The Message to Higher Education: Perseverance!

Consider for a moment the incredible accomplishment that has been captured by the successful landing of the rover “Perseverance on Mars, 135 million miles from earth.

A flawless launch, some seven stage separations en route, survival of a fiery entry into the Martian atmosphere, flawless parachute deployment and gentle landing — much of it captured by high definition photos and videos, available for almost immediate viewing on our phones. Perseverance even brought with it a small drone, which will be deployed to study the landscape over more extended distances.

This is only the most recent landing of a probe on Mars, but clearly the most impressive. How in the world was this accomplished? Education and dedication — yes, perseverance on the part of the men and women of NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and countless partners involved in the effort.

These men and women have dedicated many years and much sustained effort to develop an understanding of the science in our universe. They deal in facts, not perceptions. In what actually is, not what they think it might be, or ought to be. They are rigorous in their thinking, questioning in their approaches to problems, and dedicated to delivering value to society.

Think also for a moment about the technology that the space programs have spun off to us, and that we use every day. GPS guidance in our cars and phones, broadcast satellites beaming live events around the globe in real time, internet connectivity that envelops us in more and more ways, high definition audio and video. The list is almost endless. Yes, even Facebook and other communications platforms would have been impossible without the technology developed by those who did the hard work in our space programs.

I majored in chemistry in college, graduating fifty years ago. Even in that time of relative simplicity, it was hard work. Courses in chemistry, physics, math, instrumental technology, long hours in the lab — just a foretaste of the rigors that today’s men and women undertake to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve their remarkable successes. If there was ever evidence of the value of education, this is it. 

There is much talk about the value of “STEM” education – science, technology, engineering and math. The Perseverance team immersed themselves in it, supported by faculty and administrators who shared their dedication to immutable scientific facts, to rigor, and to purpose.

This is the digital signal that Perseverance is beaming to all colleges and universities today, and not just in the area of STEM disciplines. Not every student has an aptitude for science and math, but each one has an aptitude for something – and higher education provides paths for development in the humanities, arts, social sciences and many other disciplines.

These students should be asking themselves what their goals are – personal, professional and societal. We certainly have compelling problems facing us today: failing educational systems in our public schools, racial strife, immigration challenges, income inequality controversies, climate concerns, and pandemic response, just to name a few. All of these cry out for creative and sustained fact-based solutions. Such solutions certainly show no signs of emerging from the tired, bloated and inwardly focused government we have, but must come from highly educated and purposeful men and women of tomorrow.

But are today’s students in higher education thinking in terms of usefulness and outcomes? Are the faculty members? Administrators? Or are too many of them focused on manufactured controversies over wokeness, speech codes and the politics of victimization? 

Higher education is in crisis today. There are fewer students applying for admission. Fully 40% of matriculated students never receive a degree. Costs are too high. Student debt has been spiraling out of control. Admission standards are becoming more and more inconsistent and being challenged in the courts. Schools are desperate to survive and thus keep trying to be all things to all students, without focusing their efforts on niche markets that will attract more interested and dedicated students. 

From 135 million miles away, Perseverance is sending a signal, showing us a path forward. Are students, faculty and college administrators listening?

Vic Brown is a writer and author of the book “Welcome to College – Your Career Starts Now!”

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