Reflections on a Seminar

October 30, 2017: What Bacteria Can Teach Us About Stress Response – Amy Cheng Vollmer

Amy Vollmer, Professor of Biology and Chair of the Biology Department at Swarthmore College, came to R-MC to give a talk about bacteria and how they respond to stress.

Bacteria is the oldest creature on this planet – if these unicellular organisms had not learned how to cope with stress, we, and the rest of the organisms that make up this world, would not exist.

In this case, stress is something physical or chemical that upsets the steady-state balance of the cell, and a stress response are the adjustments made by the cell in an attempt to restore the cell to its steady-state.

In order to measure the amount of stress in a bacterium, Vollmer explained, luciferase is inserted into the DNA of the specific bacterium being studied. Luciferase is any type of protein that produces light, but it is only activated if the bacterium is exposed to stress. This means that as soon as stress is introduced to the bacterium, it lights up. And the more the bacterium lights up, the more stress they are experiencing.

We can put a unit of measurement to the amount of stress the bacterium is under by measuring the level of light in lux (lx). The brighter the light, the higher the lux level, which means a greater amount of stress.

With the ability to numerically measure stress, scientists are now able to study how and why a particular bacteria reacts to certain stimuli.

Overall, I thought the science behind this subject matter was fascinating. Mrs. Vollmer was engaging, and able to explain the subject matter in a way that even I, an individual who has little aptitude for biology, was able to understand the science and its implications. At the end of the seminar, I found I was amazed, learning about the miraculous things that happen without us seeing.

The Economic Impact of Golden Rice

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are plants, animals, or microorganisms that have had their genes altered in such a way that does not naturally occur. This type of technology, commonly known as “biotechnology” or “gene technology,” allows for individual genes to be transferred from one organism to another. Genetically modified (GM) crops are developed and marketed because there is a perceived advantage to them – they cost less and supposedly have a greater benefit to them in terms of durability and nutritional value. Initially, the main purpose of GM crops was to improve the durability of individual plants in such a way that increased their resistance against diseases that were caused by insects or viruses, and increased their tolerance to herbicides. Some of the most common genetically modified crops are cassava, wheat, potatoes, soy, and rice, all of which can be considered staple foods in certain regions of the world.

This picture shows different rice varieties the Green Revolution resulted in the center rice, while the rice on the right is closer to what modern-day Golden Rice look like. Image Source: http://www.abc.net.au/science/slab/rice/img/rices2.jpg

The biotechnology produced in both Green Revolutions was vital in creating Golden Rice, which is a strain of rice with increased amounts of vitamin A. It was invented by Peter Beyer, of University of Freiburg, and Ingo Potrykus, of Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich University, in 2000. Beyer and Potrykus developed Golden Rice by transferring phytoene synthase (PSY) and carotene desaturase (CrtI) genes, found in both daffodils and maize, to rice. This action dramatically increased the concentration of the B-carotene, or vitamin A, in rice.The rise of genetically modified crops on the market occurred because of the Green Revolution, a movement that can be divided into two parts: the First Green Revolution and the Second Green Revolution. The First Green Revolution began in the 1930s and ended in the late 1960s, and jumpstarted the development of biotechnology. The First Green Revolution was led by Norman Borlaug, who was dubbed the “Father of the Green Revolution,” due to his leadership and contributions during the movement (Briney 2017). Borlaug was recruited by the Mexican Agricultural Program to begin working on genetically modifying crops, with a focus on wheat breeding. Eventually, Borlaug developed different strains of wheat that were resistant to rust (a fungal disease) and able to grow in any part of the world, regardless of environmental and ecological conditions. This biotechnology that Borlaug produced took off in the 1950s and 1960s, spreading beyond Mexico to India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and the Philippines, and lent a hand in producing several other genetically modified plants. The crops developed during the Second Green Revolution (Though there is some debate as to whether a Second Green Revolution has started – some countries have called for a second one while others remain skeptical about the topic.) were mainly those of high yield varieties, or crops that were bred specifically to have higher production rates.

