I believe the first example of free public higher education in the western world was Plato’s Academy in Athens around 387 BC. The Academy was situated in a grove of olive trees inside a park about a mile outside the city. You had to be invited to attend the Academy and if extended the offer attended for free. Plato would lecture, give students problems to solve and spend time in dialogue with his apprentices. One can easily imagine Plato and Aristotle sitting under a tree engaged in conversation.
Many centuries have passed since Plato’s time, but higher education really hasn’t changed much. Yes, there has been the invention of the blackboard, followed by the whiteboard, the smart board, the Powerpoint and alas the internet. Yet the best education still occurs the way Plato did it more than 2,000 years ago when a student sits next to a Master and engages in dialogue.
In a university of our size, undergraduate students are more likely to be in a class of 1600 than 1, but a version of Plato’s Academy exists on campus. Last week, Professor James Gilkeson asked me to speak at an “Honors in the Major” lunch designed to encourage students to enroll in this terrific program. Honors in the Major gives students the opportunity to work closely with a faculty member on a project of the student’s choosing. The end result is a lasting relationship with a faculty member who can write a detailed letter of recommendation for the student as well as a unique work product to show employers that highlights the student’s analytic and communication skills.
To my dismay, only nine business students showed up to the lunch. I asked the students how many of them had been in a class of 1600 at UCF, they all raised their hands. I asked them how many had been in a class of one at UCF—no hands were raised. When I asked if they would like the opportunity to be in a class of one, they all nodded yes.
These students get it: Whenever you get the opportunity to sit and have a one-on-one conversation with a person who has something interesting to say, you do it. Doesn’t matter if it is a professor, an alumnus, or a business professional: you take advantage of the rare opportunity to learn from them in such a personal way. You take the time to listen and get your questions answered, realizing that the answers are likely to be more forthright and nuanced than you would get if you asked them in a large group.
The fact that only nine students took advantage of the opportunity to learn more about Honors in the Major is both a little sad and an enormous opportunity for those interested in differentiating themselves in the University and the marketplace. Thousands of students will graduate from the College of Business over the next year, but only a handful will have enjoyed the enormous advantages of participating in our version of Plato’s Academy. If you are looking for a way to stand out from the crowd, it is hard to imagine you could do better than this.