Monday, November 4, 2013

Experience Becoming

One of the great things about reading a variety of kinds of writing from a variety of sources is the occasional serendipitous connection it helps you make.

I read yesterday's Education Life section of the New York Times, growing increasingly agitated at the mindless cheerleading in its section titled "The Disrupters." Article after article treats the reader to largely uncritical accounts of various "edupreneurs" (no, that word is not my snarky coinage, but what some of these people evidently call themselves). 

We are promised (or is it threatened?) that "the disrupters" are on the verge of "disrupting" higher education by bringing the always perfect approaches that universally serve the private sector so well to that hopelessly outdated institution, the American college/university. (That sentence is snarky.)

There so many things wrong with every one of those articles that I could not focus on any one of them. The avalanche of mindless corporatespeak passing itself off as wisdom and insight and innovation was just too overwhelming.

So to break the spell of banality, I went online to Andrew Sullivan's The Dish and saw this link to a letter by Kurt Vonnegut (which everyone should take a minute or two to read).

At first, I simply enjoyed the letter. But within a few minutes, I realized that it had brought into perfect focus one of the things that had bothered me most about the New York Times articles. Vonnegut's advice to a group of high school students was simple:
Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what's inside you, to make your soul grow.

That's what was missing in all of these breathless edupreneurial proposals to disrupt higher education, but its absence was most obvious in one in particular: awarding degrees based simply on demonstrating competence in various areas.

Something calling itself College for America offers an associates degree for $1250 per six month term. Students can breeze through as quickly as they like. The article highlights one young man who completed all "120 competency goals he was given" in only "three months and five days"--in other words, he got a two-year degree in one semester, for very little cost.

Pretty impressive, huh? Well, not if the goal was education.

This man got a degree. He did not get an education. Education is about becoming. It is not simply a checklist of (often employer-determined) competencies. This man had no time at all for reflection, no time for actual learning, no time for any of the discrete assignments he tackled to percolate in his unconscious, no time for the unplanned, unexpected connection to form and develop and blossom.

None of these supposedly "disrupting" ideas care one bit about those things. All we hear is that they will cut costs or speed up the process of getting a degree. Whether these ideas actually do anything to help students become something (other than a person with a "marketable diploma") seems to be of little or no concern to these Disruptive Masters of the Educational Universe.

A college is not simply a job-training institute. Its purpose is not to turn out interchangeable cogs who have been trained in specific marketable skills that our corporate masters dictate they must have.

At its best, it gives young women and men the chance to to find out what's inside them, to become who they want to be. You don't do that in three months of producing "deliverables." You don't do that sitting at home in front of your computer looking at online videos. You don't do that with the aid of "academic success coaches."

Those things might get you a "marketable diploma" but they will never get you an education. As long as it makes them a profit, the edupreneurs could not care less.

The rest of society should.

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