Beware someone selling you knowledge as a product


As explained elsewhere, I committed a journalistic sin in this post by attributing a passage of text to Giles Bowkett when he was just quoting it. I’ve made changes to this post to correct that.

I’m going to do something different (for me). I’m going to post about someone else’s blog post (mostly). Giles Bowkett’s post College Is Bullshit, I Am The Future is ranty and provocative and funny, and worth reading, but I’m going to call bullshit on part of it (swearing is different for me too — wheee!) hopefully without seeming humorless or as though I’m missing the nuances of his as-usual gargantuan post. College does matter, as much or more than ever. An institution’s pedigree may not correlate to the intelligence or preparedness of all its graduates, but any good school should help its motivated students learn how to learn. And the new way to learn, which is expected to disrupt (as in disruptive technology) the college and university system, information products, is not an alternative to that system at all. It’s as much a life raft for a sinking ship as Giles argues colleges are. The best way to prepare for the future is to learn how to learn. You don’t have to go to more school to learn how to learn, but there are few better places to do it.

I am not impartial

Confession time. I’m an ivy league grad. Not from Yale. Go ahead and dis Yale, Giles, and dis Harvard too for that matter. Lord knows my classmates and I did, ritualistically, for four years. I also confess I am married to a university professor. So this may look like I’m being defensive. But so what? I’m personally motivated. Having an argument for the sake of argument is for debate team weenies, and no one ever wanted to party with them.

By the way, that “confession” — I learned the rhetorical and ethical importance of situating yourself when making an argument in college.

Everyone hates teachers

Or, more correctly, everyone hates school. Everyone except for a small sick percentage of the population, and they mostly become teachers. Not all teachers loved school, though. My wife did not. There are, in fact, two types of people who pursue careers in academia. People who yearn for intellectual freedom, and people who love school.

Anyway, everyone hates teachers. on September 11th, 2001, I saw a red-faced man who was supposed to be qualified to speak on TV about the attacks rage to a news anchor that we had lost our way as a country (and presumably had this horror coming to us) because we had started thinking teachers were the most important people in the U.S. I wish I could find the exact quote, but it went something like, “The most important thing is not teachers — ‘Hi, I’m a teacher’ — but our national defense.” That was odd. “Hi, I’m a teacher.” So teachers were not only responsible for 9/11, but they are smarmy, self-aggrandizing, selfish dicks in general.

You’d also think they’re making millions. In fact, university professors spend as much time in school as doctors, and more time than lawyers, and earn a fraction of what people in those disciplines do, if they can even secure a decent appointment in a very competitive job market. Intellectual freedom — that’s the lure. And tenure. Take away tenure and then you have to compete with law and medicine on salary. Have fun with that, state legislatures. But I digress.

Even teachers hate teachers. Witness Stanley Fish eulogizing the end of liberal arts in the American academy while simultaneously congratulating himself for getting in and getting out just in time. Efficiency will carry the day, he claims, in reviewing a book about for-profit colleges. He correctly identifies the view such institutions have of instructors: merely delivery people. And he correctly amplifies the book author’s argument that some Americans (of the USA variety) have scorned “the life of the mind” since the rise of the robber barons of the (original) guilded age. (Although none have mocked it as well as my man Charlie).

But citing speeches from industrialists from 100 years ago only betrays a weakness of this whole “who needs real colleges?” argument. In 1910 you could make a decent living doing manual work in a factory. It got a lot better once the labor movement had its way, but you could simply learn how to be efficient and avoid starvation. In 2010, that work gets done in other countries. Here in the USA, we have to do other stuff. And it’s not stuff you can pick up merely from delivery people without any previous preparation.

How do you learn how to learn?

My career path didn’t exist when I learned how to sing Old Nassau in the fall of 1991. It barely existed when I graduated. If Andrew Carnegie had his way, I would have been disqualified from working on the Web. (Oddly, though, old Andrew’s name is on my impractical alma mater’s lake.) I’d probably have a degree in typewriter use and maintenance. Or print journalism. Oops. Or, to be more optimistic, maybe brewing. I did enjoy doing that at school. But probably something whose immediate value was only going to decline.

Actually, let’s be real. I was a Princeton student. I’d have a degree in investment banking. Again, oops.

How did I become a web developer, having been graduated (that’s right) with a degree in social anthropology? I set about learning what I needed to learn. I read. I worked hard on my own, trying to program and failing, and trying again. I put what I had learned into words for myself and for others. I set out to find steadily harder challenges. This is how I had already learned how to learn. Again, you don’t have to go to colleges to pick this up. It sounds as though Giles and I both had excellent high schools, although mine relied far too much on rote learning for my taste. Practice is important, but mastery requires personal motivation.