Image source: http://www.businessinsider.com/un-world-population-projections-2015-7

This increase in productivity made it possible to feed the growing human population, preventing starvation in many developing countries (most notably in the Pakistan and India). By developing staple crops (specific crops that are regularly consumed in high quantities), such as wheat, this set a precedent for other types of genetically modified foods to be produced.

The first thing to consider when discussing the economic viewpoint of Golden Rice is its overall price. When compared to price of regular, white rice, Golden Rice is exponentially more expensive. In the United States, the price of one pound of white rice equates to $0.69 (Statista 2016). The average cost to produce a pound of regular rice is $0.06, but the price can range anywhere from $0.0399 to $0.0894 (Livezey and Foreman 2004). On the flip side, Golden Rice is perceived to have annual costs of around $199 million, not including an additional one-time administrative fee for implementing the Golden Rice program and whatever it will cost to maintain the program (Wesseler 2014). It is estimated that Golden Rice would cost around $100.00 for every life it

This figure shows the price per pound of rice in the U. S. from 1995 – 2016. Image source: https://www.statista.com/statistics/236628/retail-price-of-white-rice-in-the-united-states/

saved from vitamin A deficiency, and when that price is multiplied by the number of people in the developing countries that would benefit from Golden Rice (ex. India, Bangladesh, or the Philippines), those countries are looking at calculated prices of well over a billion dollars (Lomborg 2013).

Vitamin A deficiency is a problem faced by most developing countries, and is considered one the most harmful forms of malnutrition. It can cause blindness, limit the natural growth rates of individuals, and weaken the body’s immune system. With the development of Golden Rice, it was thought that vitamin A deficiencies would decrease in most of the developing countries, since rice is considered a staple food and would be readily accessible to the masses. However, the economic consequences, both positive and negative, of Golden Rice may outweigh any benefits it has.

 

Image Source: https://medium.com/nestle-usa/vitamin-a-a-dangerous-deficiency-infographic-eb6e166ae388

 

The price of Golden Rice in itself can be considered an economic disadvantage. The cost of production, maintaining, and distributing Golden Rice is too expensive for the developing countries that need it. Currently, the only countries that can afford Golden Rice are first-world and developed countries, but there is no market for this product in those types of countries because vitamin A deficiency is not a widespread or detrimental problem.

This shows 400g of rice, the average amount of rice eaten in one day in countries where rice is a staple crop. Image source: http://bronmarshall.com/2010/spring/perfect_gohan_japanese_steamed_rice.html

This high fee for Golden Rice also puts it at a disadvantage as a product on the competitive market. Since it is one of the most expensive solutions to fixing the vitamin A deficiency problem, developing countries often choose alternatives. Cheaper methods of addressing vitamin A deficiency, such as reinforcing flour with more vitamin A through processing methods, increasing the availability of fortified milk and ready-made meals, and simply raising awareness about the consequences of a vitamin A deficiency, are more appealing to developing countries simply because it costs less than implementing Golden Rice (GM Watch 2013). There has also been speculation that it would take 3 kg of Golden Rice per day for a child to meet their vitamin A requirement, which is an obscene amount of rice to eat in one day since the average amount of rice eaten in countries where that grain is a staple is 400 g, and continues to up the price on Golden Rice (Free Rice 2017).

The figure shows the relationship between Marginal Cost (MC), Average Total Cost (ATC), Supply (S), and Marginal Revenue (MR) for a monopoly in the market. The box created by the intersection of the Marginal Cost and Average Total Cost shows the total economic profit of the monopoly. Monopolies do not function on the intersection of supply and demand; they function where Marginal Cost and Average Total Cost intersect which yields the market price of the product. Additionally, monopolies are harmful to society because they produce Deadweight Loss, a phenomenon in which portions of consumer and producer surplus are lost to the market. Therefore, monopolies are inefficient and often supply less than quantity demanded, requiring higher prices to yield economic profit.

