21st Century College: Beyond The Apathy and The Rhetoric

The term '21st Century Education' is quite common: At least it is common in certain circles.

The underlying assumption is that education is at a fundamental point of discontinuity. The way we educated ourselves in the last - twentieth - century, and before that, wouldn't work anymore. We, therefore, need a different approach to education - and the institutions that can offer us that.

The claims are clear and unambiguous, and there is some justification behind them. Life feels so different now, not just because of the millennial turning point, but changes in the material, social and financial realities around us. We may still be operating with the assumptions that a middle class kid should go to college and get a job, but at our hearts, we fear that this is no longer true. Despite the mass of information we collect on colleges - it is an elaborate ritual for the parents of college-going students - we seem increasingly confused which college or course offer us the best path; we know what worked for us may not work for the student going to college today. 

Despite such feelings though, we are not sure what has changed so much so that we need a different education. Some commentators made it easy for us to point to the two elephants in the room: Globalisation and Automation. Yet, we are like blind men who can only feel parts of the elephant (s) and have a fairly personal idea about what these means - and no idea whatsoever how they would evolve to affect life few years hence. Since education is a forward-looking enterprise, we have, therefore, very little conversation about what education we may need.

The conversations about 21st Century college, even for those who engage in them and attempt to drive the agenda, are less about education itself - and more about entitlements. This is what state participation in any sector does: It creates a class of people who get used to a certain kind of privilege, and another who resent it. The conversation about college, a sector that financiers see as a sunrise sector for unrestrained privatisation, is about who gets what, rather than what the education should do. And, therefore, there is a lack of joined up debate: Everyone just represent a position and try to portray what would be most favourable from that position, rather than asking the hard questions. What's worse is that the academics, who are the ones to ask the hard conceptual questions about all other things in life, are in an existential struggle in this: The literature they mostly produce are partisan, and they treat, again with some justification, the whole conversation about '21st Century Education' as some kind of conspiracy, a cloak for Privatisation.

The other side, the investors, the business groups and the media, make the opposite conclusion but adopt a different style: They have very little time for academics and they won't want to engage. They take this '21st Century College' in a certain specific sense - in this, the suspicions from the academic quarters are mostly correct - something they believe can only be achieved by creating an education industry, a globalised, automated machine fed in by academic labour. From this side, teaching is only the act of delivery, education is all about reaching certain predefined objectives and 'competencies', the life goal is to get to some employment and the reason why others don't get it is because they are lazy or spoilt or both.

These opposing sides, which divides all the people concerned with college in one or the other camp, miss the broader point that history, as it repeats itself, has again become, as H G Wells observed at the beginning of last century, 'a race between education and catastrophe'. Things are changing - technologies, habits, beliefs, our economic organisations - and education must go with it. Seeing change as a conspiracy is missing the point of life itself. On the other hand, this change is indeterminate: While the consultancies and investment houses must claim that they know its direction - pretending to be certain being part of their job description - they themselves are as much last century institutions as the universities, and their pretensions as weak and exposed as ever. Like the other times before this, education both shapes the change as it is shaped by it. The educators' disengagement from the conversation of '21st Century College' is somewhat an abdication of their role, and proving instead the very accusation they want to disprove: That teaching has lost the sense of its social mission - and have become a den of cozy bureaucrats.

The advocates of the '21st Century College', on the other hand, do little justice to the responsibility they claim to be taking on. They don't want to engage into a conversation about what needs changing, presenting instead an industrial doctrine for education, which they claim is right because the industrial age is over! They present a fixed view about the future - the rise of a globalised superstar economy - and deny all other possibilities, and yet in their very certainty, they deny the central claim of their case, that future has become uncertain. In summary, the case for 21st century college being different from 20th century college is rested upon the future being very different, and doesn't allow the wriggle room that it is human beings, and their education, shapes that future. The doctrine of 21st century college, in short, is constructed on the lack of human agency, the very thing education is supposed to create.

There is, therefore, a job to be done to explore the nature of the changes, going beyond both the apathy and rhetoric. The strange inter-mixture of human agency and technological reality, which has produced so many unexpected outcomes in the past that any endeavour in prophecy would certainly fail, presents any commentator a great opportunity to engage and explore. And, indeed, because an exciting future does not spell the end of history, but rather a certain glory for the past, the idea of 21st century college is best reviewed not just as a matter of emerging technologies, but in the context of ideas that shaped college through the time every time we came up with a period of exciting change.




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