26 May 2010

Still Not Persuaded

Filed under: Culture, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 6:15 am

When I woke up way too early this morning I was thinking, based on yesterday’s discussion of my last post, that I’m still not persuaded about the value of perpetuating the present post-secondary educational system. To dismantle all collective learning, relying entirely on individual self-study via books and websites: I agree, that’s not a very good alternative. But surely some some sort of mutual learning-teaching circuitry could be strung together.

Carl says that college students need motivation to learn and encouragement to keep trying, and I don’t doubt it. Everybody needs at least an occasional outside boost to their own inner motivation; everyone needs someone to help them believe in their own ability to do something hard if they keep at it. But couldn’t students motivate and encourage each other, without paying somebody else to do it?

As things currently stand, students surely do motivate each other to an extent in the classroom. But given the way the goals of the process are set up, education tends to devolve into a solo game. Each high schooler is trying to squeeze a few more points onto the GPA and SAT so he or she can compete for the highest-prestige colleges. And how do the students identify those desirable colleges? Mostly it’s by the cumulative GPAs and SATs of the students currently enrolled there. At least implicitly the aspiring collegians are expecting to join a cohort of their intellectual peers in a mutual learning environment. But then they get to college and it’s still mostly about squeezing a few more points onto the GPA in order to compete for jobs and grad school at the next level.

Schools and teachers have historically established communal enclaves that honor and embody the higher standards of truth, knowledge, thought, imagination. Students strive toward achieving those higher standards of learning; teachers demonstrate, encourage, and lead the way toward mastering the standards and pushing their boundaries even farther. All that is good. I’d just like to see the collective power of students to motivate and encourage one another be more effectively brought into play.

If investor-dominated capitalism perpetuates itself in the daily practices of everyone who participates in it, then the current structure and practice of higher education seems too willingly complicit in that perpetuation. If we want to move toward something closer to anarcho-syndicalism, it’s almost surely not going to kick in once the students leave school and take paying jobs. The workplace already presents a pretty compelling collective motivation: maximize corporate profits. From inside the corporate world it’s hard to resist, either individually or collectively, the persistent motivation and encouragement, not to mention the demand, to contribute to the bottom line. Something has to give, and usually it’s the workers’ shared commitment to standards of excellence. Clearly the marketplace dominance of money over excellence is a prime reason why so many of the brightest college students say that they’d rather not, striving mightily to stay as long as they can in the relatively idealized university environment. But the ivy-covered walls are being breached: funding gets squeezed, professorial jobs get scarcer, the universities seem more and more like industrial training facilities.

I suspect I’m being a bit post-apocalyptic in my imaginary overhaul of higher education, anticipating how the traditions and standards could be perpetuated if the money for higher education suddenly dried up. Would kids all go straight from high school into paying jobs, learning only what their employers require of them in order to contribute to the bottom line? Or would the higher learning standards still issue a call that at least some could hear and heed? Even if no money changed hands, could learners voluntarily band together to honor the higher standards, to strive together toward them, to push their boundaries? In short, could learning take place entirely divorced from the capitalistic flows of money and power, flows that are fueled by individuals competing with each other to further the interests of the investor class?

For an increasing number of prospective college students the apocalypse is already here, with the ever-higher price tag of a university education being out of reach. The economy has already collapsed through aggressive lending and excessive borrowing; even so, prospective college students are encouraged to take on massive student loans with the expectation that the investment will pay off later in the form of higher-paying career opportunities. In order to pay off those loans, the graduate is immediately locked into an economic climate in which earning the greatest amount of money takes first priority. And what if those jobs aren’t there in four years? Defaults, personal bankruptcies, the public footing the bill on piles of toxic federal loans. And if the jobs dry up, where do the higher tax revenues come from to cover those bad student loans? Borrowing, again.

Maybe in fantasizing a tuition-free, cooperative model of college education I’m being a kind of accelerationist, pushing toward the apocalypse. But I’m thinking, why wait for disaster to strike? Maybe an imagined post-apocalyptic scheme could be better than the one we’re trying to preserve. Talk is cheap; so are books: you could rig up a pretty powerful system with just those two components.

Of course nobody is going to hire me to redesign higher education, or any other industry for that matter, along the lines of an anarcho-syndicalist model. And God knows I’m no inspirational leader. I’m told that impractical ideologically-motivated schemes sap energy from making incremental improvements in what already exists. I have a hard enough time distinguishing between fiction and reality, between what could easily be and what couldn’t possibly be. But as I’ve said often enough before: hey, it’s just a blog post. I’d originally written this rant as a comment on yesterday’s thread, but it got too long. Now it’s a new post. I’ve already got yet another education-related post queued up, but I’ll stick this editorial commentary in here first.


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