Another economic disadvantage to Golden Rice is the fact that it encourages monopolistic behavior. When Peter Beyer and Ingo Potrykus invented Golden Rice, they needed an industrial partner that would be willing to both the humanitarian use and commercialization of this product. In 2001, Beyer and Potrykus exclusively signed over the rights to Golden Rice to Syngenta, an agrichemical and seed company located in Switzerland, which effectively gave them a monopoly on Golden Rice (Golden Rice Project 2016).

While Syngenta was the sole owner of the Golden Rice commercial rights, they had agreed to allow access to Golden Rice for humanitarian uses, free of charge, so that developing countries who would greatly benefit from this genetically modified crop could do so (Golden Rice Project 2016). However, the creation and production of Golden Rice involved several patented technologies, or licenses that conferred the right to exclude others from making, using, or selling a certain type of technology. When Syngenta obtained the rights to Golden Rice, they also managed to obtain a license that allowed them access to all the technology (patented by companies such as Bayer AG, Monsanto Co., Orynova BV, and Zeneca Mogen BV) needed to create Golden Rice, further strengthening their monopoly on Golden Rice in a commercial sense. Fortunately, the companies that owned patents on the technology needed for Golden Rice also allowed access to Golden Rice for humanitarian use.

In spite of allowing humanitarian access to Golden Rice for free, Syngenta has faced opposition over their monopoly on Golden Rice. In the countries where Golden Rice has been planted, groups of farmers have risen up against Syngenta, protesting its monopoly and want to profit from Golden Rice (Sustainable Pulse 2013). This controversy is detrimental to the market and commercialization of Golden Rice because it presents Syngenta with the potential for huge economic losses.

Image source: https://sustainablepulse.com/2013/08/09/philippine-farmers-uproot-syngentas-gmo-golden-rice-field-tests/#.WihzH0qnFPY

Even though Golden Rice has obvious disadvantages, it does have some advantages.

The most obvious economic advantage of Golden Rice is that it has the potential to feed and nourish more people, which leads to those people having the ability to contribute back to the economy through the workforce. Any type of nutritional deficiency has the possibility to impact labor outcomes by limiting labor productivity and human capital accumulation. The vitamin A deficiency, which is considered one of the most severe forms of malnutrition, can cause blindness, weaken the body’s immune system, and hinder the natural growth rates of individuals, all of which are factors that cripple one’s ability to work (Golden Rice Project 2016). This is especially detrimental in developing countries, where most of the workforce is centered around labor. With the introduction of Golden Rice, the percentage of the population affected by malnutrition decreases, which allows the potential for capital growth to increase. Since nutrition is positively related to cognitive ability, an increase in nutrition, due to Golden Rice, would result in an increase in labor productivity, which benefits the economy as a whole (Wesseler 2014).

Another economic advantage of Golden Rice is that it has the possibility to widen the market of GMOs. The development of new markets, with the potential for high returns, is always beneficial to the economy and its growth. If Golden Rice is successful, there would be a dramatic increase in the production of genetically modified foods and crops, which would lead to the development of new GMO companies, which would lead to thousands of new jobs that needed to be filled. There would then be a decrease in unemployment rate, a sure sign of a strong, and growing economy.

Essentially, Golden Rice has the potential to start a chain of events that are beneficial to the economy, but will only occur if Golden Rice itself takes off.

The figure displays the relationship between supply (S) and demand (D) in the short-term market. As quantity demanded decreases or quantity supplied increases, price (P) decreases in response to the shift.

Unfortunately, the market for Golden Rice is non-existent; however, predictions regarding the behavior of Golden Rice upon introduction into the market can be speculated. Since price is determined at the intersection of supply and demand, speculating the price of Golden Rice in relation to white rice will provide insight into the potential influence of Golden Rice in the market and the consumers’ perceptions of the product.

According to the International Rice Research Institution (IRRI), Golden Rice should not surpass white rice in shelf price (if it should ever take off in the market); in fact, the IRRI predicts that Golden Rice will be slightly less expensive than white rice. These predictions indicate either the presence of a smaller demand, or larger supply of Golden Rice in comparison to the demand for and supply of white rice. However, even if the shelf price of Golden Rice is predicted to be less than the shelf price of white rice, the production costs of Golden Rice will continue to make the price of Golden Rice substantially higher than white rice.

