Interesting Questions Raised

A colleague and friend sent me the below. It is pasted in and linked in as well. It raises some interesting questions and may be a great topic for a future dialogue/debate as we talk about the future of a residential campus.

Preserving the Essence of Education

In 1938 John Dewey said:

“What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his or her soul; loses appreciation of things worthwhile, of the values to which these things are relative; loses desire to apply what has been learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from future experiences as they occur.”

In 1995 Michael Apple said:

“If the primary public responsibility and justification for tax-supported education is raising a generation of fellow citizens, then the classroom–of necessity–must be a place where students learn the habits of mind, work, and heart that lie at the core of such a democracy.”

In 2014, a colleague of mine wrote in a Chronicle of Higher Education opinion piece:

“When did students and their parents start seeing college as a gauntlet rather than as an exciting pathway to opportunity? When did policy makers stop seeing higher education as a valuable public investment? When did a degree become a commodity to be sold and traded in the marketplace with little regard to what it means to be an educated person? When did I start playing for a losing team?”

The above quotes lead me to write this opinion piece, laced with 32 years of experience in public education in the U.S., five public universities, and extensive time in schools and universities in Europe and Asia. It reflects my deep concern for the future of public higher education in the U.S.

It may be helpful to understand what heavily influences this paper, a core set of educational beliefs, shamelessly borrowed from John Dewey:

1. Higher education is a process of living and not a preparation for living. The university/college is the ‘real world’ just as life outside of the university/college is the ‘real world.’ To continue to tell students to “just wait until you are in the real world” denigrates the university/college, depicting it as a place where daily life doesn’t really matter and neither do the lives of those who labor here, learn here, struggle here, and celebrate here.

2. The fundamental purpose of a public university/college is to integrate community life into the educational process and the educational process into the community. The label of public means that the university/college is dedicated to serving the common good and that it belongs to the public; the citizens of the state…all of them, not an elite few.

3. Education is comprised of psychological and sociological sides that can’t be separated from educational experience. The extent to which we address the personal and social concerns of students, faculty, and staff through the explicit and implicit (or hidden) curriculum will largely determine the extent of learning and transformation that occurs within those students, faculty, and staff.

4. The university/college reflects the kind of society in which we wish to live and work and play, yet is also influences society. Democratic principles that underlie our preferred way of life in society must be lived within the educational institution if we expect our democratic way of life to flourish.

5. Education is a social process and the university/college is a social institution.

Those foundational beliefs affect every decision, every interaction, every class I have taught, and every choice I have made…where there were choices. I don’t know if it is possible to live your personal beliefs at all times due to external demands and sudden shifts that occur more and more frequently in higher education, but overall, core beliefs are a base upon which all actions are predicated. Yet, those beliefs don’t seem to fit very well within the current rhetoric concerning public higher education today.

For example, a few weeks ago there was a faculty lecture on campus about authoritarian leadership and principles espoused by Plato in contrast with principles espoused by Dewey and advocates of democratic leadership. A key question was raised during the lecture: what is educative (a process of coming to know) vs. what is pseudo-educational? Based upon the core beliefs expressed above, here is what I struggle with when trying to find an answer to that question:

1. Is lecture, the didactic delivery of knowledge, a perfect example of authoritarianism? The ‘authority’ delivers the message; the audience listens. Some of the audience takes notes; some think and process. However, unless there is periodic opportunity for dialogue, an inclusion of the social process mentioned in the above beliefs, the testing of thoughts and ideas, then is the knowledge deliverer simply an authority figure delivering knowledge with little but passive absorption of information by the recipient? Is this educative?

2. Is a self-paced, online course (such as a MOOC) built upon the same principle…authoritarianism? If so, is it educative?

3. Is any teaching methodology used to deliver content without dialogue and engagement of the audience an authoritarian approach to instructional delivery? Hasn’t lecture been designated, with evidence, as an ineffective instructional approach resulting in the least amount of ‘learning’ among students who participate in such?

4. Does an authoritarian approach run counter to democratic values and principles?

If the answers to those questions are yes, which I believe they are, how can we refer to any authoritarian approach used to drive down the cost of education as educative? In fact, aren’t such approaches pseudo-educational or mis-educative? If mis-educative, then where are we going in higher education and why? Why aren’t we having deep conversations about the future of public education, what is educative and mis-educative, and what really matters in regards to educating citizens who flourish in a democratic society and preserve the essence of democracy, providing leadership in that arena?

