Higher Education – is it worth it? Valuing Action over Thinking

George Siemens prompted these ideas when he asked the question: Higher Education – is it worth it? To answer this question, it is time to move to another metaphor.  From the idea of education creating a difference of thought to a difference of action.

This question was originally prompted by Peter Thiel (PayPal)  suggestion that people drop out of school and start companies.  George backgrounds his ideas by contrasting 2 thoughts:

The higher education model is antediluvian, it is no longer aligned with the information and knowledge ecology in which it exists (see Reinventing Knowledge and Reconstructing the University for more detail on this line of thinking). The fatal logic in education-abolisher’s, like Thiel, thinking is that a broken system is an unneeded system. Higher education needs to change. It needs to be more effective, more flexible, more cost-effective, more equitable (in terms of access), and aligned with the knowledge structures and spaces of today’s society. However, as Edgar Morin states (.pdf) the purpose of education is to prepare each individual for “the vital combat for lucidity”. Thiel’s model doesn’t achieve this. When we learn, we are not only fulfilling a responsibility to ourselves but to society and to the future. This learning need not be formal, but it needs to be broad, diverse, and non-utilitarian…i.e. not learning only to achieve a task or get a job but learning in order to increase our capacity for greater future options (or, for that matter, to become a better person).

I disagree with Morin, who’s first statement is:

The purpose of education is to transmit knowledge. . .

This puts us into Ann Sfard’s two metaphors of learning, the Acquisition and Participation Metaphors.  Sfard’s metaphoric analysis does not go sufficiently deep for this discussion.  The acquisition metaphor must assume that knowledge is stored in memory to be drawn upon and adapted to the context (transferred) when needed.  I have to research this more, but I don’t think cognitive psychology supports this aspect.  The acquisition metaphor still has some use, but this severely limits that use.

The  participation metaphor is based on Situated Learning Theory, which is based on Vygotsky’s idea of activity as the primary unit of analysis.  (Wittgenstein’s thoughts also support this view.)  Community participation is usually the location of that activity, but activity is the psychological and education unit to which attention should be paid.  Most of the criticisms Sfard makes of the participation metaphor do not hold up if you properly place activity at the center of that analysis.

Morin’s “combat for lucidity” happens in communicative actions.  Even in soliloquy, we posit an “Other” to which our active  is directed.  This is why my first response to George was to Quote Evans & Mackey in this comment to his blog post:

I would like to see universities organize around greater flexibility in learning communities so this (college vs. entrepreneurial activity) does not become an either or question. I noted Terry Evan and Julie Mackey’s article in IRRODL’s Special Issue on Connectivism

where they say:

(The) insular view of community, bounded by course curriculum and timelines, is problematic for professional learning and highlights a tension between the underlying philosophical stance and the pedagogies adopted by universities. A central tenet of sociocultural epistemologies is that learning is vitally situated within the context of its development and that “understanding and experience are in constant interaction” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 51). As Lave and Wenger (1991) describe in their theory of social practice, there is a “relational interdependency of agent and world, activity, meaning, cognition, learning, and knowing” (p. 1).

Higher Education needs to be re-structured so that it is imbedded to support our ongoing activities.  This fits with social-cultural, situated and connectivist perspectives, it fits with Hagel, Brown and Davison’s Pull metaphor of learning and it is not against Thiel’s idea at least from a learning theory perspective.  And ultimately, this question cannot be answered without referencing a theory about how we learn.  Why must you study than do instead of studying and doing as an integrated activity.

Again I am left with the impression that Higher Educations past is based on developing an educated class; creating a class distinction.  Morin’s lucidity was not practiced except in activity and that activity was valued by the educated class.  The value of education and lucidity of thought was the separation it created from the rest of the population, a difference that disappears as more and more of the population becomes educated.  If you want that distinction now you’ll need Harvard, Yale or Stanford, and maybe even not than.

How will Higher Education create value, how will it become worth it?

To answer this question, it is time to move to another metaphor.  From the idea of education creating a difference of thought to a difference of action.