Monday, August 08, 2011

Reinventing College

I am on my journey to create a world college. The idea is to draw students from all over the world, to campuses all over the world, learning different cultures and ways of doing things while doing the core curriculum of a kind. This will be education through 'walking 10,000 miles, reading 10,000 books' : Not quite though, but in a somewhat similar method.

I shall argue that our current system of college education is too narrow, too technical. There are lots of debates whether people learn anything at all while in college. I think they do, but mostly wrong things. These are usually the best years of people's lives, and they spend it learning outdated things in an outmoded way. They mug up shallow texts and ideas, in pursuit of selfish goals and prepare for a world that does not exist. I think college should be a far more exciting time than that.

This is a time when students should see the world and learn its diversity and its enormous possibilities. It is the time when they discover that knowledge is embedded in real life, and not an end in itself. They should learn about people, of different colours and kinds, and learn to respect otherness. They should learn about the languages and cultures of the world, and of different professions. This should be the most exciting time of their lives, a time that shapes their world views and hopefully makes them capable individuals and world citizens.

I know most of it sounds terribly idealistic, but we need a return to idealism. Otherwise, education will fail its students. It will be out of sync with the world that it is expected to make a better place out of. We shall sink into, as we do now, bad behaviour and fear of unknown. We are currently staring at an abyss of intolerance and violence: If that's the reality, idealism is preferable to realism.

This is also the time when college education is increasingly being questioned for its worth. Peter Thiel has been handing over Thiel scholarships recently encouraging bright young students to leave college and start their own enterprise, intending to show college is a waste of money and time. And, indeed, it has become so, mainly due to the elusive quest of college education to train people for jobs: In a changing world, as one should expect, it is hard to train people for jobs that will be waiting for pupils in five years time.

The college education has therefore failed to deliver its promise. And whether or not we count colleges and universities as key institutions of a democratic society, they sustain the middle class dreams and are therefore indispensable. Mr Thiel's scheme, though innovative, suffer from elitism: He is undermining an institution which has turned around so many lives and lifted many people from their preordained destiny. His point is taken, that college is not delivering value, but his emphasis is mistaken, that therefore the college is pointless.

We are at a time of fear and despair. At the time of writing, there are riots going on in parts of London. The US treasury has just lost the 'most secure' credit rating. The Eurozone, and consequently the European Union, is dramatically nearing collapse, driven by a north-south schism. The global stock markets are melting down, and it seems the party of globalization is finally and decisively over. Norway has just suffered its worst Neo-Nazi violence, and if the indicators are correct, there will be more such atrocities in Europe and America in the days to come.

The only way to turn this around is by creating ideas, and people as carriers of those ideas, of a new world: respectful, harmonious, peaceful. We need a new generation of people who start afresh, who are global and enterprising. Education must deliver this: Education has to rediscover itself to deliver this. One way to do that is to put diversity and respect for otherness at the heart of education.

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