• 04.26.12

Reinventing College To Prepare Us For The Future, Not The Past

College was designed to prepare students for a 20th-century economy, and it’s not catching up fast enough to the realities of the modern world. How can we overhaul the entire system?

The witty name of the indie Scottish band We Were Promised Jetpacks reminds us that, not so long ago, “futurism” looked like the Jetsons TV cartoon. In the future, we were told, we’d be zooming around like George in a techno-topia where time and space could be mastered but where basic social relationships were pretty much unchanged. If that version of the future had panned out, think about all the rules and regulations we would have invented by now for training kids for responsible flying.


We would have ways for testing them to determine their maturity for solo flying. White-knuckled parents would be taking young teens around the ‘hood for an airborne spin and there would be professional driving schools to make sure they learned the rules of the airways. High school would teach the safety and ethics of jetpack-powered life. Kids would be cramming for the written test, practicing for the airstrip test, and would anxiously wait out the year-long learner’s permit. They would be taking summer jobs to help pay for the expensive jetpack insurance, inflated for the risky under-25 crowd.

Needless to say, the Jetsons version of the future didn’t pan out. Instead, the whole social, economic, media, and communication fabric of life has changed dramatically since April 1993 when the Mosaic 1.0 browser went public. Historian Robert Darnton says our publish-yourself, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter era of customized, globally connected interaction is up there as one of the most important developments in all human history, alongside the invention of writing in 4000 B.C. Mesopotamia, movable type in the Renaissance, and Industrial Age mass printing as the fourth great Information Age. Yet, so far as I know, there wasn’t a single Hannah-Barbera cartoon that imagined George and Jane patiently teaching little Judy and Elroy Jetson HTML in order to zoom the World Wide Web. A 16-year-old can upload just about anything to the Web and have it available worldwide to anyone else with an Internet connection. No flying license required.

And that’s the problem. My college students are the first generation to come of age in humanity’s fourth great Information Age and their entire education has been designed to train them for the third. They have been learning with all the forms, formulas, strategies, and assessment methods that the late 19th- and early-20th-century educators engineered to get them off the farm and into the factory, out of the shop and into the firm.

In 2012, to be middle class meant going to college. That is the end, implicitly, of K-12 education in the U.S. and pretty much everywhere in the developed world. And the be-all and end-all of all that learning is designed to prepare us for the 20th century, not the one we live in.

Grades, IQ tests, timed individual achievement tests, machine-gradable multiple choice tests, teaching to the test, the credit hour, the Master’s in Business Administration, Scholastic Aptitude Tests, GREs, Law Boards: All of these are part of what I call “scientific learning management.” That’s the educational arm of what the great theorist of industrialism, Frederick Winslow Taylor, called “scientific labor management,” the emphasis on production quotas that kept the assembly line running smoothly and led to the creation of MBA programs (he taught in the first independent one, at Dartmouth) to oversee mass production. Putting kids in rows, all starting at the same age, beginning at the same time, dividing knowledge up into subjects taught in 50-minute chunks was all part of retraining a humanity for the regulated time, regulated work, and predetermined, regulated productivity that were key to the division of labor, home from work, labor from leisure.

How do we train youth today for a smartphone world that brings the workplace to your ear 24-7 or where your email at work also brings every imaginable distraction? What do we do to re-jigger scientific learning management for a world where self-organizing networks can bring down governments or be surveilled and exploited by them? What about our educational system takes advantage of the Wikipedia world, where humans volunteer not only their knowledge but their editorial skills to create the largest, most multi-lingual encyclopedia the world has ever known? Networked forms of communication change human interaction, human attention, and human labor. How do you reform education for this world?


That’s the question I’ll be addressing in a series of posts for Co.Exist on changing higher education to change the world. I will connect the institutions and practices of higher education not to the imagined future but to the very real present we live in now.

We’ll look at re-imagining general education and even Great Books core thinking as an interdisciplinary, problem-based curriculum, with service learning and entrepreneurship built right into the readings from Plato and Levinas. We’ll focus on method, and what happens when students are allowed to take charge. And we’ll discuss the challenge of taming the cost of higher ed.

Nearly 50% of students entering university do not finish at that university. Where they go has not been fully studied, but survey data indicates that they drop out because of a combination of cost, boredom, and lack of real-world relevance. We’ll look at the current situation that contributes to those three reasons and pose some new possibilities, with examples of universities and even individual professors who are addressing the issue.