The figure to the left describes the relationship between Marginal Cost (MC), Average Total Cost (ATC), and the Demand in the rice market. Marginal Cost and Demand are stagnant; however, Average Total Cost moves vertically. If Average Total Cost is below the Demand, farmers in the market for rice will have long-run economics profits, which would encourage perspective farmers to produce rice. This occurrence causes increased substitutes in production for rice and subsequently lowers the demand for rice. As demand decreases, the Average Total Cost increases to mimic the figure above. Therefore, the introduction of Golden Rice into the rice market would cause an increased Average Total Cost and no economic profit to be made by farmers in the rice market, which makes an unattractive product to the producers.

Even though Golden Rice possesses many benefits to combat the widespread Vitamin A deficiency in developing countries, the fact remains that the demise of Golden Rice in the market is inevitable. In order for Golden Rice to generate demand, it must overcome the substantial production costs and the negative perception of genetically modified foods in each country that opts to implement it. Though these deterring factors can be combatted through educating consumers about genetically modified crops, finding ways to lower production costs, and implementing government subsidies to encourage farming of Golden Rice, these efforts are partially impeded by the presence of the Syngenta monopoly over Golden Rice. In order for Golden Rice to become truly beneficial to developing countries, some sort of action (whether in the form of government or other competition presented by other GMO companies) must be taken to eliminate, or break up, the monopoly. Though Golden Rice holds possible potential in the future, it is currently trapped in economic conditions that make it an implausible product on the market.

 

References

Briney, A. (2017, May 17). All you wanted to know about the Green Revolution. Thoughtco. Retrieved from: https://www.thoughtco.com/green-revolution-overview-1434948

GM Watch. (2013, Oct. 16). New briefing on Golden Rice shows many better alternatives. GM Watch. Retrieved from http://www.gmwatch.org/en/bills-test/15115-new-briefing-on-golden-rice-shows-many-better-alternatives

Golden Rice Humanitarian Board (2016). Golden Rice Project. Golden Rice Humanitarian Board. Retrieved from http://www.goldenrice.org/index.php

International Rice Research Institution. (2015). The second Green Revolution has begun: rice, food security, and climate change. International Rice Research Institution. Retrieved from: http://irri.org/the-second-green-revolution-has-begun

International Rice Research Institution (2017). Will Golden Rice be more expensive than regular rice? International Rice Research Institution. Retrieved from: http://irri.org/golden-rice/faqs/will-golden-rice-be-more-expensive-than-regular-rice

Livezey, J. and Foreman, L. (2004, Mar.) Characteristics and production costs of U.S. rice farms. United States Department of Agriculture 974: 1 – 30.

Lomborg, B. (2013, Feb. 17). The deadly opposition to genetically modified food. Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/project_syndicate0 /2013/02/gm_food_golden_rice_will_save_millions_of_people_from_vitamin_a_deficiency.html

Statista. (2016). Retail price of white price (long grain, uncooked) in the United States from 1995 to 2016 (in U.S. dollars per pound). Statista. Retrieved from: http://www.statista.com  /statistics/236628/retail-price-of-white-rice-in-the-united-states/

Sustainable Pulse. (2013, Aug. 9). Philippine farmers uproot Syngenta’s GMO Golden Rice field tests. Sustainable Pulse. Retrieved from: http://sustainablepulse.com/2013/08/09/-philippine-farmers-uproot-syngentas-gmo-golden-rice-field-tests/#.WihzH0qnFPY

Wesseler, J. 2014. The economic power of the Golden Rice opposition. Environment and Development Economics 19: 724 – 742.

World Food Programme. (2017). Free Rice. World Food Programme. Retrieved from http://freerice.com/content/how-much-rice-does-it-take-feed-person-day-how-many-grains-rice-gram

 

 

Experiences With Group Work

One of the worst projects I ever worked on was in my sophomore year of high school. It was in Spanish III, an intermediate/advanced course. The project was to write a script, entirely in Spanish, that described different outdoor parks and the animals and plants contained in each one, and then make a video with images and a voiceover of our script. It was the huge end-of-the-year project for my class – it counted for 20% of our final grade. My peers and I were assigned it a month before it was due, which was plenty of time to plan and complete it. Our teacher even let us choose our own partners – naturally, I paired up with a friend.

