Education as a Heap of Trouble

By | October 18, 2015

I haven’t had much to say recently; hopefully, this will change. Here’s something that recently engaged my attention, at least long enough to fulminate some.

There’s a recent LinkedIn discussion about “Higher Education is in a Heap of Trouble.. What’s to Be Done About It?”. Numerous perspectives are reflected there. My own tends to be on the more radical end of the spectrum; I thought that I might highlight it here for the record:

We’re not going to be able to “fix” higher education until we “fix” education generally, from pre-pre-pre-school all the way through death. This will require an entirely different way of thinking about education as a part of life, and a rather different kind of social model as well. Our current quasi-system consists primarily of a series of silos, each hierarchically structured and largely without influence on each other. Education is only one of these silos, set off from the others in time and space; vacated with pleasure by its inhabitants for at least three months out of the year. It has its own set of rules for progression and conduct, which are increasingly out of step with those of other silos, particularly those more comfortable to live in. What goes on within it is seldom taken seriously by those outside; all that matters is the successful climbing of all the stairs and the escape through the roof (jumping out the windows, even save your life, doesn’t count .)

American education is entirely in thrall to the assembly-line model of production that in the early twentieth century formed the foundation for the Carnegie Commission’s attempt to create good national and corporate citizens through uniform educational experiences. The test of success is the ability to sit still long enough to put in the required time in various places, while having enough stray items of content stick to you at least through the test. Tolerance for drudgery in groups was a major criterion for success in the assembly-line world; it remains the single major criterion for success in the educational world that was modeled upon it.

Few take seriously the contention that these “educational” experiences are of much value when you enter any of the other silos. The world of work values imaginative problem-solving, ability to work smoothly in teams with others, wide-ranging interests that link together seemingly disparate concepts, and a long-range perspective drawing ideas together over time. In the world of education, these qualities are referred to respectively as “not following directions”, “cheating”, “inability to focus and lack of concentration”, and “wasting time in idle speculation”. Since educators are not encouraged to interact much with those inhabiting any of the other silos, they tend to respond to any challenge by simply doubling down on their existing practice, further reducing both its functionality and credibility among both participants and observers.

I was lucky enough to be able to complete my own BA degree at a time (the 1960s) and place (Reed College) where the tests of success had much more to do with how we thought and learned than with a specific skills or activities. Frankly, I would be hard put to recall many of the specific classes I took or items of information associated with them. What I do remember is the feeling of confidence that I took away from the college – confidence that I could learn what I needed to learn what I needed, and confidence that I could express my own thoughts reasonably clearly and listen to those of others. No doubt this confidence was overblown and not entirely justified, but it certainly provided me the basis for a most entertaining fifty year or so career in lots of different kinds of areas. One reason it worked is that people in those areas respected the process and believed that I could do what I thought I could. Today, the process of credentialing has drastically reduced the scope of education to a set of highly specific skills measurable and certifiable by “experts”. Emerging today with my 1964 BA in hand, in most areas I’d hardly have a prayer of getting an interview, let alone be entrusted with a job.

Unless and until we are prepared to seriously rethink the entire educational process, recognizing that learning is continuous from birth to death and that learning skills can be continually improved even as access to content changes from scarcity to overabundance, we’ll just be reinforcing the silos. We need to break the hierarchical tyranny of core structures and course hours as the organizing principles of education; reintegrate education into daily life rather than confining it to school hours and schoolhouses; and value multiple paths to knowledge and competence rather than only one certified and approved version. Let’s start reading Ivan Illich again, and make education just a part of life itself rather than something to be endured for a time.