When education equals product – part 2

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

– T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

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At the event I referenced in my last post, a young man, during the question period, made a claim which I now include in my list of current, clichéd observations and comments: “we are the most educated generation in the history of the world”, or something to that effect. Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to disparage the young man and his offering. I’m simply using his assertion as an example of how public discourse easily avoids real scrutiny when the opinions expressed run in concert with the reigning orthodoxy.

The second topic of my opening comments (the first having been credential creep) was what I have dubbed the “positivity myth”, more for convenience sake than for any inherent value. I’m trying to capture a sense of a phenomenon we see in so many arenas in our modern world, one where certain things, while they might be subject to certain mild criticisms, are held to be essentially unassailable truths. And the irony is, they may very well be either true or expressions of admirable aspirations.

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The problem I have arises when someone (usually me) tries either to challenge or to qualify such “truths”. Not the least among those truisms would be any configuration that asserts the value of an education. If my theory is correct in any way, if you are reading this, somewhere inside a little voice is saying: “surely he isn’t going to say that education isn’t important?” Even to countenance such a thought might make you uncomfortable. Hopefully, my concern re education has been made clear even if certain of the specifics may yet require explanation. That, after all, is my persistent premise: we live in a world too ready to accept the pat answer, the clichéd solution, or the comfortable optimism of the purveyors of modern positive-thinking, self-help mantras (I’m thinking of the Deepak Chopras, the Tony Robbins, and others of a similar ilk).

So this young man’s claim to being a member of the most educated generation in history would ordinarily be a throwaway (others heard later would include “government has a role to play in education”, “we need to foster innovation and creativity”, “strategic investments in education will pay dividends”, etc.), but I found it provocative in light of my interests so I challenged his claim on the most basic of grounds: what do you mean? In other words, what underlying assumptions are you making regarding the educational attainments of previous generations, the quality and/or relevance of whatever education you attained, and other factors too numerous to list?

After a pause, the young man smiled, nodded some form of acknowledgement and I moved on with my comments. As the discussion proceeded throughout the morning, the cavalier use of the word “education” became all the more apparent. Whether we know it or not, when we find ourselves in such public forums, any number of unstated assumptions are in play. Foremost in an environment such as the one for this symposium stands the meaning of education. Just about everyone assumes that we don’t need to spend any time defining such a commonly used word; we KNOW what education is – let’s move on.

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Lacking a clearly defined, agreed upon definition presents a problem in its own right. When any challenge to such a “positive” assessment of our current situation conflicts with the constant demand that we be positive in all we do, how is it possible to pay real critical attention to matters at hand, whatever those matters might be? People commonly applaud such empty statements as “we need to invest in innovation”, as though simply making declarative statements equals actually providing a thoughtful approach and/or solution. Those same people will usually turn away from or dismiss any reasoned critique as though providing such a thing is inherently negative and, thus, counterproductive.

This reality stands in the way of the apocryphal “adult conversations” which we are frequently reminded we are in need of. I say apocryphal because I’m struggling to recall an occasion where one actually took place. As a general rule, our modern determination to avoid the controversial – to be “politically correct” – prevents such conversations from ever getting off the ground.

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Such a conversation, if we were to have one regarding education, would need to begin with determining just what it is we are talking about. We can no longer afford to muddle along thinking that we all possess a common understanding. My experience at the symposium last week brought that home to me. If education is little more than a place where you are made ready for a job market, why do we need universities? Surely training programs with a far more targeted approach would serve us better?

Somewhere in the back of most people’s minds lingers an image of education – particularly university education – as a “higher pursuit”, the value of which goes beyond simple job preparation. Whether we are fully aware of it or not, that presumption is increasingly being challenged as universities and their defenders lose their ability to articulate just what those higher values might be. If they cannot find some way to reclaim the higher ground, universities – especially smaller ones such as UNBSJ – will be more and more servants of a mindset that says training and education are synonymous. It just so happens that I disagree with any such suggestion as it exemplifies especially well the dangers inherent in oversimplification.

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