What made this project so terrible wasn’t the assignment itself, or the grade I received at the end. It was my partner. From the very beginning, she was completely useless – it was like I was trying to cross the finish line with a deadweight attached to my ankles. What should’ve been a slightly challenging project became an absolute nightmare that included sleepless nights, several breakdowns, tears, and a general increase in day-to-day stress levels.

When my partner and I got the assignment, I immediately made a Google Doc so we could pool our knowledge and work on the project independently while still having access to what the other one was doing. We began by brainstorming, which went well. By the end of the first day we had enough material to write our script.

We agreed to meet the next day to start creating an outline, but she didn’t show up. When I asked her where she was, she responded that she had a prior commitment and couldn’t make it. I ended up creating the entire outline by myself.

For next meeting we scheduled, this time to begin writing the first section of the script, she was late, and spent the entire time doing anything but working on our script. Once again, I ended up doing all of it. At the end of that meeting, we both agreed that we would each write one of the remaining two sections, meet again to look over what the other had done, then start the editing/revising process.

As the date of our third meeting drew closer, I grew anxious because I noticed my partner hadn’t added anything to our Google Doc. I began to remind my partner constantly, both in person and through emails, but she always brushed me off, saying that she was going to get around to it. Finally, the day of our third meeting arrived, and she still hadn’t done her share of the work. She showed up to our meeting, but instead of helping me, she spent the entire time on the phone. I cut the meeting short and went home to finish the entire script – which took me three hours to do since I had to double-check grammar and vocabulary constantly.

By the time the script the was complete, there were two weeks left until the due date. I sent an email to my partner and asked her to start gathering pictures that we could use for our video. She never responded, but I went ahead and scheduled another meeting where we could start work on the video. She didn’t show up again. Forging ahead, I gathered all the pictures we would use and began to organize them in the order we would show them in our video. I met up with my partner in class and told her that the only thing left for us to do was to record us reading our script. We set a time and a place for us to do so.

She arrived that time, and I showed her what she had to say and recorded it. At this point, I had given up any sort of hope that she was going to help me finish this project so I told her that I would take care of everything else. Within a week, I managed to create a video that followed the guidelines of our project rubric. We turned our project in and got a 95, but I was exhausted by the end of it. I went into this enormous project expecting to do 50% of the work and ended up doing 95% of the work, which naturally took a toll on me.

There was no technical reason why our group collaboration shouldn’t have been successful. My partner and I employed all three methods of collaboration during our project, which normally would have been effective. We brainstormed, wrote, and recorded our voiceover face-to-face, used the divided method to write and gather pictures, and employed the layered method when editing/revising the script – all which were suited for the type of project this was. Both of us had constant availability to the whole of our project through the Google Doc, and there was plenty of communication both in person and through email with constant reminders of what had to get done. We made decisions together to meet at regular intervals in order to update each other on what we had done, and set specific deadlines for when we wanted certain sections of the project to be completed. Technically, with all of those things combined, this project should have been completed in an efficient and stress-free manner.

The difficulties of this assignment came directly from my partner. From the very beginning, she was unwilling to put in the same amount of work and effort that I was. At the end, I eventually just took over the project and cut her out of it because I knew she wasn’t going to follow up on what she said she was going to do.

In hindsight, completely taking over the project wasn’t the best thing to do. After the first couple of times my partner missed deadlines and meetings, I should have gone to our instructor and explained to her the issue. I should have pursued a meeting between my, my partner, and our instructor to see if there could be some sort of resolution about work load and final grades (if my partner was going to put in less work, would she be alright with getting a lower grade? etc.).

Our project, overall, was successful in meeting the objectives of the assignment rubric, and we both received a satisfactory grade, but it was one of the most stressful, frustrating, and time-consuming projects I have ever completed. It was also impacted the friendship I had with my partner – we never again worked together on any sort of project, and gradually drifted apart.