Bullshit, Giles Seth Godin

So, back to Giles’s post. Here’s one passage he quotes that made me see red:

The valuable things people take away from college are interactions with great minds (usually professors who actually teach and actually care) and non-class activities that shape them as people.

I’m going to use some of Giles’ own close reading attack techniques against him. (If only.) What are “interactions with great minds?” How does that work? Does some of the professors’ nous or soul juice spill off onto you? Maybe this cliched phrase should invoke a Socratic exchange by which the teacher guides the student into discovering a truth. Whatever. I’m not a Platonist. But great minds, when available, only help you when they inspire you to hit the damn books and take responsibility for yourself. Lectures are great. Small discussion groups are great. Time with a prof during office hours are great. What matters much more than these events is how well you motivate yourself. That’s what a liberal arts education teaches: how to use your motivation to learn stuff. And it’s not just the great minds. It’s the other students, and the grad student teaching assistants. All that human contact — you get four years to learn how to inspire and be inspired by others to learn, to better your mind. And it’s not altruistic or utopian to seek that interaction. It’s a survival skill. Otherwise, you get a degree in typewriter use and maintenance.

And how is it that non-class activities are what shape you as a person? I know partying frat boys are the poster children for college, and it’s loads of fun to mock Mark Zuckerberg, but most kids at school are really working hard, at least most of the time. I can’t even begin to address how awful it is that we make kids work and borrow as much as we do so they afford college, so they can outfit themselves with the tools they need to help our country avoid decline. That’s a separate argument altogether.

I think four years of taking on steadily greater academic challenges and putting in the library time (or lab time or field time) to accomplish that shapes you as a person as much as the school paper or play or football team does.

When I hear the words “information product”…

I reach for my culture. Seriously, information product? As though all you have to do is consume said product through whichever medium is a satisfactory delivery mechanism? As if knowledge were acquired by the same general method by which one buys and eats a Twinkie?

OK, maybe I’m guilty of dismissing things like ebooks because, as Giles argues, by definition such disruptive technologies aren’t prestigious. But here’s the thing: I don’t think paper books are adequate information products. I don’t think Plato’s Republic or SICP or The Interpretation of Cultures are adequate information products. Because it takes a working brain at the consumer end to make something out of the ink on the dead trees in them.

It isn’t just that I see the idea of any product replacing higher classroom education as naive. I worry about the hidden ideology of the circumstance in which they did. Whenever anyone tells you something is true, question their motives. I learned that in college. The idea that I could simply ingest some knowledge from an information product implies there is no agenda, no personal or corporate interest inside my yummy info meal. But there probably will be.

I’m not saying beware the power behind the “truth” just because of all that Foucault I read in college. It feels like common sense. Walmart is offering its employees help getting a degree from a for-profit online college (note, a specific one that made a deal with Walmart to supply this service). Do you really think no one at Walmart has considered the content of the courses this online school is presenting and whether it will be beneficial to Walmart? That would be remarkably un-Walmart. This is the company that tells its suppliers how to run their businesses so they can shave money off the suppliers’ products’ costs. I’m not suggesting an organized conspiracy to mold an academic curriculum to some powerful interest. How ridiculous would that be? The effect of power on what is stamped as official information can be much more subtle, uncoordinated, and decentralized. And without colleagues and instructors to explore the information, you’re at a disadvantage.

I learned that in college.

It takes different strokes

I don’t for a moment think that pedigree should matter. This country fires on all cylinders when opportunity is closest to equal. Some people have the motivation to learn and become better at learning because of their parents, their friends, their primary and secondary school teachers. They don’t need college. Some people should get out of school as soon as they can and go their own way.

I love this crazy interwebs industry, even the libertarian streak that sometimes mixes antipathy to elitism with anti-intellectualism. Sometimes I worry that people who dismiss college have a bit of a chip on their shoulders about not finishing it themselves. I don’t know Giles terribly well, but I do not think he has this chip on his shoulder. However, I suspect some of his readers do.

To them, I say, there were certainly morons at Princeton. But there were also lots of students who were so smart and awesome that their friendship motivated me to stop being mediocre. Maybe I needed that more than you need it. Or maybe you’ve found those people outside academia. Giles is actually someone who does that for me. Our industry has quite a few of those people — that’s another reason I love it. But I don’t share a dorm with Giles. We aren’t wrestling with the same texts and projects together. I think that kind of communal experience is fundamentally formative. I wouldn’t trade it for an ebook. Not even one that teaches parrots how to talk.

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