Can We Educate Ourselves to Educate?

David Horowitz rails against the ‘indoctrination’ of American students by radical leftist professors. He isn’t the only one—it’s quite common to hear how universities are subverting the beliefs of youth. Problem is, it ain’t happening; even if some try it (debatable), they have proven incompetent. The radical professors have been in place since the sixties. If, in fifty years, they haven’t managed to shift America to the left, they aren’t going to manage it now.

That doesn’t mean that our universities are shining examples of learning and productivity. Or that they are preparing American youth to effectively draw on the best of its past for a stronger future. They have their weaknesses. It’s just that they aren’t the ones Horowitz manufactures.

In his Times piece the other day, Stanley Fish unwittingly pointed out one of the core problems: We’re turning to the Enlightenment of the 18th century for our vision of education and not to the needs and possibilities of our own age. This is as useful as it would have been in 1720 to look to the University of Paris of 1400 for guidance on how to structure the newly renamed and changing Yale College. Sure, there’s always something to learn from the past, but the new world sparked by Gutenberg and vigorous European exploration and by resurgent science and philosophy (not to mention looming industrialization) were changing not only the needs to be met by education but the very nature of the pupil.

Even then, there were plenty of people who looked back to a style of education that had outlived its usefulness. It would take at least another century and a half, really (in America, at least), for the ‘modern’ university to emerge—but it did, and it reflected new possibilities and possessed new vigor.

Whatever their remaining strengths, contemporary universities have lost that vigor, and they explore new possibilities only insofar as they relate to the business models of the private sector. If they look back to Kant, as Fish claims, they also stare admiringly at old structures of consumption, equating what they are doing with the way products were once made for choices in the marketplace, education becoming something bought and sold, the student merely consumer.

Even in this, they are behind the curve. The economic model they are using for redesign is rapidly being cast off today, as savvy corporations are realizing that the money’s no longer in the simple transactions of buying and selling, but in development of connectivities that might even include constantly giving product away or involving consumers themselves in product design or working with consumers to educate both seller and buyer towards creation and utilization of a more effective product. These are not new concepts, of course, but they have become many times more powerful as a result of digital possibilities than ever they were before. The irony is that the new models require that consumers be educated before they participate—educated broadly, not narrowly.

The developing model of the marketplace has moved away from the smorgasbord, from the menu of discrete items. Look at Google: what it has created is a new place for interaction, for buying and selling, taking the older television, radio, and even print-media advertising model (offering something for ‘free’ or for little cost, supporting it by piggy-backing advertising) and making it much more pliable in customer hands. Instead of building it and hoping they would come, Google has gone to where they are and has built something with them.

Colleges and universities have yet to understand what this change can mean for them, still seeing their offerings as the one way. They continue to embrace the old image of the customer as simply a chooser and consumer just as that model is falling out of favor in the business community.

Not that the model ever worked for education: if the idea of the rational and educated consumer was nonsense in the marketplace (as it is, as most of our advertising proves), it is ludicrous in education, where the whole point is that the student doesn’t yet know. Yet there are still plenty of educational institutions operating on the principle that students can make educated choices even before they are educated enough to make those choices.

At the core of what is going on in the marketplace is a shift towards a new type of interaction between business and consumer, one that puts much more emphasis not on choice (though that’s what the colleges and universities seem to imagine it is) but on flexibility. And on involvement. When I say I start my classes where my students are, I am reflecting something of today’s business attitude, especially when I then tailor the semester to the specific needs the students and I identify. Instead of proceeding solely along lines laid out in advance on a syllabus, I re-draw the lines as we go.

None of what I do is new, any more than what is happening in the marketplace. In both instances, we are responding to new possibilities to make actual what has long been latent. The advantage that a businessperson has, today, is that the old, rigid structures of business have been cut back enough to allow for experimentation and success. We’ve seen the toppling to those that can’t change (Chrysler and GM) and their restructuring so that they can face a new environment. Nothing like that has happened in education. It just gets more top-heavy and more committed to ways of doing things long ago shown in need of replacement.

Fred Keller’s Personalized System of Instruction (PSI) and Mastery have been around for decades. They are proven effective and perfectly adaptable now that we have the flexibility of the Web and the breadth of digital possibilities. And there are other models, just as ignored and just as good. But we stick with our old models for teaching, instead, models based on limit, not expansion.

Even our online teaching works in heavily guarded silos rather than in the expansive universe we’ve been creating these past twenty years. Our classrooms remain walled off and the kingdoms of the individual instructors. Fields of study are narrow and jealously guarded. In all, we are acting like businesses before World War I, and not like the forward-looking institutions we imagine ourselves to be.

In the 1950s and 1960s, there were a number of attempts to re-envision higher education. They’ve all now faded into insignificance as our colleges and universities have retreated into models that would surprise no one of the 1930s.

If we want to create higher education that will be of value to the 21st century and not the 19th, we are going to have to scrap, first, our physical and bureaucratic structures. The classroom may have worked 100 years ago; it doesn’t, today. The discrete course might fit with Victorian ideas of the divisions of knowledge (and the units of knowledge), but it can’t contain any body of knowledge today.

In ”Good-bye, Teacher,” Keller describes a situation that centers on the student, but within a structured environment of classrooms, labs, study areas, and more, where the student moves from one to the other at his or her own pace, setting his or her own agenda—though within the confines established by the course designers. The student also becomes responsible for assisting in the learning of other students and, ultimately, for the continuing evolution of the course itself.

PSI, or Mastery, as it came to be known, has proven effectiveness. The problem is, it does not fit within traditional educational structures. It can, however, work well within new digital environments, as long as they are yoked to physical environments as well (though not necessarily to the traditional classroom), for face-to-face interaction is necessary to effective education, as necessary as any other resource.

Today, we don’t need the older structures, yet we are wedded to them more securely than even GM was. If it took bankruptcy and a bailout to move GM even a little, it may take even more to change education—and our universities are not structured so that the wake-up-call of bankruptcy can be used to get them going.

I want to teach my students. But I don’t want to simply teach them “content” (which is what Horowitz wants us to concentrate on). I want to teach them to learn, to adapt, to use the new possibilities that arise around them. This gets more and more difficult in institutions that are rigid, that have learned nothing themselves in a century, that have not adapted to a changing world, and that use nothing but what they’ve used before (for they do nothing but what they’ve done before).

There are two things we need to be doing that we, in higher education, have not been doing enough of. First, we need to start educating ourselves for the future rather than assuming that what we’ve done in the past will work just as well in the future. Second, we really must start involving our students more directly in their education–not as consumers and simply as actors in planned exercises, but as vibrant participators in their own education, interacting with us not as ‘guides on the side’ or ‘sages on the stage’ (to use the stale images of a generation ago) but as teachers–something different from either guides or sages. Teachers don’t show; they help students make knowledge their own.

Which is what ‘starting where the student is’ is all about. Which is what education should be all about.

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