Learning in the 21st Century (Part Two)

One of the recurring themes in discussions about learning and education is that our post-secondary institutions are always to varying degrees on the verge of decline or even death. “The American Liberal Arts College died today after a prolonged illness. It was 226 years old.” (Washington, D.C., 2 July 1862) Quoted in the Winter 1971 edition of the History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 4 p. 339.

In 1862, colleges in the US shifted from a skills orientation to broader curricula more concerned with social, economic, artistic and cultural issues than traditional approaches to job-ready training. It is important to remember that in the 19th century it was not necessary to go (as Richard Hofstadter has put it) “…to college to become a doctor, lawyer, or even a teacher, much less a successful politician or businessman….Higher education was far more a luxury, much less a utility, than it is today.” (History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 4 p. 340)

The key word in what Hofstadter says is “utility.” Today, in our rush to promote the utility of education, we have reduced learning to a series of “courses” defined in larger measure by a structure that privileges speed over gradualism. Intuitively, learners know that new knowledge cannot be ‘acquired’ through the simple consumption of information. Intuitively, teachers know that tending to the emotional intelligence and needs of their students is perhaps more important than promoting rote learning. Nevertheless, schools try to squeeze learning into narrow disciplinary boundaries. So much of the structure of schools works against change including the fact that hiring of new teachers is still defined by discipline.   

When economies go into crisis, policymakers look to schools to solve the immediate challenges of unemployment and thereby raise expectations that schools will simply ‘produce’ the workers needed to solve the economic challenges. This is also why the for-profit sector in education has become so large because they play into the fears learners have that they will not be employed unless they have specific skills needed for specific jobs. Policymakers amplify this even further by linking funding for public institutions to labour market data that is often years behind the economy itself.

In a globalized environment, it is increasingly difficult to predict economic direction and to manage complexity. Schools should be the places where we encourage complex thinking and doing, creating and collaborating. Instead, we rush to both prove the value of education and its outcomes. In the process, we have created straightjackets that limit invention, innovation and crucially the human imagination from flourishing and thereby actually decrease the opportunities for change and impact.

Our educational institutions are not dying, although some will disappear. The rhetoric around their value has become embedded in the fabric of Western democracies. The challenge precisely is to understand how that value can be transformed to reflect and enhance the ability of learners to generate, shape and contribute to knowledge-based societies.

Part Three will examine some of the central characteristics of the knowledge society and whether schools are in fact the pivot for the new digital era.