We live in a time of proliferation and abundance. What marks our experience in the West at the beginning of the twenty-first century (and the close of the twentieth) is an infinity of: information, products, desires, food, the likes of which has never been known before in history. We take this for granted. Anyone born in or after 1980 has never known a world without this glut, particularly of data. We call these people digital natives, because they navigate the world with network connections and access to information as their generational ontology.
It has been said by others repeatedly, and I will shout it from the rooftops, that we are not teaching children or young adults how to navigate the gluttonous buffet of information before them. We are failing. The important question to ask is not "Why?" ...but "How?"
We continue to rely on methods that are from a period in history defined by scarcity. Think about life historically- virtually unchanged economically from the middle ages through the development of the printing press. Food, information, medicine... all scarce. The modern world begins around the same time as the American Civil War. The change and the conflicts across the world in these time periods are not accidental. From the development of the first universities to the founding of public schools in the United States, we have taught select individuals a system of education that dictates that there is an expert, and he or she is available to a group of people chosen to sit in a room for a purpose (get trained to be a biblical scribe, count stuff, 6th grade). The person at the front of the room (or whose name is on the text) is a trusted expert, an authority. They have access to secret, difficult to attain information, that the student, who has security in the system, trusts, what Anthony Giddens called in 1991 Ontological Security.
Students today do not have the same relationship with teachers, institutions, or information. They have access to information. Sitting in classrooms teaches one thing: how to sit and listen to an expert. What these students want is help navigating the world, getting a job, knowing something, having a skill. Most students go to college because it gives them a ticket to future employment... enriching their minds is an after thought. They don't want to sit in my class. They do so because there is no alternative access to me as a professor.
Meanwhile, these same students are self-educating and self-selecting into information niches that have meaning to them, and they are becoming prolific in them (you'll notice I didn't use the word "expert"- expertise implies depth of knowledge, which they don't have). We have not taught our young people how to be effective curators, because as educators, we are still clinging to the idea that communication of our expertise has value. The reality is that our expertise has great value, but our systems of communication do not.
i.e. Who is more effective: a corner preacher on his (literal) soap box or Joel Osteen in his mega church with his television and internet syndication deals?
I am not suggesting that we abandon traditional education, quite the contrary. I am suggesting that sooner rather than later colleges and universities as institutions, and more importantly faculty as the conduit to students, must attenuate in response to these social changes. As a professor I am less likely to have an impact on a student if the only place the student CAN hear me is in a classroom, if the only medium I use is the communication equivalent of morse code, can I really expect someone who is twenty years old to go study morse code well enough to translate my lecture, and all it's inherent nuances? Or better yet, should I ask my students to ride a horse to school instead of drive, because the influence of equitation on their understanding will be that much more meaningful?
And yet, we do this. Faculty and administrators, day in and day out, we are the result of it's production, and so we reproduce this idea that the sage on the stage is THE WAY. And why? Because we, professors, have ALWAYS WANTED that role. We want to stand up and have students take notes. We want to impart our wisdom. We have learned a great deal, and feel compelled to share that understanding with the world. It is IMPORTANT.
I am not belittling that. It is important. The world would be a dull, crispy place without the thousands of experts who give back to us from their wisdom and hard-won knowledge and research. But it is not THE way. It is not a sacred path that must be adhered to without change. (And I feel entirely different about basic research, by the way, which should be a sacred, and protected endeavor).
Universities are a difficult lot. When television came along, there were those who said that television would eventually kill the need for professors. This turned out to be untrue because television, being a mass medium, was unidirectional. And so with many technological developments in the last seventy years, universities have simply dismissed the social changes that have erupted around new technologies. But at this juncture in time, and at the risk of sounding arrogant, I propose they do so at their peril.
Traditionally, a university education was the only route from the third estate to the second. American socio-economics has proven that this social change has it's limits. If the majority of people attend a university, then the entire education enterprise is reduced to skills training. Indeed we have seen this in the U.S. There is practically no job that does not require advanced skills or a bachelor's degree as a minimum qualification. This change has become de rigeur in the last 25 years or so, with skilled but non-degreed jobs (manufacturing) eroding at a much more brisk pace than low-level jobs requiring a degree (administrative assistant). The answer cannot be as simple as "everyone" goes to college, though that would be lovely. Our economy is not set up to support such an enormous investment by most people.
So what do we do? We must redefine minimum qualifications. We must revamp what it means to be educated. We must be careful and avoid creating altars around "higher" education. We must recognize that the world is complex, and becoming more so daily. Universities can no longer claim to be universal. They are limited, and will have to specialize in order to be relevant. Any mediocrity should be excised in favor of someone who does it best. Rather than be broad, we should look to our institutions of higher learning to be deep. That means that some will be better in an area than another. We should celebrate this diversity, for the world is only becoming more complex.
The twentieth century could easily be branded as the century of automation, of the widget. Everywhere in the twentieth century you could see shameless adaptation of mass currencies of: practice, thought, development, and economics. That era is over. Daily, economists and journalists discuss and write about the most recent changes and how they are ever more unique. The new economy is changing so rapidly that slow moving corporations like Kodak, KMart, Sears, and even newcomers Blockbuster, and Netflix, are falling to their knees.
The world is different when the information cycle is moment-to-moment and on-demand. It is a different place when communication requires little effort technologically (even while the understanding gap grows exponentially). The world requires different skills when cultural mores are lost in the advent of crushing poverty, religious fundamentalism, unchecked liberalism, or radical totalitarian wealth. So how do we change?
The arbiters of justice, knowledge, understanding, history, science, philosophy, language, and all of their subdisciplines MUST stand up with technology... IN technology. And embrace it as THE new estate... a fifth estate, and take our role to heart outside of the media and political influencers who would be more than happy to use our structures for their own gain.
Education should be FREE- but it should not be "without cost". It should be LIBERATED. Universities, colleges, technical colleges, training programs should be able to interact with one another. They should be responsive and productive towards culture- in other words, they should both respond to cultural change... and create it.