President's Message

A strong foundation for our graduates by Charles Steger '69

VT students

We all know that the world we live in is changing at an accelerating rate. A recent report from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office states that the annual number of patent filings increased by 217 percent between 1990 and 2003. Technology has at the same time become increasingly complex, as has the task of remaining well informed.

As the amount of available information increases daily through the publication of books, journals, and web pages, our graduates will need the ability to think logically and critically more than ever. They will need to evaluate not only information, but also its sources. These skills will help them grow as individuals and professionals while they maintain their personal integrity.

The globalization of every aspect of society in our post-Sept. 11 world dictates that our graduates be well prepared to excel in ways that their grandparents could not even imagine.

Rather than attempting the impossible task of teaching our students all available knowledge, we should teach them the skills they will need to effectively continue their lifelong process of discovery and education. This strong foundation will be basic, no matter what major a student chooses.

These considerations are shaping our current work to improve the core curriculum. Our primary goal as a university is to enable graduates to thrive as thinking individuals in a rapidly changing world and to compete successfully in the global job market. While we are developing our "Living in the 21st Century" core course series, we will remain committed to promoting freedom of inquiry, personal integrity, mutual respect, personal and professional growth, a lifelong commitment to learning, and contributions to society.

Conversational fluency in a foreign language is no longer simply a nicety but can make the difference between a routine job and a career-building position; an idea on the drawing board and a successful international research grant proposal; or a superficial experience in another country and an understanding of one's global neighbors. Education abroad can enrich a student's experience while helping that student acquire international communication skills. Language studies for an engineer, for instance, can be tailored to the specific communication needs that student will have upon graduation.

The old saying that "the world is our classroom" takes on new meaning in this century. By including a service-learning element of community experience as part of the coursework for our students, we simultaneously prepare them for the life that follows the graduation ceremony.

We are also developing rich interdisciplinary strategies for instruction that will be less college-specific, but more tailored to providing a broad understanding of society's central issues. We fully intend to integrate international content, ethics, professionalism, and academic integrity into the entire curriculum. As well, we believe that it is equally important that each student learns to effectively use a variety of spoken, visual, and written communication strategies.

And yes, the study of world literature and history is an essential part of this effort. Great literature presents classic human dilemmas in imaginative ways that help readers learn about life from the experience of reading, while history teaches us about those proverbial mistakes that we do not wish to repeat--and those triumphs we would do well to emulate.

The knowledge gained in these studies--what has been termed a classical education--has an important place at a land-grant university like Virginia Tech, where we may tend to interpret practical knowledge to mean science, mathematics, and technology. But these latter disciplines do not exist in a vacuum. A scientist must live outside the laboratory. So we teach about human experience because we strive to educate the whole person and because we want our graduates to look back upon their education here and be able to say that we prepared them well.

What could, in the final analysis, be more practical?