For example, in the rush to drive down the cost of education, have we lost the opportunity for a conversation about how driving down cost can also drive down quality, the opportunity to talk about what is truly educative about the teaching/learning process, and the opportunity to have a dialogue about how educational practice either contributes to democratic values and principles that we say we highly value in this country, or not. After all, it appears that almost anyone can package knowledge and deliver it to others using technology. There are educational ‘providers’ across the country that do it all the time and at greatly reduced costs compared to traditional face classes. However, shouldn’t we have conversations about where we are going in terms of what is truly educative and the potential impact of ‘driving down the cost of education’ through the use of authoritarian methods and technology? Shouldn’t the more important discussion focus on what constitutes knowledge in the first place, how knowledge is constructed and validated, and how the delivery of that knowledge can be transformative? Shouldn’t there also be discussions about how educational settings serve as one of the few remaining common gathering sites where people learn democratic principles by living those principles in a social setting that is real, rather than through social media that is pseudo-social (that is a topic for another day)?

A few years ago I re-read “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire. He described a process where participants engage in dialogue about topics relevant to their personal and social concerns (concerns that dominate their thinking and their lives) coupled with action and ongoing mentoring. In short, I felt that the primary message from Freire’s work is that learning is social, connected to the lived experience and concerns of participants; it requires ongoing guidance; and it occurs through connecting knowledge with action. It does not occur as knowledge delivered by an authority.

I also read “Teachers as Intellectuals” by Henry Giroux, reminding us that teachers who understand the power of engaging democratically based pedagogical practice and connecting students to substantial societal issues relevant to their lives, transforms lives. Teachers able to engage students in active learning and intimately connects content to action are intellectuals. They are the antithesis of knowledge givers. Intellectuals do not deliver pre-packaged curricula or prescribe standardized tests and measures. They know that transformative educational experiences and deep learning intimately connected to content doesn’t occur through authoritarian approaches where pre-packaged curricula is delivered and students are assessed on how well they have absorbed that curricula.

Transformative learning comes from transformative teaching and engages the mind, heart and hands in addressing students’ passion. Let’s take one example…

Rosa Parks attended the Highlander School in Tennessee to learn about social action, returning to Alabama where she joined a network of people who took action to help change America. She didn’t sit in a lecture hall taking notes about injustices that affected her and others every minute of every day and then take a test on the material; she engaged in a process at Highlander where dialogue, integrated with content and guidance from experienced teachers (mentors and guides), helped her create a deep understanding of the need for social action along with an awareness of how to take action. Learning was an active process at Highlander where participants engaged in conversation with others about personal and social concerns, where material relevant to those conversations was read and discussed, and where plans were drafted to take action involving the mind, heart, and hands. Learning was active; instruction was democratically based with expert guidance from others. Learning time was not filled with authoritarian lectures, passive note taking, or reading material from a textbook unconnected to the concerns of participants (in today’s world, you can substitute computer screen, iPad, eReader or similar for the word textbook in the preceding sentence).

In sum, to be educative, learning engages people in dialogue about issues that connect to the personal and social concerns of the participants, engaging them in action where prior knowledge can be applied and where new knowledge is created under the guidance of experienced teachers. The mind, the heart and the hands are engaged. Learning that is a passive activity where an authority delivers content that is later regurgitated on a paper exam to ‘prove’ that the individual has learned what the authority wishes that individual to know is miseducative, pseudo education. Yet I believe too many are legitimizing pseudo education as the norm, not the exception, especially as they attempt to drive down the cost of education through standardization and the use of technology to deliver knowledge to the ‘masses.’

Let’s take that thought a bit further…into the land of the Privatization and McDonaldization of education. That is, the privatization of all things public and standardization of content and delivery which helps reduce state investment in public education under the well-worn slogan of ‘driving down the cost of education.’

Sociologist George Ritzer in his book The McDonaldization of Society (1993) highlighted four primary components of McDonaldization:

• Efficiency – the optimal method for accomplishing a task. In this context, Ritzer has a very specific meaning of “efficiency”. In the example of McDonald’s customers, it is the fastest way to get from being hungry to being full. Efficiency in McDonaldization means that every aspect of the organization is geared toward the minimization of time.

