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Mike Jacobs: Campus life provides experience, not just knowledge

One strand in the ongoing conversation about higher education is that campuses have become obsolete. Technology makes all knowledge available from anywhere, the argument goes, and this renders the campus little more than bricks and mortar.

Except that any campus is more than bricks and mortar.

Campus is an experience, and evidence suggests it's an experience that learners want. A large percentage of students enrolled in online courses at colleges in North Dakota actually live on campus. They are not "distance students" in any sense.

In purely business terms, this means there is a market for what campuses provide.

Campuses provide socialization, which is something that young people seek. There are other places to achieve it, of course, and socialization is not the only benefit of the campus experience.

Life on campus also provides a sense of belonging. Alums identify with the campus for a lifetime, and that's proven by their generous giving to each of the state's colleges and universities.

The campus experience also promotes lifetime friendships, building the kinds of contacts that lead to marriages, business partnerships and political affiliations.

Campuses also are a laboratory for citizenship. Student organizations exist, representing interests as diverse as the curriculum, with student government and political party affiliations thrown in. All of these provide experience in leadership. They teach students how to get things done.

These are more or less remote from what has come to be called "knowledge transfer."

But knowledge transfer is not what universities and their campuses are about. Colleges build minds and methods, and that is hard to do remotely.

A good example appeared in Sunday's Grand Forks Herald. It involved biology students who've been studying ducks. The campus experience gives them time with experienced researchers, who can guide their efforts and help them hone their skills.

This is the essence of the campus experience.

A music professor helped me realize this. He spoke at an event called "Wake Up to UND," one of the president's annual community breakfasts.

As director of choirs, he said, his role was to encourage rigor. That's the basis of skilled performance, he said, and that's what a university music program teaches.

Rigor is pretty hard to get on your own. There are too many distractions, too much backsliding, too little practice.

Yet rigor is much more necessary in the chaotic environment of instant knowledge transfer than it has ever been. It's important to learn how to access knowledge, of course, but it is equally important to learn how to assess knowledge. That's a skill best gained in discussion that tests ideas and sharpens them.

That's a campus experience.

At a talk about William Lemke and William Langer that I gave last month at the Grand Forks County Historical Society, I gave my own version of this epiphany. I became a successful political reporter because I applied something that Lloyd Omdahl told me in a political science class.

By using elections abstracts, it's possible to trace voting patterns, he said. And from those patterns, it's possible to draw conclusions, to understand results and to make predictions.

I found a county that had a consistent voting pattern over time, and I used returns from that county to predict election night results. If the vote for Democratic candidates was higher than usual, I anticipated a good night for Democrats. If the opposite were true and Democratic votes dropped, I foresaw a good night for Republicans.

My model was Nelson County, N.D., which had few precincts and always reported early. Fewer people live in Nelson County these days, and voting patterns have changed, so I'm not sure that my method would work today.

Still, election abstracts are among my favorite reading material. I have a stack of them dating to statehood, and I consult them frequently—to understand the relationship between Lemke and Langer, giants in the state's political history, as well as to judge the indignation among voters about issues as diverse as public banking, Sunday movies and medical marijuana.

Perhaps I might have stumbled on this insight all on my lonesome, but I doubt it. Nor will aspiring doctors or nurses be able to train themselves, nor wildlife biologists, physicists, engineers, writers or foreign language interpreters.

As it happens, I have a cluttered mind full of trivia that's of some interest but little use. I blame myself. I was an indifferent student. Except for Omdahl's lectures, I was absent from class more often than I was present.

Even that doesn't diminish the importance of the campus experience, though. I was on the student newspaper staff, for example, and I did make lifelong friends. I do identify with UND. I would be much less useful than I hope I have been without my UND experience—not just my education, mind you, but the total experience.

That's what campus provides. And that's what higher education is all about.

Jacobs is retired as editor and publisher of the Herald. Readers can reach him at mjacobs@gfherald.com.

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