Higher Education: Transformation or Reformation?

12/11/2017 01:52 pm ET

As a student in the era before Apple and Google, I recall my history professor asking the class a simple question: What are the three most significant events in the last 1,000 years? After some brainstorming, the class concluded they were (1) the printing press; (2) the steam engine; and (3) the discovery of the New World. The professor agreed with the first two, but suggested that the Protestant Reformation was the third.

On the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I have been musing on the connection between the transformative power of higher education and the reformative movement that changed society in Western Europe.

Brought up as a Roman Catholic, but attending a Protestant high school and college, my view of the Reformation changed from being akin to heresy to an intellectual, political and social revolution that changed Western Europe. In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, James Mackintosh argues that Reformation leader, Martin Luther, matters not because of the religion he founded, but because he ushered in what Dr. Edmund Phelps, the 2006 Nobel Laureate in Economics and Director of the Center on Capitalism and Society at Columbia University, calls the “age of the individual.” Importantly, Luther used the power of the printing press to rapidly disseminate his 95 Theses (or Disputation on the Power of Indulgences in the Catholic Church) in 1517, not unlike the power the social media has in influencing our culture today.

While the Reformation unleashed wars and bloody persecutions, it also led to the spread of new ideas, the strengthening of institutions of higher learning, and inspired great composers and artists, such as Bach and Rubens. In England, it arguably sparked the “golden age” of English history, which spawned great explorers like Drake and playwrights like Shakespeare. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge blossomed.

Founded more than 130 years ago, Woodbury University has historically catered to students who were raised in modest family circumstances. Most are first-generation college students who have had fewer opportunities to prepare for college. What they bring with them is an earnest desire to learn, and a belief that higher education can help advance their lives and their families’ lives. Simply said, Woodbury encourages the power of the individual in its mission to transform students from lower socio-economic stratas into innovative professionals who will contribute ethically and responsibly to the global community.

Returning to Macintosh’s article, he argues that Luther laid the groundwork for capitalism. He also suggests that “it is education that matters to the economic development” of nations. Furthermore, he presents data from Dr. Phelps and his colleagues to show that the more individualistic a country, the better it has used its labor and capital. Not surprisingly, Sweden and Finland - with their excellent educational systems and individualistic cultures - lead the world.

So what can catalyze another reformation? At this time in our history, I believe the answer is digital technology and not religion, as it was 500 years ago. If my history professor today asked the question about the most significant events of the last 1,000 years, I would have to add e-commerce - including the smart phone, the wireless internet, GPS and Amazon.

And what is the corresponding transformation of our higher educational system? Although we are very sensitive to the phenomenal pace of change, we at Woodbury University believe that our traditional core values of Excellence, Ethics, Aspiration and Community will remain the foundations of our mission to transform students into innovative professionals.

David M. Steele-Figueredo, Ph.D., is President of Woodbury University in Burbank, Calif.

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