Current Affairs Higher Education

diy u and the slow-moving curriculum

DeanDad's review of Kamenetz's DIY U raises a number of good issues that brings me back to this topic again today, as does this NY Times op ed, which essentially argues for more summer teaching to compress the 4-year degree into 3 years. As the old saying goes, time=money, and so, we get this sense that college is perhaps a waste of both.

DeanDad's review echoes more general concerns I have raised about the DIY movement and the presumption that a significant percentage of potential college students could essentially educate themselves. For instance, not only do I imagine that very, VERY few college students could figure out how to improve their writing without close, ongoing support from a teacher, most would not even elect to do that kind of work, and I'm not sure how one would encourage DIY students to do difficult work of any kind. In short, any student with the discipline and motivation to make DIY education work is also the kind of student who could get their money's worth from a college environment.

This actually brings me to the waste of time/money issue. I appreciate this on a personal level. I bang my head against my kid's K-12 education on a weekly basis. Their schooling has only one gear: slow. Actually, that's not true. There's a second gear: reverse. As far as my kids are concerned, the curriculum could move 5-10 times faster than it does, no sweat. Of course, there are plenty of kids who struggle with the workload as it is right now. 

The real issue here is that the educational system (in the US anyway) is not meant to teach individual students. It's a democratizing process that is designed to try to bring everyone to some minimal standard. Anyone who thinks that completing the curriculum to get some degree (any degree I don't care how advanced) means that s/he has become "educated" obviously was not paying attention in class. The educational system certainly is at odds with our notion of college degrees as an investment in individual human capital and with our fantasy about our own specialness that results in kids getting handed medals and awards for participation.

It wouldn't be too difficult to imagine a different kind of educational system that is more meritocratic than democratic. In fact there are plenty of models of such around the world. Our educational system, in its own localized ways, tends to focus on the lower third of any student population. Not the lower-third nationally mind you, but the lower-third in each school district: getting them to pass state tests, stay in school, etc.

The DIY approach is clearly more sink or swim. Maybe some of those lower performing students would find a passion and succeed but I think many more would choose the do-not option that is implicit in DIY. Meanwhile the best-performing students would likely be able to take off. In short, you'd have a different educational system. It would be less democratic but it would be better for some. Maybe it would be better for "us" nationally in cultural or economic terms. I guess that would depend on what one meant by "better."

[Now I should point out, as an aside, that DIY on a global scale is more complicated; what I'm talking about here is restricted to an American context.]

Perhaps it is instructive to think of these things in energetic terms. In a complex, dynamic system like our society, democratic equality or equilibrium is costly to try to maintain. If socio-economic equality is not your goal then expenditures to maintain it would seem highly inefficient. Unfortunately, equality is at odds with excellence unless one includes equality as a marker of excellence (which I think it an entirely viable argument). Once upon a time, higher education was a mechanism for maximizing excellence, but for at least 40 years it has increasingly been a mechanism for equality. That is, we have come to see college educating a large percentage of citizens as a measure of equality.

The problem is that the equality higher ed is expected to provide is not a social equality but a kind of quixotic individual equality, where everyone has above-average incomes. That is, in our fantasy of specialness we want everyone to receive a higher ed degree as a mark of excellence. Well… duh. As long as we aim to get 40% of Americans 4-yr degrees (up from the low 30s% it is right now), we are going to be in a system of inefficiency. I think a university system that was more in line with a DIY philosophy could do a good job with 10-15% of the population and maybe serve them better than it does now. But then it wouldn't be an engine of equality.