In the future, to avoid situations like the one previously mentioned, it would be beneficial to implement certain strategies. At the beginning of a group project, or any group collaboration, two documents should be created: a team charter and a task schedule. The purpose of the team charter is to outline the broad/end goals of the group. This allows every group member to know what is expected of them in order to achieve those goals, and uncovers how much work/commitment each person is able to put in. On the other hand, the task schedule should be incredibly detailed, with deadlines, specific tasks, individual responsibilities, and time to brainstorm and revise so that there is no confusion about who needs to complete what by what date. Having something that maps out the group’s progress is extremely beneficial – it keeps the group on schedule, encourages slackers, prevents procrastination, and eliminates duplicate effort.

Another element to include when working in groups are meeting minutes. These are notes that help the group keep track of their progress by including meeting attendance, the decisions made, things to be done, and the next steps the group needs to take in completing their goals. Having meeting minutes allows groups to save time, avoid forgetting important details, and pick up exactly where the group left off.

It is also important to develop a culture among the group that is both diverse and encouraging of constructive feedback. Teams that are composed of people who think differently are more likely to be creative when problem-solving, and also prepares people for an increasingly-diverse workplace (as our cultural becomes more global, it becomes necessary for people to be able to work alongside and understand those of different background). In addition to having a diverse group, it is advantageous to build an environment that is welcoming of feedback. Without constructive conflict, and without discussing the pros and cons of different solutions, a group is at the disadvantage. Feedback provides the opportunity to expose flaws and potential problems that will lead to a final result that has been drastically improved.

While all of the previously listed strategies can lead to a successful group project, one has to keep in mind the personal styles of group members who will be contributing to the project.

For example, using the self-assessment tests in the book Team Writing, my discussion style is Highly Considerate, my presentation style is Self-Deprecating, and my problem-solving style is Holistic. Each of these qualities has an impact on how I contribute and lead in group projects.

In group projects, my Highly Considerate discussion style is ideal for brainstorming and editing situations. Using this style ensures that everyone will have the opportunity to voice their thoughts on the project without getting immediately shut down or rejected. Often times, I can be found drawing the quieter members out of their shells and gently cajoling them into speaking (allowing for everyone to supply their insight), or nodding/making sounds of verbal consent when someone is talking. These techniques I employ are valuable because they allow each group member to contribute directly to the project. Having someone with a Highly Considerate style is the most practical choice for leading a discussion because they are able to balance out the contribution level of each group member.

My presentation style is Self-Deprecating, which means I tend to display modesty about my abilities and am more likely to talk about my shortcomings. When working in groups, this quality is a disadvantage. It negatively impacts the group by taking attention off of the problem itself and shifting it towards the person and their abilities, which in turn causes group members to doubt a member’s capability to even contribute to the project. In order to prevent this from happening, one needs to work diligently, do the best job they are capable of doing with the skills they possess, and ask for help when needed. When working in a group with someone who has this presentation style, I would recommend keeping a close eye on them and regularly checking up on them. If needed, offer support and assistance to help them finish their work.

Lastly, my problem-solving style is Holistic. This suggests that I consider things as a whole, in a big-picture sense, and refrain from acting until a problem is completely understood. In group projects, we Holistic-style problem-solvers are more beneficial at the beginning. At this stage, Holistic problem-solvers are able to plan how a group should proceed in order to get the best possible result. The best thing to do with these people is to simply let them work out the procedural details of the projects and then, as problems arise, let them solve them. This style is highly beneficial to producing quality work because it takes the time to fully understand how to produce results that overcome specific issues.

When working in a group on any sort of project, it is best to organize the group members so that the people who are best suited to do certain tasks are assigned those tasks. Allocate people where they will be able to thrive. For example, put those with the Highly Considerate discussion style in situations where they can mediate conversations, and those with Holistic problem-solving skills where they can fully analyze problems in order to solve them. In group projects, it is important to play people according to what their strengths are in order to get the best possible end result.

