The Functional, the Valuable and the Forgotten in American Higher Ed.

[974 words]

I am returning to the reflection prompts at the beginning of the sixth and final week of the MOOC that I completed in summer 2016, “What Future of Education?”:

  • what is currently working well within the education system that you are familiar with?
  • what priorities and values does it reflect?
  • what requires improvement, or what has been forgotten?

I think that in my previous blog posts I have made my thinking fairly clear. My attitude toward formal education is mixed. It combines a recognition of its necessity, a yearning for an increase in its vitality and pertinency and a deep disappointment in its relative inflexibility and in the many ways in which it falls flat on its implied promise to serve all learners well. While I do not blame all of my teachers or all of the administrators who shaped my experience in school, I do believe that the dominant paradigms and the entrenched systems that I encountered were, generally speaking, terrible models for learners like me. My experience of school was mostly uninspiring and largely ineffective, with some notable bright spots.

I have also commented at great length on what I see as the value and significance of self-directed education (click here for one good overview site) and increased learner autonomy. A large part of my own learning was accomplished outside of the formal processes of schooling. I might add that both constructivist and connectivist pedagogies, as I understand them, seem to undergird and valorize individual learning, which can be advanced and activated in collaboration with others. This conception of learning — broadly humanist, cognitive-science-informed, focused on meaningful connections and inflected by Deleuzian and Guattarian thinking and by theories like “transformational learning”  — is very different from the policies and approaches that dominated formal education from the 1960s through about a decade ago (whether primary, secondary and postsecondary). A great deal of change and potential for change have arisen since about 2009.

The most important factor, in my view, is our increased understanding of how human brains actually work during learning processes. I truly believe that cognitive science research and the more complex and dynamic models of learning that it has helped to generate will, ultimately, lead to a radically different, higher-quality, more effective and better-adapted set of teaching and learning practices. So… what is functional in American Higher Education today? First, it seems that — despite ongoing resistance among faculty members and administrators — we are increasingly willing to interrogate our teaching and learning practices. The American Association of Colleges and Universities, in particular, has led the way in reflecting on what works, on what is particularly effective and what is not. I am particularly encouraged by reflections on what AAC&U has identified and endorsed as “high-impact practices,” which engage students and seek to make connections between abstract learning, theoretical models, real-world experience and practical problems. We are displacing the long-dominant metaphor of the classroom as a space dominated by and focused on teachers, where students are lined up in rows to receive information in relatively passive ways.

In many ways “business as usual” has worked reasonably well for many students. They absorb knowledge, get a bit of practice, and manage to acquire and sharpen skills in a teacher-focused system. That’s the functional. What is valuable is that the very best, most disciplined students who are able to adapt to the system are able to succeed spectacularly well. Many of those students will proceed to graduate studies, then become teachers themselves, perpetuating the system that has worked “well enough” for a critical mass. That way of proceeding, with its discipline-focused prestige and tenure system, has produced some reasonably good teaching and some great research.

However, the forgotten is more vast still. What has been overshadowed, forgotten or suppressed in many ways are what, in my view, ought to be at the core of education: the intellectual thriving of all, the socio-intellectual development of humanity as a whole, the affirmation of broadly humanistic values; of ethics, particularly the ethics of thriving, sustainability; of connection and the affirmation of human communities; and respect for biodiversity. In many ways, the classroom metaphor, the very structure of schools qua factories of learning, is structured on top of a capitalist, productivist, consumerist system that is, in fact, dehumanizing and unsustainable. It treats some human beings very well (academic stars, the tenured) and others play the role of natural resources to be exploited in the extreme. Universities cajole academic labor out of them with “carrots” and “sticks” (as if they were beasts of burden or the constrained providers of muscle power to run machines). Or, by analogy with forests or mines, universities seek to extract high-value resources (teaching labor, expertise) from them, at minimal cost for maximum profit, then then, when the natural resource has been depleted, universities set aside the “human resource” as if they were dealing with waste or defective units or useless by-products to be dumped into rivers or landfills. Likewise, learners who fit the system might be reasonably well served, since they are easy-to-please consumers willing to pay a premium for what they are told is a good education. But those who do not fit the system — the learners whose mental processing does not align with the dominant modalities, the learners who don’t know how to advocate for themselves, the neuro-atypical — can fall to the wayside as defective products, rejected materials or exceptionally difficult consumers who are unwilling or unable to pay at the rate the education marketplace demands.

It’s time for us to rethink higher education from top to bottom, front to back, side to side and from heart to brain, muscle to lymphatic system.

How do we make education as a whole, particularly higher ed, human-friendly, truly engaging, life-affirming, effective for all learners, humanistic in the best sense of the word, and sustainable both economically and environmentally?


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