In the Spec.com today (my latest column):
To be human is to learn. And knowledge wants to be shared.
But somewhere along the line, it became the way for some kinds of people to have opportunities to gain certain skills and access certain types of knowledge or to deepen their self-understanding, while others were to be kept in the dark; subservient, inferior, ignorant — tools in aiding the privileged further along.
Knowledge was viewed as being a scarce resource — something to be hoarded by the special few. By and by, when access to some of the good stuff — like reading — became available to the masses (through the printing press and public schooling), it was to be doled out in bite sizes, controlled, managed, agenda-driven. It remains, for the most part, this way in today’s schools. We persist in thinking of “education” (that’s what we call learning within the confines of brick walls) as something to be coveted and restricted.
But everything about education and learning is changing — however much some of us would resist. Everything is pushing on — from the ways we learn and what we learn, to what being educated even means (that is, who defines what educated is)
With the advent of the World Wide Web (following over 150 years of institutionalized schooling), the doors of enlightenment have widened further and access to the Internet is considered a human right.
The idea of scarcity might be fixed in many minds but even the most prestigious schools (like Harvard and MIT) offer free online courses, in keeping with the open source movement.
Yet now that here, in Ontario, we have reached the inevitable conclusion that higher education should be accessible to everyone, there are those still uncertain if it’s the right direction to take.
I’ve heard, “free tuition will devalue education — cheapen it,” (as if education were a commodity) and “free tuition will create a glut in the job market.” That’s elitism talking. If there are too few jobs, it is not because there are too many people educated for these few jobs, it’s because there are too few jobs. We need to create jobs just as much as we need to create opportunities for everyone to learn what they want to learn.
Making higher education available to everyone doesn’t mean that everyone is going to go for it — but the option should be there, and the sooner people know about it, the better (in Hamilton, the Community Foundation has a great initiative to link kids from low socio-economic backgrounds to institutions of higher learning beginning right when they are little) because the real issue is, what are we losing when those opportunities are not given to all?
Since we are talking about the changing face of education, we might also inject in the conversation the idea of helping young people learn self-sufficiency and self-employment. Most young people don’t even consider starting their own enterprise and modelling and offering those opportunities could produce more entrepreneurs and small business owners.
There are some other important ideas that could be considered, such as the need for time for deeper, authentic learning (rather than dashing from course to course) as well as having more freedom in what students want to learn, because education comes with interest and curiosity. The irony is that passing through institutions of higher learning doesn’t automatically translate into being educated. Education is something that you the learner, goes after for yourself.
We might also ask ourselves what the purpose of education is in today’s world beyond being a pathway to better jobs. Let’s really go full out and give students occasion to gain the skills they need to understand the world of today, to be able to analyze, to question and evaluate, to write correctly, to speak convincingly.
Students need opportunities to practice clear thinking, and not to simply register opinions but to be able to understand different perspectives and to contribute to a civil and democratic society. It’s my belief that this type of instruction should happen sooner than later — starting in early childhood. Why wait until higher education?
Of course, all of these things can be and are learned outside of institutions of education when the intention is there, but the university or college environment is a built environment that is supposed to be stimulating and exciting — being among peers and keen-minded professors whose job it is too challenge students to grow.
Free tuition demystifies higher learning, bringing it down to where it belongs, in the hands of the people, to have or to have not — breaking down the barriers in our minds that some can and some can’t.