Education: Perhaps the answer is to rethink what we mean by education

Recent events have spawned what has been for me some vitriolic but otherwise meaningless debates about education in the United States. The debates have been vitriolic because the sides involved have dug into positions that are primarily rhetorical in nature and have been meaningless because most of the rhetoric has little to do with how education in the US in 2017 actually works. It is easy to fall into such a trap when passions are so high, and I understand why people did. Nevertheless, I do not see how the nature of that debate helps solve any of the problems people perceive about modern public education.

Beneath the rather nonsensical nature of the debate lies what appears to be a more fundamental realization that education, especially its public variety, is less up to the fundamental task of educating than anyone would like it to be. The various sides in the debate nibble around the edges of this notion, thinking that minor tweaks like who runs the system or who pays for it and how will answer this fundamental deficiency. Perhaps, however, what all of us should be considering is transforming education into something sufficient for the world we live in now.

I am not just talking about transforming how or what we educate. Instead, I am suggesting we need to revisit the fundamental question of what we even mean when we talk about educating someone. Our world has changed dramatically from what it was a twenty years ago, let alone a hundred and more when the heart of the system we use to educate now was first conceived. Are the notions that drove the system that long ago even appropriate now? Do they adequately educate now? What do we even mean when we talk about educated and education?

I am not questioning that everyone needs access to knowledge and skills in order to be a productive member of society. Rather, I am asking if being a productive member of society is the actual objective of the current system. The reasons we educate have evolved over time–the first argument for public education was to create informed citizens, then later, capable workers, the still later students suited to go on to college. Are any of those reasons still valid now? Are all of them? And is the system we are using to educate fulfilling any of them?

To me, given my view of the 21st century, it seems that the purpose of education is to equip individuals to navigate an ever more connected, sophisticated, and automated world in whatever ways suit an individual’s talents and skills best. The unimaginative view used in the current education system that equipping every individual with the same basic, unfocused set of tools then requiring them to some how figure out how to use them in a world of near infinite possibility seems only capable of producing the result it is: unprecedented un-, under-, and mis-employment among some of the most educated people the US has ever produced by measure of time, money, and effort spent educating.

Granted, there are certain minimum educational standards most individuals need to achieve in order to navigate modern life, but I believe we have to ask whether indoctrinating those standards requires 12 or more years while we meanwhile fail to equip those same individuals with practical, meaningful skills in order to support themselves. In specific, does the old saw of making sure an individual can read, write, do math, have a basic view of history and government, and so on trump teaching them how to grow their own food, fix a car, program a computer, install an electrical outlet, or the thousands of other practical skills an individual could also learn and put to good use?

None of this is to say that the entirety of the system we have now should be abandoned, but we need to ask ourselves the fundamental question whether the system we have, unchanged at any fundamental level, is accomplishing the task we want it to accomplish, and we cannot answer that question until we understand what exactly it is we want that system to accomplish in the first place.

I understand there are no easy answers here, but no one said this was supposed to be easy, and we are never going to have answers if we do not start asking the hard questions. Now seems as good a time as any to start.


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Open Source Education

A recent post over on Facebook got me thinking. We have open source software, hardware, design, fabricating, even open source manufacturing. So, why not open source education?

Think about it. Nearly all of the world’s knowledge is available for free somewhere out there in the form of free lectures and courses, both online and off. What’s missing is some kind of credentialing system to give someone who has bothered to learn on their own the same kind of a piece of paper other people pay tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of learning.

Granted, by issues with formal, classroom education are well documented by now, but isn’t it time for all of us to accept that there are real, viable alternatives to learning in a classroom? So, who’s for it? How can we get this thing started?

An act of hypocrisy?

There is always a certain risk in taking a strong position on something. Among my strong positions has been that of questioning the value of higher education degrees and higher classroom academics in general.

Yet, lurking beneath the surface of that position has always been an element of hypocrisy that I have tended to avoid : I have accumulated well over 350 quarter hours of higher academic instruction over the past 20 years and it is very possible that I will return to a formal academic setting in the near future.

What’s worse is that this hypocrisy contains in itself another hypocrisy: I may yet return to a higher academic setting because I have access to a taxpayer-funded educational benefit I became qualified for as a result of military service that would allow me to receive this higher academic instruction for free.

Nevertheless, despite all of my rhetoric and vitriol against both things, the siren song of returning to the classroom fills my ears and my heart. The thing that holds me back is my realization that returning has the potential to undermine positions that I yet still believe to be true.

The dichotomy in this dilemma is that everything I could learn in that classroom is something I could teach myself, but if I return to the classroom, I can learn these things with very little personal cost to me except time and a little travel. Either way, I will be better than when I started, but going one way seems to be a matter of–perhaps self-defeating–principle, while going the other way seems like an act of–perhaps self-defeating–pragmatism.

At some point, I will have to make a choice, and in doing so add yet another element to my long-standing conflict about higher education. Either way, some will mock me, and perhaps, I deserve it either way.


Are we living in a post-academic world?

My aggravation with the modern education system is well-documented, but part of that aggravation is based on a legitimate question: have we entered into a post-academic era?

For a long period of history, the best and sometimes only way to learn something was to gain that knowledge from someone already considered an expert in whatever the field of pursuit might have been. Whether those people were great prophets, philosophers, teachers, master craftsmen, or professors, they represented the gateway to knowledge for the learner.

Mankind has long sought to collect all of that learning in various forms, but it was not until the latter part of the 20th century that the collection began to reach critical mass, first with the ease and speed modern publishing achieved and then with the advent of the internet and the world wide web.

The 21st century and the world wide web has ushered in a new idea in the history of learning. Granted, the accumulated knowledge of millennia of human history must sill be complied by the learned people of our own era, but subjecting ourselves to their presence and will is no longer required. For anyone motivated enough, it is possible to learn just about anything anywhere for free by simply seeking out the information and applying oneself to it.

This reality then begs the question whether the system of formal academic training currently the institutional requirement in most parts of the world is really necessary. Granted, some kind of system needs to exist, but the question remains whether it needs to look anything like the one we have now.

Modern home schooling, professional certification systems, free online education from existing academic institutions, and the maker movement give us a tantalizing glimpse of what a post-academic education system could look like. These phenomena represent a method of education targeted at the learner, utilizing far more personal interaction, allowing for mentoring and apprenticeships, and allowing for a far greater depth and breadth of exploration than most traditional academic settings.

Further, the potential post-academic model seems to encourage the same kind of sharing of information in a free and unrestricted way that allowed it to come into existence to begin with. Spend only a little time at home school, professional, or maker gatherings, and one will see an exchange of ideas and information unprecedented anywhere else.

I understand that a transformation from the current academic model to a post-academic model will have to be slow and measured, but I also think that transformation is almost inevitable. There is far too much information freely available to anyone who wants to find it to continue to justify the immense expense for rapidly diminishing results of the current academic model.

The question that remains is how each of us will pursue this post-academic transformation.


Addenum: As if they read my mind, MIT is now offering enrollment in its first automated, online course which it is offering for free.