 

References

Wolfe, Joanna. Team Writing: A Guide to Working in Groups. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010.

My Thoughts On a Liberal Arts Education

Today, most institutes of higher learning have mastered the art of producing students who know nothing but the skill of regurgitation – most of what students encounter in school “emphasizes memory” (Tough Choices or Tough Times 30). Generations of graduates enter the workplace lacking the necessary skills to succeed in a competitive environment and find themselves unprepared for what coworkers and bosses require of them. It is “the quality of education” that a student has that matters when they enter the workplace and begin to construct their own life (Tough Choices or Tough Times 16). In short, colleges today do not provide the type of education required for one to become a cohesive, intelligent, and competent individual.

Modern employers want workers who can read and write critically, and who are capable of communicating effectively. They want individuals who are problem-solvers and well-rounded. They want people with a broad spectrum of knowledge and an understanding of how to apply that knowledge. It is with these qualities in mind that a college education should be fashioned.

Reading and writing are basic skills that everyone learns at the age of five or six. Students learn to carefully pen their names using dotted lines, and they begin to understand how letters form sounds which form words. And then they are stopped by an educational system that demands nothing more from them. Today, students are only taught rudimentary reading and writing skills, but they are not taught how to read and write critically, which is an entirely different thing.

In the time of the Ancient Greeks, the great philosophers such as Aristotle and Socrates understood the importance of reading and writing. When discussing education, Aristotle stated that reading and writing are “taught because they are useful for life and have many applications” and that they are essential for “acquiring further learning” (Aristotle 229, 230). Even as the modern world progressively moves into a digitalized age, students must still learn how to read and write. In the workplace and in life, those skills will allow them to analyze and interpret, and summarize and critique the information they receive. In order to develop these skills, colleges must enforce mandatory English, literature, and writing courses throughout the years a student attends. Students must be forced to write constantly and consistently about a manner of subjects, such as history, science, the arts, and literature, if they hope to gain true reading and writing skills.

Communication is the ability to transfer information to others in such a way that is understandable. This is a foundational skill for all individuals to possess. Learning to effectively communicate with others will help one in the workplace with clients, coworkers, and bosses, and in life, with day-to-day interactions.  To impart this essential skill to students, colleges should implement mandatory rhetoric and communications classes. Students should have to give presentations and speeches throughout their years at college to acclimate them to public speaking. And since speaking “is the source of freedom for mankind itself,” students should learn how to effectively wield it to their advantage (Plato 9).

Problem-solving is a skill that is rapidly degenerating in this “society inebriated by technology” (Wieseltier 1). As Wieseltier passionately states, we have become a world “governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience” – thus we have no room for creative problem-solving. As we become more and more dependent on computers to do things for us, we lose the creative aspect of humanity because we no longer employ it. And this needs to change.

The workplace, and life, is often unpredictable and random, enough so that one can never be truly prepared for what might happen. Employers value those who are capable of coming up with creative solutions to unprecedented problems. Individuals benefit from being able to think through situations they encounter throughout life. Unfortunately, the way the college educational system is set up today, the “typical curriculum. . . is inimical to the development of strong, creative abilities,” which is the exact opposite of the skill set students need (Tough Choices or Tough Times 30). To remedy this issue, colleges should make it an obligation for students to take art and theater improvisation classes to nurture creativity. And other classes – such as math and science – should become logic and reason based, allowing students the opportunity to come to solutions on their own, in their own way and on their own time. As Tough Times or Tough Choices suggests, we must demand of “our students to create something new.” By fostering the concept of creativity, colleges will be able to produce students who possess highly-developed problem-solving skills, which is something that will help them not only in the workplace, but in daily life.

To become well-rounded, or to become “citizens of the world,” “students should develop an understanding of the history and character of the diverse groups that inhabit our world” (Nussbaum 39, 38). In order to do that, colleges should require students to take courses in foreign languages, non-Western cultures, religion, and philosophy. It is vital that students learn “the language and literature of any other cultivated and civilized people” because it allows them to become comprehensive of others (Mill 4). “Without knowing the language of a people, we never really know their thoughts. . .” therefore, without the proper knowledge to give insight to other cultures and peoples, students cannot fully understand someone different from themselves (Mill 4). And one does not make it far in life without being able to comprehend others.

