Reflections on Greenberg’s, “What if students declare missions, not majors?”

“What if students declare missions, not majors?” This is a question posed by Sarah Stein Greenberg during her talk at Wired by Design.  A summary of her comments are included in this short article entitled,  “4 Radical Ideas for Reinventing College.” A colleague shared this article with me today, and the fourth point resonated with me instantly. It is an idea that matters, the type of concept that tempts me to drop everything else that I am doing and invest the next few years trying to make it a reality. It closely aligns with my own research and musings about a possible future of some learning organizations and the impact of methods like project-based learning, passion-based learning, inquiry-based learning, service learning, and even Kieren Egan’s work on Learning in Depth.

The following reflection is not intended to be a summary of Greenberg’s comments as much as a personal reflection about this general concept of mission over major. I did not hear Sarah Stein Greenberg’s remarks at the conference, but even the short synopsis is enough to conjure visions of what is possible in higher education, if we are willing to consider that academic excellence is not limited to the higher education practices of the past. Instead of starting with a pre-developed course of study, Greenberg’s concept invites us to consider an alternative, one where young (and older, given that 85% of those pursuing a bachelor’s degree are not traditional undergraduates), begin with a mission, a personal desire to effect change in a particular area, to address a real-world problem, to allow themselves to ignite their learning by something that is personally meaningful and practically significant in the world. In my years of visiting and learning from innovative and high-impact learning organizations, the most inspiring ones always seem to tap into the passions, sense of purpose and/or mission of the individual learners. A compelling why behind one’s learning is not to be underestimated.

In some ways, this is in contrast with certain trends in K-12 and higher education, with a persistent push for teaching to a set of common standards, ensuring that we have consist results in student learning as it relates to subjects like language arts and mathematics. That is part of what prompted my article about the Common Core Versus the Unique Potential of Each Child, not that it necessarily has to be one or the other. However, there are two contrasting philosophies of education. There is one where the focus is upon carefully identifying what students need to know in a given domain. This clearly has a role. Most want medical doctors who have a common base of knowledge and other professional who have a foundation in the discipline that informs their work. Yet, there is another philosophy that is driven by a desire to help each learner build upon strengths, gifts and abilities, with the goal of using one’s unique profile in service to something of importance. A mission over major approach doesn’t necessarily challenge the importance of mastering bodies of knowledge in preparation for certain career and life paths. It does challenge where we start.

Do we start with a faculty prescribed path, or one that is derived from missions that are motivating and personally meaningful to learners? What would this look like, a University (or high school for that matter) full of learners who are passionately pursuing a mission, opting for a personalized course of study that best helps them to embark on that mission? I could see this giving new life to the liberal arts in some schools while also clearly addressing questions about the worth of a college degree. A college degree isn’t worth anything, not unless it represents learning that matters to the that person and others in the world. As I noted in my post about college as a great place to start a business, it is also a great place to discover and pursue a meaningful mission. This has the potential to help students experience a truly transformative learning experience, to cultivate the important life skill of learning how to learn, and to discover the power and possibility of tackling important problems and issues in the world with a keen intellect and a disciplined mind.

The reality is that life is a series of problems, but also a series of possibilities. Why not envision a future of education that intentionally prepares young people for thriving and surviving in such a world? We can do this by inviting them to already start addressing some of those problems and pursuing some of those possibilities during their time in college. College is often a vibrant community full of resources, mentors, and other learners. What better place to learn how to find and pursue a mission?

I don’t expect to see countless Universities embracing this tomorrow, at least not in the classroom. Yet, there does seem to be something in the collective conscious that is driving more people to imagine such a possibility. Perhaps that is part of what is informing University efforts around startup incubators, centers for social entrepreneurship, service learning programs, and learning by doing. Yet, I would not be surprised to see some Universities experimenting with an idea like missions over majors, reimagining college as a place that is about personal growth and social impact as much as earning a credential. The credentials remain a helpful shorthand used by future employers, but we already know that it isn’t just the diploma that gets a person the job or helps that person get ahead in life. That takes character, knowledge, skill, and an ability to set and achieve important goals. In other words, that comes from people who know what it means to have a mission, not just a major.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.