Friday, January 02, 2015

21st Century College: The Question of Objective

My objective is to summarise the idea of '21st Century College' and understand the same in the context of education theory, developments in technology and media as well as economic history. This is one project I have taken on in 2015, and chose to turn this blog into a record of my explorations and conversations. 

The first question that I deal with is not whether we should be changing with technology - I shall contend that answer is quite obvious and time-tested too - but what really needs to change. More specifically, while we may accept that the '21st Century College' may employ different methods and technologies to educate, should it have different objectives from that of 'traditional education'?

Dewey, as usual, is useful here. Writing in 1938, about what he saw as a contest between 'traditional' and 'progressive' education, this was his stance:"The general philosophy of new education may be sound, and yet the difference in abstract principles will not decide the way the moral and intellectual preference involved shall be worked out in practice. There is always the danger in a new movement that in rejecting the aims and methods of that which it would supplant, it may develop its principles negatively rather than positively or constructively. Then it takes its clew in practice from that which is rejected instead of from the constructive development of its own philosophy."

The project of '21st Century College' is still to define its objectives in precise terms rather than in opposition to those of the '20th Century College'. The Nineteenth Century objectives of scholastic knowledge and statesmanship are truly dead and gone (though they live on in some of the world's best institutions), and even the 20th Century vision of creating citizens and professionals has become redundant with the undermining of the nation state as the unit of organisation of our society and the undermining of the professions by the changes in knowledge access and consumption. The new doctrine somewhat puts businesses at the centre and seeks to replace the idea of citizenship with an ideal of 'competent worker', but this idea remains underdeveloped except its opposition to 'academic'. 

What does a 'competent worker' really mean? While 'competencies' become a buzzword in business schools and consultancies, real world businesses know that 'competencies' are as dynamic as ever and often define them in very broad terms, such as 'Critical Analysis'. However, the meaning of 'Critical Analysis' is different inside a business than in literature what the educators can possibly do (see 'The Business of Thinking'). The reason for this is not just a failure of translation (See 'Lost in Translation') but the fundamental difference in context: 'Critical Analysis' as meant and desired by the businesses can only work if the employee has accepted the primacy of pursuit of profit, and have been motivated enough to accept the need for profits in the particular business they are involved in as the primary goal of their actions. Without this canvass, and its limitations, it is difficult to exactly grasp the term 'critical analysis' as a competency desired by the businesses.

Besides the difficulties in defining what a 'competent worker' really means, there should be the additional question whether we need a separate education system to prepare them. One can make two immediate observations regarding the state of the debate: First, we seem to be saying that we need a lot of creative, collaborative people who can communicate well and are confident in their intellectual capability; and second, we are recruiting a lot of very successful people possessing such capabilities from the top institutions of the world, and yet, we are complaining that the existing education system does not give us 'competent workers'. A justifiable conclusion will be that the education system does not give us 'competent workers' because, designed to serve a different need, the system we have now is structured to be 'tiny at the top': We now need a system that can do, at scale, what the top institutions of the world were doing all this while anyway. Seen this way, the objects of the education remain relatively stable - enabling competent individuals who can live productive lives - though we may need to adjust our methods and approaches to the emergent technological realities and use them to construct a socially viable system. However, we usually make the opposite argument: That we need a new education system, based on the needs of the businesses alone.

Now, while this may be a perfectly legitimate goal, such a system has indeed always existed, and still does. As I mentioned above, the best colleges are doing just fine supplying finest minds that power our most successful businesses. It is, therefore, difficult to see whether the '21st Century College' as a construct should have a different set of objectives, unless of course, we deem a part of our population to be unworthy of 'good education' and want to carry over the 'workhouse' mindset to the new century. This way, the specially designed education is not about INCLUDING a large number of people in the education process, but rather EXCLUDING them from it, by relegating them to an education which constrains their thinking. Moral objections aside, this is not going to solve the problem that underlie the case of a new education: We need people with higher order skills.

The point, therefore, is to build the '21st Century College' not necessarily in opposition to the '20th Century' ones, but rather by trying to find better ways of achieving the same objectives. For all our posturing, college as it stands today has served us well. Acknowledging this, and escaping the 'either-or' mindset (as Dewey argues) would serve us well to imagine an education that serves the future as well.



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