March 14, 2013 by John Douglas Belshaw
Historical fact: formal, state-run schools are actually warehouses. Whenever the supply of young workers outruns the supply of jobs, governments use schools and post-secondary to regulate the movement of fresh labour into the marketplace. Used to be that senior high cost money to attend; the 1930s Depression and the beginnings of the baby boom put an end to that. High schools sprung up everywhere and suddenly it was all free.
Was it democratizing? In all likelihood. Did it prepare workers for the emerging post-war economy? Possibly. Did it create an unnatural environment, a social milieu populated by hormonally-charged teenagers under the watchful eye of professional supervisors? Oh yes. Just ask Archie and Jughead.
Did it prepare young people for the world of adults? Here’s the quotable Jeff Selingo (of the Chronicle of Higher Ed): “Let’s face it, most 18-year-olds are not ready for the working world, and some are not even ready for a college campus. The four years of college turn adolescents into young adults and through the campus experience—living with different people, participating in activities and athletics, and being responsible for one’s self—gets them ready for life.” I like his conditionals because, let’s face it, for what has high school really prepared most eighteen year olds? Is it any wonder that so many students don’t make it past their first term in post-secondary?
Does college deliver on this promise of maturation? Does it transform the dross of adolescence into the gold of young adulthood? If this was an experiment we’d have to control for aging 4-5 years, the likelihood of personality-altering events occurring in that period (e.g.: family tragedy, love, broken heart), the impact of stimulants, and particularly those things that are related to but not a direct part of the college experience (e.g.: handling indebtedness, housing troubles, stupid part-time and summer jobs). Take all those considerations out of the equation and how does the value proposition of university as an adult-making-institution shape up? Better, or not as good as the armed forces? You want teens to mature in four years? Then why ever would you send them to live in party-central residences with cheap-beer-and-wingz-nites and where many of the risks of young adulthood can be held at bay?
Let’s imagine for the moment that post-secondary institutions are, like high schools, serving purposes other than education in the strictest sense. Let’s imagine that they are places to stockpile the young until they are a bit more civilized and a little less frightening to their elders. The ‘campus experience’ looks rather different in that context.
Go to University. Meet people. Make friends.
Everyone who has ever been an undergraduate knows the line: in your first year on campus you’ll meet people who will be your friends for life; and you’ll spend the next three years avoiding them. Not all social experiences are brilliant successes. Selingo invokes Mark Zuckerberg, Harvard’s most famous drop-out and the creator of Facebook. As Selingo says, “if you saw The Social Network you might recall that Facebook would never have been if not for the Harvard residential experience while he was there.” Yes, and if you were paying close attention you’ll recall that Zuckerberg’s creativity was spurred in part by his obsessive and creepy social climbing and his repeated rejection and marginalization.
Zuckerberg is an exception in so many ways so let’s put him to one side. Yes, you’ll make friends at uni. You’ll learn new social skills. Could you achieve some of those goals elsewhere? Of course! Do you think that baristas and pipefitters are without friends or social skills? What they lack, of course, is a network into the establishment and a vocabulary that marks them out as intellectually polished. Ah, I see now. It’s a finishing school.
Certainly some ‘networking’ takes place in Online Education environments but, no, there’s no hanging out in the pub with the guy whose dad owns the game-design industry. So let’s be clear that’s what we’re advocating when we invoke ‘networking’. Tell your daughter to go to university so she can become a ‘big game hunter’ and ladder-scramble her way into elite society. It’s not the education, kiddo, it’s the people you’ll meet. Oh, the people you’ll meet!
A stronger case, I think, can be made for campus-life as a way in which to slow time down. This is a place where full-blown adulthood with its abundance of worries can be postponed. Don’t come to the uni to grow up; come here to get more out of your youth. Play sports, get drunk, argue about theory, have sex, observe other human beings and learn about the study of the same, and try to decide what kind of person you want to become. Later. After you’ve been set loose on society with letters after your name. You’ll have plenty of time to get your shirt stuffed.
If we can make that concession to university life then we can move on to a richer debate about the structure of education and what it is meant to deliver. Doing so means not regarding Online Education as ‘lesser than’ because there’s no on-campus experience. It becomes every bit as-good-as, in educational terms.