Limits Of College: Compassion and Critical Consciousness

I have argued elsewhere that the expansion of formal higher education is precisely the wrong thing to do at a time of great technological change, as college lacks the inclusiveness and openness of informal learning, and expansion of college discourages spread and persistence of informal learning opportunities (see the post here). This prevents the diffusion of technology, as lack of inclusiveness and openness in learning mean a lot of people are left out, unable not just to take advantage of technological change to improve their economic prospects but also missing out on applying the technological possibilities in solving their own day-to-day problems. 

Now, I want to take this argument further: The college does not just fail those which it excludes, but also its own graduates. This is because the college, in its current form, does a really bad job at developing two most critical abilities that one needs to succeed in the globalised and automated workplaces (and societies). These are Compassion and Critical Consciousness. 

However, before I argue about the limitations of the college, there are some definitional issues to be addressed. Compassion and Critical Consciousness are, one can argue, basic human abilities, one that guided us through the trials and tribulations of the whole human history. However, they have been somewhat changed and limited in the modern usage: The word 'Collaboration' has emerged in place of 'Compassion' (and it is worth explaining why) and Critical Consciousness have been set aside for Critical Thinking. College, its contemporary advocates claim, is needed to develop precisely these kind of abilities: Collaboration and Critical Thinking top their chart. Therefore, I intend to start by distinguishing these terms, and why we may need the basic human abilities, rather than the modern, self-serving and stylised terms, in the conversation.

Let's start from a point of consensus: I have no quarrels with the point that the big problems, social, economic and technological, can only be solved collaboratively, people coming together. This is indeed the lessons of human history. Even after the European Enlightenment, which put individuals in the centre-stage, and we suddenly had the new Hero archetype - the Genius - we have always known that great works of art and science came together only 'on the shoulders of the giants', not as ex-nihilio acts of creation but by exploration of and engagement with the 'adjecent possible' (Steven Johnson's term). 

However, 'collaboration', in its current usage, is a business term, meaning working together based on converging self-interest of the participants. The current champions of 'collaborative thinking' throws the cloak of collaboration in its current sense on the entire creative expanse of human history: But this explains little and exposes the limits of 'collaboration'. People collaborated through history not because they wanted to get the best deal for themselves, but often with other motives - preservation of the group, curiosity, and indeed, compassion and fellow-feeling. The modern conjuring trick is to redefine feelings such as Compassion as a shot of a particular Hormone that they were seeking, thereby, doing for others while they were really serving themselves. But, even if it's definitionally accurate, its conceptual absurdity should be apparent when we consider that some of these collaborative efforts involved risking oneself, and even, in some cases, dying for others or the group. It is much more coherent to think in terms of the basic human ability (in fact, an ability shared by many other sentient species) to feel for others and do things without consideration of self-preservation. 

Why do we need to look beyond 'collaboration' and bring back 'compassion' in the conversation? This is because the essential challenges of progress are long-term and civilisational. The world is not just a collection of Hotel lounges and 'changing the world' must start out there, and among people who are not like us. The understanding of others' experiences is an essential requirement of any transformation, and critical for the preservation of civilisation, and in time, of the species. Compassion is the key with which the technological possibilities can be for everyone, solving real problems for real people: Without this, technologies can only skim the rewards, divide the society and accentuate the big problems.

Like collaboration, critical thinking is recognised as an important ability, but so in the limited sense of dealing with 'information overload' (Howard Rhinegold's term for this, which understandably did not catch on, is 'crap detection'). The advocates for college education argue that college prepares a student for critical thinking, encouraging them to ask questions about the information they receive. However, it is important, at this point, to contrast the term 'Critical Consciousness', which is considered a basic human ability that helped us through the ages, with this limited use: Critical Consciousness is not just about validating information within a given structure, but to be able to question the structure itself. 

Let me try to explain the difference with a limited example: An university graduate today would be expected to tell fake news from real by looking at the sources (did it come from a respectable newspaper, with reputations of editorial integrity?) and this would be considered an example of critical thinking. However, they would stop at that and go no further, usually taking research from a reputed organisation as credible and representing the 'truth'. Larry Lessig's point about looking beyond the research - and looking into who paid for it - would not be considered a necessity, as this would be too complicated. One would make an assumption of neutrality and professional integrity of the researchers (if only because they called themselves 'researchers'). However, we have empirical evidence that most research is indeed manipulated to represent the views of those who paid for the research, and hence we have so much conflicting research. The institutions we trust - newspapers, big 4 consultancy, think tanks - are often the worst offenders. However, questioning their expertise and integrity would directly undermine the university graduate's  perception of herself, and put her entire frame of reference in doubt. Critical consciousness lay beyond that boundary; Critical Thinking, as advertised, remain within the bounds of the system, and is mostly focused on internal consistencies.

Why do we need to cross the boundary, and be 'pedantic' about information? Because new frontiers of knowledge and understanding lay outside the paradigmatic limits that our frame of reference constrain us to. And, while internal consistency is good enough when the system is working well, it is inadequate at times like this, when the possibilities seem to lie outside the current system, one that excludes more than includes, and creates more problem than it solves. When one sees "progress depends on the unreasonable man' written on Facebook, time has come to explore the limits of the system.

College, I argue, as a closed community, an institution supported by the modern state, undermines compassion and discourages critical consciousness. The quest of homogeneity - 'graduate attributes' as they are sometimes euphemistically called - is at the heart of the enterprise of college: It underpins its moral mission and business model. And, yet, the possibilities of compassion and critical consciousness both lie in the engagement with the other, not in the patronising way of doing 'social good' but in the inclusive way of extending 'full membership'. This the college can't simply do, and despite all the talk of 'widening participation', the college has only become even more homogeneous, defining its pursuit of excellence by ranking and selectivity. The college, therefore, is no longer fit-for-purpose, for their own self-declared purposes: For making societies prosperous and for enabling inclusive and democratic politics.   


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