Thursday, April 14, 2011

Will the Higher Education Bubble Burst?

Re: Will the Education Bubble Burst?

On Twitter, someone posted a link (Mr. Thiel, I resume? -ed.) to an op-ed piece which asked the question, ‘Will higher education be the next bubble to burst?’ or words to that effect.

If enough people turn away, or drop out, because of the high cost, or because it is seen as ‘training for mediocrity,’ then that bubble has already burst.

About a year ago, I wrote something called 'Marconi' for this blog about a ‘bubble’ of radio waves traveling outwards from Earth at more or less the speed of light, and how an alien civilization might intercept and respond to the signal...

Again on Twitter, maybe nine minutes later, someone posted a link to a story, based upon the possibility of aliens intercepting or perceiving our bubble of radio waves emanating from Earth and how they might react. I am not complaining about ‘someone stealing my idea,’ for surely I got my own ideas from somewhere, most likely the encyclopedia; and surely some other much more famous and hopefully better-paid writer has already made the most of the concept.

And I just sort of drifted off into my own thoughts...

My point is that we stand upon the shoulders of giants. The point is that any reasonably well-read working class individual living today has a billion times more useful information available to them than Julius Caesar. It is also true that we compete in a world where many have this available. The fact of ‘the many’ equals us up by simple competition. A competitive advantage never lasts for very long. That’s because we all learn so very, very much from each other.

I’m not even questioning what we as individuals do with it. I'm not complaining about pudgy, asthmatic kids playing virtual baseball in the living room or pudgy, asthmatic fifty year-old kids who never grew up writing about weird stuff. But somehow we must acquire the basic minimum of knowledge to be able to learn or even devise new things on our own without constant supervision. And the world is getting a lot more complicated, which demands new skills.

No nine year-old kid living in a yurt in the Gobi desert ever gets up in the morning and decides to come up with a Grand Unified Theory of the cosmos and its underlying infrastructure. He simply doesn’t have the words. You could not stick him in a modern science research lab and expect him to accomplish anything more than to make paper airplanes and to play table-top hockey with a roll of tape and a like-minded friend.

He doesn’t have the most basic math, he has little in the way of logic or reasoning skills, he doesn’t have the symbols or words in his head. He has never read a book on it. He has never discussed it, or even listened to ‘smart’ people talk about such things. That is not to say he would never ask about the nature of the universe, question the meaning of life, or whether or not there are gods. No one is saying he is stupid.

Wouldn’t he sooner or later ask, “What is Good and Evil, daddy?”

I suspect he would.

But without a lot of help from the great minds of history, he isn’t likely to get too far with it, and there is no one there to listen if he did. By our own standards, anything he comes up with is more likely to be superstition, magic and evil spirits, or self-serving ignorance; a justification more than anything.

Is higher education too expensive? I guess that depends on who’s asking, and whether or not they have the price of admission. The sad truth is that most of us don’t.

Anything that makes it easier for more people to get a higher education is a good idea, and will make the world a better place for all of us.

Anything that makes it harder for more people to get a higher education is a bad idea, and will make the world a worse place for all of us. What is so hard about that?

It’s a simple question of Good versus Evil. How it will all turn out, only God knows and only Father Time can tell.

But the real question asked in Twitteropia, and in several other forums by other commentators, was whether higher education is ‘elitist.’ Oxford and Cambridge are elite schools. Harvard and Yale are elite schools. What about the school I went to? ‘Not exactly.’

Of course there is elitism. The Ivy League schools are elite schools. The fewer students who attend them, the more 'intimate' it is. The richer they are, the more elitist it is. The higher you jack the cost of schooling, the smaller the student population, and the more elitist it becomes.

There are undoubtedly forces and ideologies in the world today that would like to shut down all learning except that which stems from their own teachings. They want to control the curriculum. And yes, ladies and gentlemen, some of those minds were trained in Ivy League schools...and some were educated in yurts.

The invention of the printing press broke the church and state monopoly on knowledge and learning. It freed us from the ignorance of our ancestors.

More importantly, it also broke the monopoly on teaching, with profound results.

With luck and application, the internet can and will break any elite’s monopoly on knowledge, teaching, and political power. It spreads the power around a little, which is just the way it should be.

I have a suggestion.

We should listen very carefully to what ‘they’ have to say, and then we should use our own heads to make up our own minds in order to decide what is best for ourselves and our families. All of the knowledge, all of the great minds of history are right there at our fingertips.

The internet is the key to the greatest library in all of creation, and the great universities of the world are all on the internet too. Use it wisely, abuse it if you must, but use it above all else.

Because if we don’t use it, somebody else will.

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