Monday, September 14, 2015

The New College Paradigm - Problems

by Benedict Armitage, CSA

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 Seclusion

What 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 Validation

An 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 Nowhere

One 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.

Man and Learning

by Benedict Armitage, CSA

In Bob’s summation of Kevin Carey’s The End of College, he makes some important and insightful observations about man and about the relationship between his intellectual acuity and his moral choices, and I would like to take a moment to flesh out this relationship a bit. Quoting Carey, he observes that “to be human is to be constantly searching for patterns that ease the ache of awareness and incomprehension.” This is a thoughtful sentence, and one worth pausing over. Man, confronted with a riot of sensory experience, is obsessed with tying that multiform experience together. He feels a need to make ‘sense’ of things, and as such has a keen interest in what the neurobiologists call pattern recognition or awareness. I would argue that much of education is precisely this – learning to perceive patterns and develop an awareness of the interconnectedness of things. In a similar way, much of the advancement of knowledge is finding new patterns and new ways to articulate them.

I am going to alter the usual direction of this kind of discussion a bit here by redefining, or broadening, what I mean by pattern. I distinguish three kinds of patterns, or traces of an ordered arrangement: Physical, Notional, and Purposive. I will not attempt an exhaustive definition of these here, but I will point out briefly how they differ.

Physical patterns are those perceived by the senses as interpreted by the brain. This is what most discussions of pattern awareness are concerned with solely. Physical patterns are the province of that part of the mind we call imagination, as this is the bridge between the five senses interacting with the material world on the one hand and the rest of the mind on the other. All sentient beings, including much of the animal world, exist on this level. Most are likewise limited to it. Man, however, can perceive other patterns as well. With the mind, by which I mean his faculty of thought, abstraction, and reflection, he can also perceive notional patterns, that is, the world of ideas, as well as purposive patterns, that is, those that pertain to intention, purpose, design, and meaning. One might further distinguish them by saying that physical patterns give us information, but the recognition of notional patterns imparts knowledge, and that of purposive patterns wisdom. All are expressions, in different ways and on different levels, of the same overarching logos.

The unique ability of man to perceive these other patterns says something about what he is. It reflects an anthropology. Man alone of the animal world is possessed of the faculties of thought and of moral choice, what we might call mind and will. These set him apart from all other animals. (Here of course mind means more than just the brain and will more than just simple choice.) Ιn fact, in the words of the fourteenth century Byzantine writer Nicholas Cabasilas, these things are “ἄ ποιεῖ ἄνθρωπον” (“those things which make man what he is”). This anthropology must be reflected in how we understand education. Education should, for us, be concerned first and foremost with man’s faculties of thought and of moral choice, and so with the objects of those two faculties, namely Truth and Virtue. And as Bob pointed out, the intellectual capacities of man, his power of thought, exist ultimately for the sake of moral decision. In short, we think to choose.

This brings us to a point where we can proffer an answer to the question, Why study? A partial answer is simply because we have this organ of thought, and nothing is given to no purpose. As Carey observed, learning is inevitable because it is natural and ultimately rewarding. Man seeks to know, and study helps to satisfy this desire.

But beyond this, we study in order to know both how and what to think. Ultimately, human beings are ‘searchers of meaning.’ So far as we can tell, no other being in the cosmos is interested in the meaning of things. Man, however, is obsessed with it. And even when he ignores it or seeks to deny the possibility of meaning, he nonetheless remains haunted by it. We all seek to answer the questions that lie at the heart of our existence.

Bob has reminded me that we must not allow ourselves to be wedded too closely to terms and labels, as these mean different things to different people. So I think in closing I should define how I use some labels. What, then, I understand by the term ‘classical education’ is the fundamental approach to learning that consists of reading the classics together to see how others have answered these great questions that concern man’s existence. And what I understand by the term ‘liberal arts’ is simply those subjects of study that deal with these very questions. The former is concerned with the source of the content, and the latter with how that content is structured and organized. They are really only different aspects of the same thing, and of the same pursuit.

Whatever the term we use, our purpose is to see what others have done with their faculty of thought and of choice, in the hope that this will, in turn, inform our own choices, and so help determine who we become.