Monday, August 03, 2015

Imagine A University of Practice

Despite the success of the universities around the world - there are more students going to them than ever - time has come to think about a new model. The universities work wonderfully well for a few, as they have always done. More precisely, few universities work well for few people, but they are unable to become the drivers of social mobility and the magic potion for the middle class dream, as they were slated to become. Part of this is of course about the change in the nature of work, that we have technologies that limit the number of middle class jobs, but the model has failed to adapt to these changes, or, in another way, to influence the changes to have more broad-based benefits.

These changes, globalisation and automation being two prime-movers but there are others too, must be taken into account in thinking what kind of education we would want now. Sending more people just to get degrees, as politicians keep talking about from time to time, is not a solution. Thinking about what kind of education will kick-start the social mobility again, create jobs with meaningful income, should be the priority. And, instead of thinking about employers as the sole Job Creators - a job is not created unless a position could be filled - we need to encourage innovation at the universities as well, because only that could complete the circle.

Hence, imagine an University of Practice! A new kind of Higher Education that builds on real work and happens in the context of real life! One may scoff at the idea of an university without research at its core, but that precisely is the departure from the university of the enlightenment age and one of our time. Indeed, this idea is not to replace all other ideas of the university, but to add to the diversity of institutional forms that is a feature of our time. 

The University of Practice will be a place to learn through doing. The middle classes, which, in its urban form, is disconnected from all forms of creation, need to train the mind and the hand, and this institution will seek to connect them to making, redeeming them from ever greater alienation from work. The University of Practice will restore real work at the core of our being, as learning, and one better of our idea of leisurely abandon. It would be a place of practitioners coaching practitioners, with the safety of being able to commit mistakes, with the commitment to learn at every step. Instead of the search for one single true answer, at the heart of this university will be a journey to the indeterminate zone, a search for uniqueness, uncertainty and value conflict (as identified by Donald Schon as the core issues of practice). The point of such education would be competence and relevance, along with the humility, cooperative commitment and adaptability that come with real work.

At a time when machines are challenging humans at work, we must urgently rediscover what it means to be human again. We have a false dream - a world where machines do all the work while human life becomes one of leisure - as work makes us human in the first place. So, this University of Practice, instrumentalist as it may sound, is essentially about recovering humanity. This greater goal, the universal ambition, would justify calling it an university, rather than a job-shop. It would restore the middle class dream of a better life, but will do so without stopping at job interviews and salary cheques. At a time when we need an urgent reconfiguration of our lives, the University of Practice will be the alternate institutional form that recovers our connection with the world and puts us in charge of our lives again.


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