In the state highschools of my leafy green suburban homeland, a small fragment of the mandatory curriculum was set aside for the formal study of rhetoric. This worked out to about one formal English class debate a year, for a few years. The topics were a small set of banal perennials, at least as treated by thirteen year olds trained on Judy Blume and sports commentary, and who were less focused on their studies than on barely concealed techniques for manipulating others through lust. We got to hear about the death penalty, the end justifying the means, and though we never discussed whether Man was Good, it wouldn’t have been out of place. The prince of these was in one way the most relevant to our day to day experience, That School Should Be Abolished.
In another way, it was also the most cruelly unreachable topic: school was, and is, mandatory well past that age. The only way to abolish school actually available to a student was to drop out after landing a job, in the midst of the worst Australian unemployment since the Great Depression. Let’s not overstate the hardship - current Greek and Spanish youth unemployment, for instance, is a whole different scale. Yet even if the text is that school is a comforting support, the barely submerged subtext of the argument is compulsion.
If you are middle class in America today, or Greece for that matter, does attending college, and all the time and money that goes with it, seem any less compulsory and life-determining? I don’t feel like the experience has reached the same intensity elsewhere as yet, but all the same trends are driving it. And then we add a set of disruptive recording and distribution technologies, a bucket of venture capital, and an industry full of people with a skill – programming – that is both academic and that you have to teach to yourself in order to do it with even a modicum of competence. Before long you get statements like this …
“It was this catalytic moment,” Thrun says. “I was educating more AI students than there were AI students in all the rest of the world combined.” By the end of the semester, he’d raised another $5 million and was standing in front of the Digital Life Design conference in Munich, promising a world in which education was nearly free, available to poor people in the developing world, and better than anything that had come before it. “I can’t teach at Stanford again,” he said definitively. “I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill. And you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your students. But I’ve taken the red pill. I’ve seen Wonderland.” – Sebastian Thrun, robotics genius and CEO of Udacity, who later decided this revolution was mostly about tutorial videos for Salesforce.com APIs
… or this …
Read beneath the headlines a bit. The pundits and disrupters, many of whom enjoyed liberal arts educations at elite colleges, herald a revolution in higher education that is not for people like them or their children, but for others: less wealthy, less prepared students who are increasingly cut off from the dream of a traditional college education.
“To champion something as trivial as MOOC’s in place of established higher education is to ignore the daycare centers, the hospitals, the public health clinics, the teacher training institutes, the athletic facilities, and all of the other ways that universities enhance communities, energize cities, spread wealth, and enlighten citizens,” [Siva Vaidhyanathan] says. — Scott Carlson and Goldie Blumenstyk in the Chronicle of Higher Education
These articles are aging – we seem to be coming off the hype peak – but isn’t that exactly where the two sides of this argument talk past each other? One is using school as a verb – as a process that happens to an individual. Another is using it as a place – as an institution for learning and teaching, around which a community is built.
Shallow as the innovation disruption rah rah Silicon Valley techno-yay side of this can be, doesn’t the other side of it – the fixation on school as a place and a community – rather devalue the importance of study, of the subject of education itself? Isn’t that a strange position for an academic institution to hold? It’s rather reminiscent of the arguments against homeschooling, or indeed, the same terms our highschool debates would revert to. The online education providers have the same whiff of adolescent libertarian naïveté, of not being able to see how existing institutions support them, even when though they are lumbering and awkward. And their opponents end up arguing that the real worth of school is not learning: that you need to be in school to play sport, or eat lunch, or learn social skills; that to socialize you need to be institutionalized.
It’s all enough to make a person call a plague on both their houses, and start their own EduPunk course on open source 3D printed macrame. But I don’t know macrame.