• Calculability – objective should be quantifiable (e.g., sales) rather than subjective (e.g., taste). McDonaldization developed the notion that quantity equals quality, and that a large amount of product delivered to the customer in a short amount of time is the same as a high quality product. This allows people to quantify how much they’re getting versus how much they’re paying. Organizations want consumers to believe that they are getting a large amount of product for not a lot of money. Workers in these organizations are judged by how fast they are instead of the quality of work they do.

• Predictability – standardized and uniform services. “Predictability” means that no matter where a person goes, they will receive the same service and receive the same product every time when interacting with the McDonaldized organization. This also applies to the workers in those organizations. Their tasks are highly repetitive, highly routine, and predictable.

• Control – standardized and uniform employees, replacement of human by non-human technologies.

I can point to several privatized and McDonalidized ‘educational institutions’ that have paved the educational bridge to nowhere, yet are the darling of the corporate world. Some even use a state name, yet are purely driven by profitability, delivering knowledge to the masses and driving down the cost of education using technology and part-time instructors, calling it education. I attended an academic forum in Asia a year ago, where a provost from such a university presented to the group on how they are delivering degree programs and graduating students on site in Asia, students who never come to the U.S. or engage with faculty face-to-face except when being taught by local faculty in a ground course, local faculty hired to teach their courses at the local rate, which is significantly less than the U.S. rate for professors. The blending of the two approaches allows the university to profit while delivering low cost ‘education’ locally. It is working to make more degree programs available to a wider audience, including many who could otherwise not afford a degree, and especially for students who cannot afford to get a U.S. degree. It is making a profit for the investors at well, but at what cost educationally? Has the discussion occurred?

Are MnSCU institutions heading down that same path? If so, at what cost educationally?

Proprietary universities are NON-COMPARISON, NON-PEER institutions for regional, public universities. They are their own category. They have little regional stewardship obligations and do not need to live by democratic principles of access and accommodation. They are not, and can never be, the role model for regional public universities. They are profit-driven businesses funded by student tuition and federally subsidized loans with 25-30% of those tuition dollars dumped into marketing messages that perpetuate the image of legitimacy.

As I said previously, almost anyone can package and sell knowledge, but at what cost to society?

By validating authoritarian methods of content packaging and delivery under the label of ‘education’ are we advocating that as the ‘new normal?’ Are we celebrating the acquisition of content to pass a test as educational? Are we sending a constant and powerful message to the world that education isn’t about transforming lives, taking action to improve conditions around us, or helping us understand how to live democratic principles that form the very foundations of a democratic society; rather is it about passively gathering content, passing a test, getting a credential, and making money?

Frankly, I am no longer going to use the term ‘education’ in the same sentence with MOOC or with the phrase ‘driving down the cost of education.’ I find it offensive.

I would rather refer to a MOOC or similar delivery model as the pseudo-education. Isn’t that what it really is all about…driving down the cost of packaging and delivering content through old methodologies (such as self-guided, programmed instruction) using technology to create something we pour into new bottles (MOOC’s)? Is that really innovative or educative since true education is transformative, active, and intimately connected to the personal and social concerns of students?

If we accept that teaching is simply the delivery of content, and if we accept that the delivery of content by authoritarian methods is acceptable, then we have accepted mass delivery of content as ‘educational.’ I can’t do that because I believe that democratic values and democratic principles must be integrated into educational practice and must underlie educational life on a university campus. Anything less is not truly educative.

However, those of us in education are partially to blame for the rise of authoritarian methods. We accept massive online learning and absorption of content as valid learning. We have lectured. We have sat in lectures and passively accepted what was said, took our notes, performed on the tests, and gained our credentials. We have done to others what was done to us. Therefore, are we any better than corporate leaders who see a prime opportunity to take knowledge, package it, and sell it to the masses, calling it education?

Where will we go as a country founded on democratic principles of free speech, social action, and engagement of an educated citizenry when we support authoritarian methodologies and passive learning? How can a democracy sustain itself when the delivery of knowledge through authoritarian methods is the rule, not the exception, and more and more of our young people participate in those approaches to teaching and learning? As stated by Thomas Jefferson in 1816, “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day . . . . I believe it [human condition] susceptible of much improvement and most of all, in matters of government and religion; and that the diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument by which it is affected.”

You can’t value democracy when you espouse the principles but live them in an undemocratic way.

Anyone can package and deliver content, then add a price tag to it and call it education.

But is it?