Now, while colleges lack the proper curriculum to produce competent individuals, the biggest mistake they make is forcing their students to choose a major. Most institutes require their students to declare their area of study by the end of sophomore year, and then junior and senior years are dedicated solely to that subject. This, plainly speaking, is wrong.

In the time after the Civil War, the ideals of higher education changed. Colleges shifted from institutions that taught the meaning of life to places that exist “primarily to sponsor research” (Kronman 59). Colleges of “the early nineteenth century institutionalized the idea of research and gave it, for the first time, the authority and prestige it has had ever since” (Kronman 59). As a whole, institutes of higher learning became obsessed with the pursuit of knowledge. Every subject, and every department of knowledge has become “so loaded with details, that one who endeavours to know it with minute accuracy, must confine himself to a smaller and smaller portion of the whole extent” (Mill 2). And “in order to know that little completely, it is necessary to remain wholly ignorant of all the rest” (Mill 3).

This is what colleges today are doing to its students. They demand that each individual become so enamored with one subject that they have no awareness of others.

But life and work do not coincide with that educational approach.

As previously discussed, creativity and problem-solving are two highly valued skills. Problem-solving stems from the ability to think creatively about solutions, and creativity must be nurtured so that students develop it. But in order to be creative, one has to understand what they are being creative about. Creativity itself “requires both deep knowledge and technical expertise with one area and very broad knowledge of many, apparently unrelated areas” (Tough Choices or Tough Times 30). Creativity “depends on being able to combine disparate elements in new ways” (Tough Choices or Tough Times 30).

If life and work both demand an individual to have a wide basis of knowledge and an understanding of how to apply that knowledge, colleges should not force their students to declare a specified major. Colleges should be more focused on teaching their students a variety of subjects – everyone should learn math, science, history, writing, literature, foreign languages, and art, and they should learn them in such a way that they come out with an in-depth understanding of each of the topics. This will enable students to creatively produce solutions in life and in the workplace.

College education needs to change to cater to the skills students will need in the workplace and throughout life. Higher institutes of learning must emphasize reading and writing critically, and teach its students how to effectively speak and communicate with others. They must teach students how to think and how to problem-solve when presented with a situation they have never been exposed to. They must promote global understanding of other peoples. And they must give students a wide, overarching basis of knowledge that can be applied in any type of environment. Essentially, it is a college’s responsibility to nurture “those intellectual. . . habits that. . . form the basis for living the best life that one can” (Kronman 49).

In the end, the ideal college education should produce “self-determining agents” who are capable of individual thought (Gutting 4). It should produce students “who have gained the confidence that their own minds can confront the toughest questions” (Nussbaum 39). It should produce students who have learned the “necessary mental implements for the work they have to perform through life” (Mill 2). And above all, a college education should develop “persons capable of informed and intelligent commitments” (Gutting 4).

 

References:

Aristotle. Politics. Translated by C. D. C. Reeve, Hackett Publishing, 1998.

Gutting, Gary. “What Work Is Really For.” The New York Times 8 Sept. 2012: NYTimes.com Web. 11 Oct. 2017.

Kronman, Anthony T. Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. Print.

Mill, John S. “Inaugural Essay.” Essays on Equality, Law, and Education, edited by John M. Robson, University of Toronto Press, 1984, pp. 1-12.

Nussbaum, Martha. “Cultivating Humanity and World Citizenship.” Forum for the Future of Higher Education, 2007, pp. 37-40.

Plato. Gorgias. Translated by D. Zeyl, Hackett Publishing, 1987.

Tough Choices or Tough Times: The Report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2007. Print.

Wieseltier, Leon. “Perhaps Culture is Now the Counterculture: A Defense of the Humanities.” Commencement Ceremony of Brandeis University, 28 May 2013, Brandeis        University, MA. Guest Lecture.