The College and The Coffee-House: 1

I wrote earlier about the tension between The College and The Coffee-House - between formal and informal systems of education and knowledge sharing - and I intend to focus my attention on this in my work in 2018.

My thesis is simple: Most learning is experiential, contextual and situational; however, learning as a socially mandated function must have form, be broadly applicable and based around general principles. This tension is indeed central to the idea of knowledge, between the high ground of theory and field of practice, and it is a dialectical relationship. The societies value both, but often more one than the other, depending on economic and political situations of the time. Generally, stable societies privilege 'scribal' classes and formal learning, but breaking of times and paradigm shifts are generally brought about by ideas emerging out of practice; therefore, when times change, Coffee-houses play a crucial role.

In our own time, right now, we have privileged formal learning too much, putting an Educational-Industrial complex at the heart of our social structure. State-funded Education became all encompassing with the expansion of the welfare state, and when it retreated, Corporate forms of education quickly claimed the opportunity. Degrees became all important, and we arrogated ourselves into measuring every bit of knowledge (which essentially meant ignoring everything else that can not be measured) - shrinking the public sphere of knowledge sharing and learning as we incorporated much of it in the private sphere of 'work'.

This has proved inadequate. Learning has become too much about mastering the system, and lost touch with the reality, not just of technology but also of living. The 'signalling' value of schooling has become all important. For a society that treats innovation with awe, we now have too little of fundamental new thinking, Peter Druckers famously saying that the ATM may have been the last great one (which may be a hyperbole, but an effective one). Besides, our ability to deal with fundamental issues that ail us, which can potentially destroy all we have built, has become limited. Education, limited and technocratic, has failed us, by promoting a sort of technocratic myopia that limit our commitment to each other as well as to the future generations.

There is no panacea for these ills in Formal Learning, the College. Countries have charged ahead with goals to improve the Gross Enrolment Raios, to expand their Higher Education systems so that everyone has an opportunity to go to college. This has made things worse, as obviously not everyone has gone to college, but both the discrimination based on college degree has percolated down to levels previously untouched, and corporate education's now-found love with 'skills' has subverted the vocations and imposed a structure of privilege based on language and 'style', creating new hierarchies and exclusions. The mantra of 'Lifelong Learning' has actually encouraged the opposite - formalising learning through insistence on credentials and discouraging a 'learning attitude', the broader engagement with the world at large.

Now, if we have to make learning meaningful again, we shall need to ressurect the Coffee House, not in the formal Starbucks sense, but in its traditional chaotic form. We proudly tell the tale that Seventeenth century Coffee Houses perhaps sparked the enlightenment and some of them became great institutions (like Lloyd's or the London Stock Exchange), but to view their histories in a teleologic fashion is a mistake we ought to avoid. The innovation per se were brought about by people meeting people - they were not building Lloyd's on the back of the napkin - and they were indulging in pointless connections and what we would consider 'idle talk': Some were speaking business, indeed, but to define the purpose of the place on what came later would be to miss the lessons of how it came about. 

Indeed, we already know the value of the 'Coffee House': We have discovered the value of the public sphere just as they retreat. We have sought to restore its essence now in the most unlikeliest of the places, corporate 'campuses', building them as 'free' assemblies of people where, to use Matt Ridley's term, 'ideas can have sex'. We have done this just as our Universities were turning into bureaucratic monstrosities, where an university administrator's job, as Clark Kerr saw it, consisted of only three concerns:'sex for students, parking for faculty and sports for alumni'. However, we have generally avoided importing Coffee House culture into the College, recognising, perhaps rightly, the antithetical nature of the two.

One of the key tasks of an education innovator, therefore, is to understand the competition between the forms of learning, and indeed the forms of knowledge, and seek the common ground. It is not so much importing the coffee house in the college, but to go the other way, recognising - not necessarily credentialling - the value of informal learning, and putting it at the heart of a learning society. It is about learning the 'values' of the coffee house, of idle talk and weak connections, and putting it alongside the more formal forms.


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