Last week’s issue of the New Yorker included an article by Andrew Marantz in “The Talk of the Town” that I found unusually inspirational. That article also included reference to a fact that I think is deplorably neglected and under-explored: “… the Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported that in the past few years ‘the percentage of graduate-degree holders who receive food stamps or some other aid more than doubled.’” People who are relatively familiar with my views on institutional education will recognize this as fodder for my ire over the socially endemic assumptions about the economic value of college education.
Marantz went on to connect this situation to what he says has been called the crisis in the academy, defined by the very situation that I have been watching develop for years, in which the academic labor market is so glutted with highly educated people that terrific scholars are sometimes shouldered out of any sort of employment. Actually, Marantz – I think just by way of a slightly clumsy transition – identifies the two issues with each other, as if a need for public assistance and the absence of a high-profile academic post are equivalent. There is a middle ground that is being needlessly excluded, there.
Still, both issues desperately need to be addressed in their own right, and Marantz highlights two individuals who have taken steps to combat the lesser crisis among would-be academics. Ajay Singh Chaudhary and Abby Kluchin recognized a demand for education among people who could not afford either the time or the money to take the relevant courses at universities, and they responded by teaching their disciplines in cafés over the course of several weeks, at a cost of a few hundred dollars.
Marantz calls their business venture, the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, “a locavore pedagogy shop,” and I think that’s as good a term as any for what I expect is part of a trend in education which will increasingly challenge the large, money-driven institutions that so many students are finding deliver little in the way of outcomes aside from a crushing debt load.
I can still recall how excited I was years ago, when my disdain for institutional education was still in its childhood – not its infancy, mind you; that disdain actually predates my NYU enrollment – when I heard a story on the news about private genetic engineering labs that people were running in their basements. After my graduation, I began to advocate with particular verve for the outright rejection of the formal institutions. I wanted, and still want, people who legitimately care about education, to show that commitment in their private lives by educating themselves and one another and exploring in private settings those new ideas which might be suppressed in the academy, in favor of the status quo.
At the time that seemed like an easy thing to accomplish with the social sciences and humanities, but the idea of moving physical sciences out of the institution and into more intimate settings seemed quite challenging. Seeing evidence that not only were people up to the challenge but that they were actually doing it thrilled me and gave me great hope for the future of smaller scale scholarly structures.
It’s been a long time, but Marantz’s article finally gives me hope that the trend is continuing, and that it’s embracing not only private experimentation and scholarship, but small-scale education. With formal tertiary education demanding more and more financial investments from students and delivering lesser and lesser financial rewards, as well as questionable educational outcomes, I expect people to gravitate in growing numbers towards alternative forms of both teaching and learning.
There are others in addition to the Brooklyn Institute, of course. The internet provides curious individuals with many opportunities to absorb lectures for free and in their own time through uploads of actual college courses, video channels designed for broad-based education, TED Talks, and so on. At least one company that I know of sells entire college courses on DVD for students to acquire at a fraction of the cost of tuition.
I fully expect more competitors to join in this trend, and so I expect that education in the future will look much different than it looks under the formal structures of today. Unless the costs or the benefits of colleges and universities dramatically shift gears, the schooling of the future will in large part be much more local and much more collaborative. The alternatives that provide that character have about as much knowledge to offer as the status quo, given the volume of unemployed scholars. The only thing that they decidedly lack is accreditation. But if degrees from accredited schools continue to deliver such dubious prospects for employment and financial security, what value will accreditation really have?