Education’s Priorities Problem

Saturday, February 23rd, 2013

Adam Gurri discusses education’s priorities problem:

Colleges, of a sort, have been around for a very long time — in Oxford’s case, almost a millennium. Both Clay Shirky and Alex Tabarrok mention this in their praise of online alternatives to traditional education. To those of us with an eye to innovation, the cycle of the old being replaced by the new appears to be the natural way of things. Cassettes killed vinyl, CDs killed cassettes, MP3s killed CDs.

However, many of the technologies we think of as killing off older technologies are mostly replacing things that haven’t been around for very long. The amount time that a technology has been around is actually a good proxy for its resilience, rather than a sign of how outdated it is. The fact that college education of a certain kind has been around for longer than almost any other currently standing institution makes a strong case for its continued existence well beyond the lifetimes of the descendants of those currently debating its fate.

Colleges are not likely to vanish any time soon, but it’s not really traditional colleges that are in trouble — it’s the overstuffed, overfunded, one-size-fits all credential-industrial complex that has characterized college education for most people only quite recently. Shirky sketches out this system with the precision of an anatomist. Tabarrok points out that the majority of college students today are taught by low-paid associate professors and grad students.

Focusing on MOOCs in particular or online education in general, however, is entirely besides the point. Alternatives to traditional college education are many, and have been increasing in quantity and quality long before we all migrated to the web. I’m not talking about distance learning or community colleges; I mean professional development courses and certifications, and other low brow methods of bettering oneself for less than $10,000 a semester for eight semesters in a row.

The college institutions that we so revere were not originally meant to be tools for career advancement or, as Tabarrok puts it, information transmission (measured in “kilobytes transmitted from teacher to student per unit of time”). College is where you went to become a Person of Quality, so you could become a priest or a scholar, or at least sound scholarly when talking to your rich friends.

Education policy debates tend to focus on the goal of giving people options — that is, material options. Career possibilities. But ironically we have taken a one-size-fits-all approach to achieving this end — pumping billions of dollars in payments and enormously subsidizing student loans to push more and more people into colleges.

We’re culturally conditioned to think that education is one big conveyor belt, from K-12 to college to career path, with possibly some grad school in there as well. K-12 education has much more in common with college than it does with any sort of vocational schooling or professional development, so when we send our children there by default, it’s to be expected that they will be taught to seek more of the same.

When I express skepticism about the value of cramming everyone into education of this type, I usually receive an answer in the same category as “what, do you want everyone to be stuck working at gas stations?” As though spending 16 years reading Shakespeare and learning about the Founding Fathers provides the necessary skills to have a career in engineering, management, sales, or anything other than literary analysis and history.

Culture is a wonderful thing, and I love Shakespeare and history more than most. But spending billions of dollars on institutions that prioritize them above learning practical skills is not the most effective way to help people improve their material lot.

Leave a Reply