Having read Bob Love’s synopsis of The End of College, I would like to contribute some thoughts born from those which he put down. I shall begin by saying that Carey presents a very interesting analysis, one I think is quite accurate, especially in its indictment of the modern university system. But I shall also add a caveat: though the old paradigm is rife with problems and is becoming increasingly obsolete, there is no guarantee that the new paradigm will be free of problems of its own. Indeed, I imagine Mr. Carey would agree with this. If, however, we can anticipate some of them, then perhaps we can also find a way to offset them. I hope to begin this, in some small way, now.
Kevin Carey’s predictions are ominous for the institutions he calls the hybrid university, but not necessarily so for education itself. I could begin a long litany of problems that have arisen from the place and influence of the university institution in modern American society, but Carey has already done that. Only this much will I say: Education, or at least Education as it should be, cannot at its root be institutional; rather, it must be personal. The rise of the University of Everywhere allows for education at a more human scale, and so allows also for that personal dimension.
Academic SeclusionWhat it does not allow for, however, is something that the present college system does, at least in theory, and that is academic seclusion. In the best scenario, the student leaves home and goes away to adopt a new lifestyle, a lifestyle of learning. He lives at the college so as to concentrate all of his energies and all of his attention on one thing: learning. In this way, distractions are minimized, and time is devoted not to making a living but to the pursuit of knowledge. All of the student’s life is given over to leisure (as properly understood).1 In this way academic seclusion is not unlike monastic seclusion.
Of course, in reality things are very different. In many cases, universities have become a place to “house, feed, and amuse the young.” This is perhaps a natural end when we aim for universal college education. The elitist quality of education is lost, and the social and academic life must cater to the lowest common denominator among its students. In many ways, college has become what high school once was, the next square on the board game to which one must advance if one wants the game to continue; the new end of the educational gamut which everyone is expected to run. Because not everyone is interested in, or even equipped for, the serious academic life, college of necessity becomes increasingly like a vocational school, interested less in the pursuit of knowledge in the full sense of that word, and more in teaching skill sets for a successful career.
The new paradigm of education, which Carey calls the University of Everywhere, can avoid this trend, especially since it is not tied, as are the hybrid universities, to the modern paradigm. Indeed, their tie to this paradigm is reinforced by so much institutional inertia that it is difficult to see any force that can bring them to change direction short of outright failure. In the new paradigm, however, a student is expected to live off-site, probably to work to pay for his way through college, and to have an overall center of gravity away from the campus, which could be located anywhere (“even a shopping center”). All of this undermines the principle of academic seclusion. Indeed, for not a few serious students, the first year at college offers an opportunity for escape from crippling family or social situations that can hinder learning. The absence of a dedicated college campus removes that opportunity. Is there a way to preserve academic seclusion and the dedicated life of learning in the new paradigm?
1 See, e.g., Josef Pieper’s book Leisure: The Basis of Culture.
The Need for ValidationAn additional potential problem is the question of the Degree. In the present closed system, everyone can at least agree on what a college diploma is and the criteria for awarding it. Admittedly, the criteria continue to diminish, so the diploma itself is worth less and less in reality. It creates a kind of degree inflation – the more degrees there are, the less each one is really worth. Again, it becomes more like a vocational training certificate than an award for notable intellectual achievement. I don’t see any way of reversing this trend in the present system.
But in a new system, the question of validation is still open. Will it simply continue the awarding of degrees, as is done now? Or will some new approach be devised? The concern is that if a student is not awarded a certificate of some kind, attesting to his period of study and consequent academic achievement, which hopefully represents real learning, then how do those outside of the school recognize the student’s achievement? This is especially important for a potential employer. Is every student required to write a thesis or dissertation, or perhaps a series of these? But these can be plagiarized. And does one want to sit down and read through a potential hire’s essay history?
Perhaps by testing then? But again is it ideal for an applicant to test over and over again in his searching for a job? And what exactly do we expect a test to show? Will it be standardized so as to avoid duplicate testing for different jobs? If so, this would retain a number of problems from the current paradigm, possibly as many as or even more than the whole system of degrees. What then of letters of reference from the applicant’s professors? Would this be enough? But these would have to stand on the recognized reputation of the professor. And how is that to be established? And so we return to square one.
Whatever the case, it seems that there must be some way to universally express validation of a student’s work. But what is the best way to do so remains to be seen.
The Death of Books and the Classroom of NowhereOne of the advantages of a large, established university campus is its many resources. The most important of these is the Library. In the present, digitized age, many books have already been moved to electronic media, with the possibility that eventually all books will make that move. This possibility allows for the duplication in a small, local school of all the resources of a university library. And yet, even if every book is available by screen, something is still lacking; something important, or so it seems to me.
This is not the place to argue about the relative merits of physical books versus electronic books, though it is a debate well worth having. There may be a great deal of difference between reading a thing and reading stuff (on a screen). Certainly there is in my own experience. But the whole computerization of learning that the University of Nowhere forebodes is potentially problematic. Man has become increasingly aware of his need for ‘sacred space’; I wonder if we will not eventually come to the same conclusion about ‘learning space’. Any teacher will tell you that the classroom – how it looks, how it is organized, even how it is lighted – can make a drastic difference in the quality of the learning that happens therein. Can that atmosphere be duplicated through a screen? Especially when viewed while sitting in one’s bedroom or living room? I have grave reservations. Yet one seeming virtue of the new paradigm is the virtual classroom; that is, the ability of a student via the internet to take a class from a professor, even one many thousands of miles away. This may work well for STEM-based classes, but is it as effective for the humanities?
Arguably the most important dimension of education is the personal relationship between the pupil and the teacher. In the three modes of teaching still preserved in some places, only the lecture is impersonal enough to allow for long-distance learning. The interactive seminar and the intimate tutorial, settings in which the most effective learning often takes place, cannot be duplicated through a screen. This is the case not least of all because an integral part of learning is the physical proximity to other students, to other human beings engaged in the same intense activity as oneself. Just as one cannot play soccer with fellow teammates through a screen, so the most profound, because personal, levels of learning cannot be duplicated digitally. Or so I fear. And yet the University of Everywhere works in large part because of this computerization. However, because Education is a uniquely human endeavor, it only succeeds in the full sense when it happens without the mediation of the non-human. This means bringing students and teachers together for sustained, personal, face-to-face interaction. How this can be done in the new paradigm is a question well worth asking, and answering.