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Students warp into ‘entrepreneurs’ across U.S.

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Many years ago, when a new dean at my university referred to the faculty as "content providers," my colleagues and I rolled our eyes. It was the latest hokey label for an old profession.

There was "sage on the stage" (the distant lecturer on the podium), "guide on the side" (the collaborative, student-centered instructor) and, in the laptop classroom in which the teacher meanders behind the students, the "peer at the rear."

Like all catchphrases and buzzwords, they served a short-hand purpose. But ponder them, and you could discern far-reaching trends in U.S. education.

Students, too, are redefined. The terms have varied — "learners," "critical thinkers," "meaning makers," "problem solvers." The hot one now seems to be "entrepreneur" or "student-entrepreneur," at least at the college level.

Entrepreneurship programs have exploded on U.S. campuses, and administrators love to talk about them. They aren’t just for business students. Kansas State University’s Center for Advancement of Entrepreneurship declares, "The mission of our award-winning center is to promote entrepreneurship among all academic disciplines," while at Arizona State University, "The Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative provides funding, mentorship and office space to teams of students within all university disciplines."

Princeton’s Keller Center eLab boasts, "students will work together in a supportive community of fellow entrepreneurs," and the University of Michigan’s Center for Entrepreneurship pledges to "connect our student entrepreneurs to our extensive mentor network and invite mentors into the classroom."

It’s not always about money, either, as this Bloomberg Businessweek article observed: "Every spring, the Clinton Global Initiative University meeting brings together some of the world’s most promising student entrepreneurs, who come to the group’s annual meeting with ideas they hope will bring about social change."

Such programs are now common enough to have their own rankings: Princeton Review and Entrepreneur Magazine compile an annual list of the 25 best undergraduate entrepreneurship units in the country.

The benefits of having more entrepreneurial thinking on campus are obvious, both for individual students, who are running up debt and facing uncertain employment, and for the U.S. economy, which increasingly relies on innovation to maintain its global position. But the expansion of entrepreneurship centers and the redefinition of students are happening so swiftly and eagerly that one wonders where the education ends and the hype begins.

The advantages of the entrepreneurship label are considerable. It’s an improvement over "customers," a term that popped up in the late 1990s and recast higher education as a service industry. "Customer" sounds too passive for the 21st century, now that digital tools have given teenagers so much capacity to create and distribute their own words, photos, videos and songs.

"Entrepreneur" also reaches well beyond "learners," which ties students to a set content, the books they read and labs they complete, while "entrepreneur" anticipates each student stepping forward to form and share something wholly new. Student entrepreneurs aren’t just learning — they’re doing.

In the mouths of administrators and on school websites, "student-entrepreneur" is more than a descriptive term. It is an endowment and a marketing strategy with a target audience: the high-school student who is starting the application process.

Colleges compete feverishly for more applicants and higher selectivity in admissions, a crucial component of the U.S. News & World Report ranking. The honourable title "entrepreneur" doesn’t say, "You are an industrious, inventive, smart youth," it promises, "Here at our campus, you will be an industrious, inventive, smart youth."

How exciting! For 13-plus years, high-achieving 18-year-olds have been students, shuffled from class to class in a regimented school day, dutifully completing tasks set by teachers, learning pat content on a syllabus. In college, they evolve into entrepreneurs who may freely pursue their own interests, be creative and experimental, and make lots of money, too!

The students’ role model isn’t LeBron James or Albert Einstein or Hillary Clinton. It’s Mark Zuckerberg, the student who turned a floating idea into Facebook, or the guys who founded Instagram, or Sean Parker.

Colleges that have no entrepreneurship message appear to applicants as old-fashioned and unappreciative. If Duke and Emory universities have something and Vanderbilt doesn’t, high-school counselors and the Fiske Guide notice, as do ambitious parents. The message spreads. How liberal arts colleges are failing America was the headline on an Atlantic article last September on the regrettable absence of entrepreneurship at many schools.

The only casualty in this forward-looking, product-creating, money-making, social-change enterprise is the old idea of liberal education from Cicero to a few traditionalists in the present: the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Or, as Cardinal John Henry Newman put it, "liberal knowledge, which stands on its own pretensions, which is independent of sequel, expects no complement, refuses to be informed (as it is called) by any end, or absorbed into any art, in order duly to present itself to our contemplation."

Entrepreneurship seeks precisely the opposite — ends, added value, a difference in the world. It’s good that colleges devise programs that address worldly matters and embrace a concept that professors like to sneer at.

Yet colleges would do well to incorporate humanistic learning into this curriculum. Maybe an entrepreneur who has read Thucydides or Edith Wharton is more prepared, more savvy and imaginative about new products and solutions than an unlettered competitor.

  Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University and the author of The Dumbest Generation.

 —Bloomberg News

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