need to take their education seriously, understanding that they are responsible for their own education. They need to attend class and pay attention, carry out their assignments, get involved in student life, and participate in campus co-curricular activities. To do all of this successfully, students need to learn how to manage their time effectively. Time management is key to their academic success and personal growth. Finally, academic advising is fundamental to students' university careers.

Dr. Jabbra