Generational Topsy Turvy

Jeremy Paul, dean of the School of Law.

Jeremy Paul, dean of the School of Law.

Law school dean Jeremy Paul is a guest contributor to UConn Today. His posts appear on Thursdays. To read more of his posts, click here.

What happens in your family when the television remote control acts up, the cell phone seems frozen, or your internet connection goes down? If your household is anything like mine, the first place to turn is to the family’s youngest members, who seem almost to have been born knowing how to make these machines function properly. Indeed, I know many adults who joke frequently about how they can’t compete with 10-year-olds when it comes to managing household technology.

We find the situation amusing now because it seems confined to a narrow slice of life, leaving the grown-ups in charge of important issues such as family finances, food preparation, even driving. But from where I sit, we have started down a path that may up-end longstanding relationships between old and young. After all, how useful are the parents when mom and dad know their way around 10 major cities, but junior is really the most skilled at working the GPS? Already refrigerators can remind us when it’s time to buy milk, which can then be ordered for delivery over the internet. How long will it be until those who can best use technology will feel more like masters of the house?

Although I don’t expect radical change in household dynamics any time soon, such technological production of generational topsy turvy strikes me as having profound implications for what we seek to accomplish here at the University. Since the earliest days of college life, young people have gathered together to absorb the learning of prior generations from professors who have devoted themselves to the pursuit of knowledge. Students have needed professors in part to answer questions students have about the basics of their chosen fields of study. Now, however, any student with a calculus problem or a query about how one side prevailed in a historical battle can quickly find the answer on the internet. Why wouldn’t the students have doubts about what the professors have to offer?

You won’t be surprised to hear from this longtime professor that I believe students do still need expert guidance. I know, for example, that every time I check Web MD to explore medical symptoms of a member of my family, I close the screen wondering whether my loved one may be seriously ill. I simply lack the lenses to interpret the information that the internet provides. The same may be said for our students who attend classes and complete assignments precisely for the purpose of developing the habits of mind needed to interpret the information that is now all around them.

But once we in the academy understand that the faculty’s principal contribution is radically shifting from delivering information to helping students develop a set of lenses, we will need to re-conceptualize the nature of the university enterprise. Sitting in classes listening to professors will always be a good way for some students to acquire knowledge of substantive material. But for our classes to capture the students’ imagination, we will have to focus more directly on going beyond basic knowledge and explicitly offering students ways to put knowledge to use solving problems. No faculty member will ever command as much substantive material as might be found in a thorough Google search. But each of us can add immeasurable value if we grasp the direction of our students’ lives and help show them how their knowledge fits together to make them more effective learners and workers. After all, even the best whiz with the remote control may still need help developing a sense of what programs are worth watching and when it’s best simply to turn the set off and take a walk.