Friday, September 20, 2013

Why might 'the college' be dying?

Eric Schmidt seems to think that the college is a 'slow dinosaur', on its way to extinction. This is somewhat counter-intuitive, given that more students are going into Higher Education than ever before and the promise of skills, when jobs are disappearing fast, is the only hope that the working class has. In fact, one can argue that the modern society stands at the back of the college - the hope of social mobility that it provides - and without it, there will be no social order.

One way to think about this is that for too many people, this is turning out to be a false promise. The college does not lead to redemption, as it is promised to be; it rather leads to the same old place in the social pecking order, now made a bit more difficult and a bit more expensive to achieve. For all the talk of becoming a sentient being and developing a critical consciousness, going to college means turning out huge debt and becoming prudently conformist thereafter.

Of course, in sunny California, Schmidt does not say what he says with pessimism: He believes that the nature of knowledge has changed, or, it has become dis-intermediated. Which means, to know, one does not need to go anywhere: They just need to have a willingness to know, and a critical mind to know what to believe. The college, in its stupefying current format, kills of precisely the abilities one needs to survive in this world of freely-accessible knowledge: Willingness to know goes out of the window after the boring, pointless years spent in classrooms, and critical mind is sacrificed at the altar of the diploma paper (or the degree). 

But, this second view presupposes the first, even admits it. While some may see the half-full glass, the other, empty, half isn't going away. The colleges all over the world is still spinning the mid-twentieth century dream of social mobility through education, whereas life has moved on. The fact that there is only so much room at the top has been exposed: The career escalator is now jammed, as Linkedin founder Reed Hoffman says. One career lifestyles are history, and the college hasn't had a twenty-first century update. This is why it is now out of place, with its out-of-date premises, false hopes and nonexistent benefits.

So, how did the places of learning fail to learn themselves? They have stopped being learning places for a long time, perhaps when the self-organising learning communities were expropriated in the service of the modern state. One could argue that the universities changed over time, but it is possible to argue that this change came as they sold their soul: The welfare state didn't sustain, but rather destroyed them - in making the false promise to its citizens about a kind of rags-to-riches mobility that was never going to be. 

So, here is my thesis: That college is long dead. The kind of ideal that the apologists of the college talk about may only exist in rarest of places, if that. The rest of the institutions have been devoured by the march of welfare state. We may twist the story today and blame the colleges of navel gazing, and indeed some of that goes on, but that's the essential nature of bureaucratic institutions as they have become, drawing their justification from their being themselves within the bewildering changes in the social context where nothing could hold, and everything must continually shift. 

The college today a bureaucratic parapharnalia of an elaborate higher education system, which sells dreams of social mobility to the multitude, but delivers willing slaves to the twin prison of production and consumption. Not choice and opportunity, but it is designed around a fixed view of life and success, based on our grandparents' formula: and, as the party gets over for Consumer Capitalism, the college is as redundant as the dinosaur.

As the jobs shift and lives change, college diploma will no longer be the marker of competence and ability. The way it is going, it may soon denote silly conformity and lack of initiative. Ivan Illich may have seen this a long time coming: We are finally getting to de-school the society as the nature of what we do fundamentally transforms. Self-organising learning communities are coming alive, not just in MOOCs, but on YouTube, TED and Meetups, and people there are doing something they don't do in college anymore - learning. 

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