The paradox of global education

by David Alm on October 3, 2011

When I started college, in 1993, there was a notion going around that education was subversive. It allowed those of us lucky enough to be studying the liberal arts to engage with serio us texts, ask serious questions, and develop critical perspectives on the world. It allowed us to exist, mentally at least, outside the structures that would exert control over us throughout life: economics, politics, religion, and yes, even education.

We couldn’t change the world, or its prevailing ideologies, but we could understand it. And by understanding it, we were liberated. They’re not called the liberal arts for nothing.

There was another noti on, borrowed from Mark Twain, that all you needed for such radical thinking to take place was a professor, a student, and a log to sit on. No ivy, Gothic architecture, grand reading rooms, or bucolic quads required. That my college had all those things, too, was simply an aesthetic plus.

Flash forward almost 20 years. Today, for-profit institutions are everywhere, doing more harm than good, and the digital classroom has become de rigueur for just about any college wishing to remain in the education racket. In an opinion piece for today’s New York Times, the former editor of that newspaper, Bill Keller, writes about the efforts of one elite university to expand its reach, with the dubious goal of educating as many people as possible through online teaching. Why dubious? Because it’s not clear that, as the numbers rise, anyone is learning anything.

I’m nostalgic for my own college days, I admit. Meeting a professor for coffee to discuss the week’s reading was a privileged path to the B.A., no question. But I don’t think it’s mere nostalgia that sounds an alarm when I read about the latest technological “advances” in education. How are the students of th is hyper-connected, virtually present, bottom-line-driven world to ever make sense of it when education itself is hyper-connected, virtual, and driven by the bottom line?

Global learning does not lead to global understanding. Of course, most people are not able to step outside of life long enough to gain some perspective on it, but if colleges and universities don’t do something to combat this trend, education will cease to mean what it once did.

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