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The great spirit of human inquiry upon which the original western academic institutions were founded are characterised by those meek words by the original humanist scholar: Erasmus.
A fifteenth-century Dutchman, Erasmus took advantage of the peaceful international relations of his day, travelling between the not-long formed grand universities of France, Italy and England, publishing his ideas as essays along the way. A fiercely independent thinker, he carefully avoided any national, religious or institutional ties, which might impose on the freedom of his boundless thought.
The Earnest Student
Today’s freshman student, car-packed, pencils-sharpened, setting off for their first day at university in the tradition of the discoverers and explorers of the past, might still dream of such lofty spaces of debate and probing, in the medieval halls of Oxford or the grand stairwells of Harvard.
In the face of damaging American Pie stereotypes of frat-partying, binge-drinking students, the majority of freshmen begin their higher-educational careers with a genuine desire to learn: in what they hope will be a prosperous setting of investigation and co-operative research; a place where they might discover a glimpse of what their future adult selves will achieve.
Reasoning a Degree
Rising tuition fees set against the lowest employment rate for young adults in sixty years has re-ignited the debate over the purpose and value of higher education.
In an interview with Purpose/ed, Noam Chomsky, speaking on the purpose of education and the reasoning for an educational system, explains the two principle strands of opinion on learning. He advocates the “Enlightenment” concept of education, which reasons “that the purpose of life is to inquire, to search the riches of the past, to try to internalise the parts of them that are significant to you, and carry that with you in your quest for understanding.”
“It’s you the learner, who is going to determine your education. And it’s really up to you, what you’ll master, where you’ll go, how you’ll go on to discover new and exciting things, for yourself, and possibly for others.”
But, he argues, “there are powerful structures in the society which would prefer people to be indoctrinated, conform, not ask too many questions, be obedient, fulfill the roles which are assigned to you, don’t try to shake systems of power and authority.”
Chomsky links the youth activism and free-thinking of the 1960s, to a subsequent movement which has tried to shift education towards a system of “more control, indoctrination, vocational training, imposing a debt which traps young people into a lifetime of conformity…the exact opposite of the tradition that comes out of the Enlightenment.”
Higher Education Bubble
Universities and colleges are failing to live up to the expectations of the inquisitive student, who will often arrive to find minimal contact hours with professors and didactic courses which require them to jump through hoops, rather than follow an investigative line of inquiry.
In November 2011, seventy students walked out of a Harvard economics lecture, in protest against the narrow, conservative segment of economic thought instructed on their course, reflecting a widespread feeling of alienation among students who are willing to critically approach established principles.
The problem of higher education has been approached by the media as talk of a “Higher Education Bubble”. First it was the banks, then the housing market, which boomed before going bust. With consistently rising tuition fees, it seems inevitable that the education market will be the next bubble to burst. Institutions are asking students to commit a higher financial stake in their further education, but graduates are finding out that these qualifications no longer offer them the security of a high-paying or even any, job, at the end of their studies.
With high-speed search engines like Google re-defining the way in which we find information, universities must adapt to new technology, or risk becoming outdated, irrelevant and vacant.
Professors administer warnings to students about finding information on the Internet: “Wikipedia is not a credible source!” they chime. But conceding sites such as Wikipedia as valid research tools, which admittedly don’t validate sources, is part of recognising that information is an ever-evolving, insecure notion. A chapter in a textbook, as much as an entry on Wikipedia, presents ‘facts’ which must be approached with shrewd analytical skills.
In response to falling applications, universities are aiming to attract students by integrating online learning mediums and social media to course programmes. Stephen Hepburn at the University of the West of Scotland developed a screenwriting programme using Twitter as it’s primary medium of teaching. Working in teams, students are engaged in a continuous discourse of ideas, tweeted back and forth, between peers and teachers, as they work to produce a series of television episodes.
An alternative to the didactic space of the physical lecture theatre, live-blogs and Twitter can be used as virtual spaces where, in the style of seminars, ideas can be exchanged and commented on, in a co-operative venture of inquiry.
The move towards online resources is also a recognition by universities that the luxury of four years of devoted study is no longer realistic for many students in the current economic climate. The dissemination of lectures via Itunes U at the University of London and the new online qualifications being offered by the Massacheussetts Institute of Technology, offer students the chance to study while they work, where they might otherwise be committing themselves to a post-degree future of thousands-of-pounds worth of debt.
Tweeting as Thinking
Erasmus embraced the revolutionary invention of the printing press in his day when, for the first time in human history, the written word was able to compete with the oral tradition as a medium to disseminate ideas. A comparable revolution is taking place today via social media, as publishing houses go into decline and the Internet is fast-becoming our primary mechanism for idea-sharing. One can’t help but speculate: would Erasmus have endorsed Google, Blogspot and Twitter as he did the printed article?
Nicholas Carr, author of The Big Switch: Rewiring the World From Edison to Google, warns in his article, Is Google Making us Stupid? of the weakening impact of Internet-enabled education on our cognitive processes.
“…what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
The process of fact-assimilation via the Internet, unlike reading a book, stimulates another, more surface method of thinking. It might be easier to find answers and alternative viewpoints online, but it discourages the broader process of contemplation, filling up thinking space with never-ending factoids and opinions, blog posts and podcasts, thus denying the researcher the freedom of personally-directed, boundless inquiry.
Google or Harvard?
The human mind is a constantly expanding, fluctuating and sourcing mechanism and the Internet today, as a space to be updated with photos, videos, blog posts, articles, books, films and music, from a myriad of inputs, is the most real external representation of the expanding progress of global thought. As a key to so many varied perspectives, it could be an unparalleled tool in the human quest for knowledge.
However, Chomsky, speaking on the role of technology in education, warns, that “behind any significant use of contemporary technology…unless behind it is some well-constructed, directive, conceptual apparatus, it is very unlikely to be helpful, it may turn out to be harmful”.
He concedes that the Internet is a very powerful research tool, but only if the researcher is able “to evaluate, interpret and understand.”
There is still recognised value in face-to-face learning, and it seems likely that universities will attempt to blend physical interaction with online instruction in a bid to stay relevant. And whilst alternatives to the indebting four-year undergraduate course are fast-emerging, the prestige of the university education, the sending of one’s child to college, remains an important step in the American Dream.
“Just Google it” has become a sort of catchphrase of our day. But as Chomsky points out, the quest for knowledge via the Internet isn’t as simple as that. There’s still a place for the physical institution, for direct co-operation and material research. Our universities are adapting, but they’re not going anywhere just yet.
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