From College To Coffee-House: Models of Learning for 21st Century

I have made this point before, that we need less College, and more Coffee-House, learning (see the earlier post). Here, I shall attempt to explain, one more time, the difference between the two.

Let's start with the obvious. College is formal and Coffee-House is informal. Colleges are state-sanctioned and funded; coffee-houses don't have anything of the kind. Colleges are about teaching; coffee-houses just allow people to meet and talk. The models, expectations and outcomes are very different in these two kinds of places and the learning they enable.

And, yet, there is comparability and a form of competition. More college and more formalisation of education mean less time for Coffee-houses and less recognition for the stuff one learns there. Between the two kinds of knowledge - explicit and official for the college, tacit and tentative for the coffee-house - privileging the former means less importance for the latter. If all learning must be validated and recognised, as societies with too many colleges tend to think, the desire for learning outside diminishes: College makes coffee-houses redundant for learning.

At the time of great change, the coffee-house learning has at least two advantages. 

First, new ideas can prosper within an informal ecosystem in a way they never can in college. Remember the new ideas always come from the fringe: With too much formal learning, there is no fringe. Besides, in college, learning - and attainment - is individual property, to be cashed in at an appropriate time. In the coffee-house, knowledge is a commons, a dynamic shared, and sharing, pool. This is why coffee-houses played such a crucial role in that other turning point in human history, Enlightenment.

Second, the coffee-houses, with no gate-keepers, allow learning to be diffused in the broader society. College, even the most inclusive ones, must keep some people out: Their universe revolves around exclusivity. At this time, when we face a challenge of diffusion of technology - most people can not take advantage of technological progress because they are not close enough to technological developments and their issues are not addressed by technologies - and without diffusion, the benefits of progress will remain skewed at the top.  Colleges can't solve the problem; coffee-houses can.

The inclusive and unofficial learning at coffee-house makes possible formation and diffusion of knowledge in a way the exclusive and formal environment of the college can't. While colleges may organise standard seminars on disruption, the coffee-house has a disruption in its grain; that liberated, animated, collaborative and critical engagement that colleges seek, exist in its original and unconstrained form in the coffee-house. And, yet, too much college kills the coffee-house, as too many certificates for learning makes us recognise, and encourage, no learning without certificates.

I believe too much college, a twentieth-century thing, has brought us to a precipice when learning has become too detached from life, and institutionalisation has gone too far. Cumulative progress in technology has now created new possibilities, and those possibilities, because of the nature of learning institutions, have been solely expropriated for the few, by the few, leaving the majority at a disadvantage. More college is not the solution, but the opposite: We need more coffee-houses, more informal learning, more opportunities and encouragement of meaningful conversations and collaborations. The future of college is not online, but no college: A network of learning spaces for people to congregate, collaborate and co-learn.


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