When education equals product – part 3 (conclusion)

A University should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning.
– Benjamin Disraeli

time change
As I bring this discussion to a close (for now), I find myself referencing an unlikely source for my lead-in. I happened to be on Facebook over the weekend and dropped in on an ongoing discussion regarding Daylight Saving Time, a topic that has stirred increasing controversy over the last few years. United in their frustration, the contributors wanted DST banished, largely – at least according to their posts – because it interfered with sleep patterns, necessitating an unwanted adjustment from which they never quite recovered. The fact that such an adjustment had to be made twice a year simply compounded the misery.

As it turns out, I am the contrarian in this regard: I like the time changes. I agree that they throw your sleep patterns out of whack for a period of time, but I enjoy the ritual and the connection it has to seasonal changes. Amidst a winter such as the one we have “enjoyed” this year, anything that tells me we are approaching the end of winter and the onset of spring is welcome indeed. When I think of these time changes, I consider them as a kind of social ritual, not unlike Christmas, Easter, and whatever other days on the calendar have a common social import. So, from my perspective, I want to hang on to the time changes. I now know that a significant constituency exists on Facebook that disagrees with me and I’m okay with that.

What I am not okay with is the more pronounced objections that we hear of in more conventional media settings, i.e., newspapers, television and radio. There the focus tends to be pretty much exclusively on the economics of the change. Statistics are rolled out suggesting that any perceived savings are just that and nothing more: perceptions. In truth, so the argument goes, it would be cheaper to leave the clocks alone. Case closed. By now you might be asking how does this connect with my earlier reflections on the business education symposium I attended?

university 1
In both cases, any discussion of the issue inevitably swings to a consideration of the current and always dominant preoccupation with “economy”. As I’ve indicated, when it comes to Daylight Saving Time, I don’t care about the economics of it; I value the “ritual”, you might say, because it represents something that has value for me beyond dollars and cents. You might as well try to quantify a sunrise, a sunset or the pleasure of rocking an infant to sleep in your arms.

University, and “education” in general, as concepts, are rooted in a similar kind of idealism. Products of the Renaissance and a key to the emergence of what most of us might call the modern world, universities were rarely regarded as places people went in order to be able to find a job. These were the redoubts of those tasked with thinking about the world and humanity’s place in it. As time went on and the various disciplines began to define themselves more clearly, practical applications in the sciences began to be found for scientific discoveries especially. As I’ve suggested in an earlier blog, university was not regarded as essential for employment when I was leaving high school. By 1975 (my graduating year), it had become a preferred route for many; still, it was more an option than a necessity.

university 2
Over the course of the last 40 years, that has changed dramatically. Now, the need for some form of post-secondary education has become a given for most. Community and private colleges are well-suited for such a demand. Both offer programs that are very skills oriented. Everyone is clear on why you are there: employment upon receipt of your diploma. I’m sure we’ve all known people who chose the “tech” route following high school graduation, most of whom have gone on to very successful careers. Few who attend such institutions experience the handwringing common among undergraduates at university as they approach the receipt of their Bachelor’s degree. Virtually all of them expect that further study and accompanying debt will be needed before gainful employment can be realized.

Few universities want to talk about how the university model has failed to adjust to this changing reality. In conversation with one of the young people attending the business education symposium, I spoke about the role of a university “fellow”, essentially someone who is granted a salary (stipend, if you prefer) in order to free him/her to pursue research without other obligations, such as offering courses, interfering. This represents the exceptional but the ordinary circumstance of professors and the granting of degrees holds to a model that I, personally, believe in but one that is singularly unsuitable for programs that purport to be designed to provide job opportunities upon completion.

Universities were imagined as places where the learned could gather so that knowledge might be deepened and greater understanding of a plethora of concerns might be achieved or, at least, studied. As such, they were forged out of a Renaissance ideal of the emerging human being, one who was noble, capable, and to be admired in his/her own right without reference to divinity’s approbation. And so the quiet, forested campus with majestic buildings was born, a monument of sorts and a kind of metaphor for the conduct of the university: quiet, reflective, long-term, free somehow of the demands of the larger world.

university 3
Need I say that that has changed? Universities are now viewed – as is virtually everything else – largely in light of what they can or cannot contribute to the supply and demand imperative of the marketplace. Personally, similar to my preference for Daylight Saving Time, I prefer the older conception. But reality for business and other programs increasingly precludes the university being regarded as the hallowed halls of academe. When it costs as much as $100,000 or more to obtain an undergraduate degree that offers a shaky guarantee of employment (now your primary reason for attending in the first place), the “customers” understandably want some kind of guarantee that their money is being well-spent. If universities continue to be driven toward a model that sees them as job training facilities, they will no longer be universities in truth. And that would be a sad day for all of us.

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