The College and The Coffee-House

Over the last several decades, the politics of college has reached a consensus: Everyone seemed to agree that more people attending college is a good thing. The usual conservative position, that college should educate a gifted minority who would assume the 'commanding heights' of the society, has been undermined by the proven link between 'gift' and wealth, as well as the claims that we live in a knowledge society. The weary refrain indulged in Britain's top universities - that the elevation of Polytechnics as Universities in the 1990s was not the abolition of polytechnics, but rather that of the universities - is considered an elitist view. People like Charles Murray, who complains too many people are going to college, are usually viewed as out-of-date and out-of-touch. What's fashionable is the commitment to expand public access to Higher Education, such as the one Obama declared, and the promises of eliminating college tuition fees, such as the one that made Jeremy Corbyn so popular.

The Liberal/ Left position on this issue is rather clear: Access to college shouldn't be reserved for a tiny, privileged minority! College Education - in the Liberal imagination - is seen as critical to democracy, of society governed by the rule of law, of progress. On this last point, they were duly joined by the new-age conservatives, who see wealth creation as a function of knowledge, and thereby, signed up for universal college education. The Left position is slightly more problematic. One of the first thing the French Revolutionaries did was to abolish the universities in France. But the Left's nuanced distinction of levels of education - Primary and Secondary Education as essential but the Higher Education as a bourgeois obsession - did not last the Twentieth Century, as they signed up wholeheartedly to the Liberal ideas of progress and productivity. The educational equivalent of the British National Health service - the Open University, a signature project of British Labour Party - drew upon the Soviet ideas of training Engineers through lessons on Radio as well as the American ideals of Great Books programme.

However, there is a dark side of universal college that goes unnoticed: That it wrecks a havoc on informal learning! Informal Learning is indeed the space where innovation really happens. The early movers and shakers of Silicon Valley were hobbyists, learning by reading popular electronic magazines and turning up at hobbyist clubs. The workers' consciousness was not forged in any university classroom, but in evening lectures and reading groups. The metaphor of emergent, non-systematic, speculative learning is, therefore, not college but the Coffee-house in the Eighteenth Century sense: Where conversations and innovation could happen. 

The problem with our college obsession is that it does not merely coexist with other forms of learning: It projects itself as the only worthwhile form of learning. The point that access to education is not equal to access to college gets obscured, and the need for formal accreditation undermines all sorts of informal knowledge ecosystems. The first attempt of the college to grab this territory - Lifelong Learning - was somewhat a failure: LLL was mostly a turn-off for its intended audience, an official intrusion in what used to be driven by needs and interests. Where there was sponteneity, now there was prescription. And, so it was in its second avatar, the MOOCs, which was college education's second misguided attempt at the territory. It came with all the baggage, that structure, content and assessment are the key elements of learning, not interests, needs and motivations. Implicitly, it was a carry-on from the various previous assumption that college is the sole legitimate source of higher learning. In its wake, more and more informal learning practices died.

This creates a big problem. College, the way it is imagined today, is either exclusive, or meaningless. It is no accident that the advent of mass Higher Education was accompanied by the popularity of College Rankings. This is indeed a trap, because if college exists in the current form, there is no way out for a democratic government other than pushing for greater access, either by pouring public money or by liberalising approval system, both of which create huge numbers of uninspired educational institutions, handing out degrees and grabbing territory from the non-college alternatives. However, this formal learning ecosystem is, by definition, incapable of dealing with emergent needs of learning and non-conventional knowledge, because one can't build a regulatory system for such purposes. Besides, they may pretend to create 'scientific' assessments for every human capability, but by definition, such pretences undermine the development of many key abilities: The name 'soft skills' gives away this limitation, and yet, no formal provider would actually admit soft skills are 'soft'. This privileges conformist knowledge over emergent ideas, and ability to play the system over the development of real human abilities. Predictably, its products struggle when automation and globalisation alters the cosy picture of progress that all this is rooted upon.

So, my argument - and I would believe this is quite distinct from the neo-eugenicist ideas of gifted individuals deserving special treatment - is this: To deal with the world of automation and globalisation, we need an education system, which seeks to avoid the college trap and privileges the Coffee House Learning. This is less esoteric than it sounds: This is the idea behind Hackathons as one would easily recognise. However, the debate needs to be properly framed, and move away from its current divide between exclusivity/ inclusivity of college, and the college as the sole enabler of a democratic society.


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