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    Learning in the 21st Century (Part Five)

    The debate is raging everywhere.

    In Europe, the Bologna process has led to furious discussions about the purpose of universities largely because Bologna (a treaty signed among European nations to create some uniformity about the expectations governments have for the post-secondary sector) has pushed universities towards curriculum that is directly linked to job outcomes and job creation. In England, universities are evaluated on the number of jobs their graduates get and in Canada, labour market data is used to assess the effectiveness not only of degrees but also of the content of student learning. In the US, vocational schools and private for-profit colleges that emphasize job readiness are now celebrated for their effectiveness, even if their outcomes are spotty at best.

    This argument about the effectiveness of learning and education has been at the core of the last two hundred years of post-secondary educational policy development and discussion. In Italy, highly qualified graduates cannot find jobs and a generation that is now into their thirties is looking at a bleak future. Although statistics tend to support the notion that getting a degree results in more security and more income over a lifetime, that research includes the boomer generation which had a much easier time finding jobs than their children.

    And, I am not talking here about the quality of employment, jobs that are meaningful and lead to a richer life. I am simply referencing the debates about employment as statistical indicators  of anticipated outcomes to learning.

    The challenge, and it is a substantial one, is that the purpose, direction and importance of public education may be hidden by the way in which this discussion is being held. On the one side, call it the Humanities side (see Martha Nussbaum’s recent work) writers and policymakers try and defend the role and importance of learning, becoming critical and aware, in other words, students learning to understand what it means to be a citizen in a democracy. This means supporting the study of history, literature and the social sciences. It means supporting the importance of the arts in all of their forms. It means offering as diverse a curriculum as possible to increasingly diverse groups of students. It means taking some leadership on the importance of culture and cultural activity to the well-being of humans irrespective of background.

    On the other side, are the pragmatists (those who would link that skills and outcomes in a linear fashion) who want the educational system to serve the needs of society and who see those needs through the labour market and the economy. They want educational institutions to retool and accommodate increasingly complex economic shifts by narrowing their curricula to serve immediate needs defined narrowly by data that is entirely quantitative.

    21st Century learning however, now takes place in a different way and on terms that are not as clear cut as the opposition between humanists and pragmatists would suggest. Today, learning is substantively defined not only by the Internet and what it makes available, but also by the social networks that surround and increasingly define everyday life. We have entered an age of qualitative differentiation. What does this mean?

    Learning experiences will be respected for their impact on the personal values of learners and how learners translate their values into pragmatic decisions.

    Since learning takes place at all levels and at all times in an individual’s life, employment will be a function not only of what you know, but how well you have defined the context in which your learning can be translated into some outcomes. Learning one thing or learning in one way or learning a particular craft or skill will not suffice. Learning how to learn and maintaining and updating how you learn will be of far greater importance than ever before.

    This is the true meaning of life-long learning and it is an exciting prospect because it means that public educational institutions will be essential arbiters of the future. Public institutions are the only places where the curriculum diversity that will be essential to economic and social and cultural health will be maintained. The struggle will be to define a middle ground among the stresses and strains created by overly narrow conceptions of economic need and the broader concerns for critical and historical thinking so essential to the learning process.

    Distributed learning among many experiences within diverse venues will only work if learners of all ages can actively discriminate between good information and bad information. To learn means to choose and choices made without an understanding of context challenges the very essence of what it means to engage with work and one’s future.

    More on this in the next installment of this series.


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    Reader Comments (3)

    The use of the word “pragmatists” in part five of your weblog is somewhat misleading and would be best replaced with a word that is more appropriate to the kind of business management by objectives or benchmarking form of education that has gained prominence in the last twenty years. I would suggest “neocon,” but of course you could substitute a more euphemistic term of your choice. “Pragmatists” is misleading because it is too easily mixed up with pragmatism as a philosophy, and it would not be a stretch of the imagination to say that all the leading pragmatist philosophers of the twentieth century, from John Dewey to Richard Rorty, would be aghast at the suggestion that they support education that is designed to serve the needs of the labour market and the economy. Dewey wrote extensively on education and his conception of education was not as a preparation for life (or the market) but as life itself. Pragmatist philosophers all fall more into what you call the “humanist” camp than in the metrics measuring management types from McKinsey & Company who think that education can be controlled like a balance sheet. Weren’t they the ones that advised Enron?

    January 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVytas Narusevicius

    Thanks are right and I will see if another term (don't like neo-con) would be more appropriate.

    January 3, 2011 | Registered CommenterRon Burnett


    I think your initial thrust is right - that the debate between the "Humanities" side and "pragmatists" is a false one. For one thing, the skills of the humanities are of pragmatic and social value.

    I don't think it's correct to say that pragmatism is just about meeting the needs of society. I think it's pretty clear that if we only graduated humanists, large swaths of them would end up destitute. This is beside the "pragmatic" point that meanwhile we wouldn't have media like the Internet on which to expound our opinions (and global wealth would shift to places where the technical work gets done). Also, many people actually enjoy technical and scientific work. In other words, "pragmatism" also is about finding ways to ensure that people who graduate get to (a) enjoy the benefits of employment, (b) get to do technical or scientific work if that is what they find fulfilling.

    The real challenge is to find ways to infuse technical education with humanistic and critical insight. This is easier said than done. As fields become ever more complex and specialized, it takes years of full time study in strictly technical knowledge to develop foundational capability. Cultural issues and education bureaucracies aside, it's a real challenge to do justice to even the basics of humanistic learning (e.g., effective verbal and written communication).

    So that does support your conclusion that we must rely on life-long learning to fill in one set of gaps or the other.

    Having said that, I'm not quite so optimistic that the Internet and social networks will solve this problem for us. It seems that for every person who gains such benefits from digital media, there is another (or others) who go the opposite direction. Beneficial outcomes are not foreordained, for the precise reason that various social forces, each of which has the capacity to use digital media to their own ends, have their own definitions of beneficial.

    I sympathize with your case for public educational institutions as the foundation of this needed lifelong learning, and I don't buy the claims of some that the university is dead. Having said that, I think - as with digital media, that there are many social forces at work. I think there will be a lot of to and fro-ing for the foreseeable future. And many different kinds of demands (and competitors) for these institutions.

    The internet, digital media, if anything are the tip of the iceberg of increasing fractionalization, specialization, and complexity in every domain. That, I think, is our biggest challenge.

    January 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Ticoll

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