Free College (and more) FOR ALL?

Updated: Dec 18, 2019

Is it so difficult to understand the difference between making college AVAILABLE for all v. requiring people to go to college, perhaps because we don’t offer enough viable alternatives?

“Traditional” college education should certainly be affordable and available to all - which will mean it would have to be subjected to much more oversight.

But, regardless of where people receive formal education, what we value about college and education should also be available to everyone. I am talking about:

  1. A good liberal education for citizenship,

  2. Opportunities to develop specialized skills, and

  3. Opportunities to join and cultivate mutually supportive networks.

These opportunities can be provided in traditional college settings for traditional college-aged students, but just as young people develop on widely varying and eccentric schedules, the needs of adult learners evolve and change based on thousands of semi-predictable variables. That’s why educational opportunities in a wide range of formal, informal, and blended settings must be supported for individuals of all ages.  Lifelong education should also a wide range of opportunities for skills training and self-enrichment.

By necessity, this means we need to work towards a culturally supported system of lifelong education where informal values and practices normalize the occasional resort to formal structures of learning for all based on individual needs and inclinations just as much as on the dubious dictates of the so-called “labor market”.

BF Skinner famously noted that "the evolution of culture is a gigantic effort in self control." Notions of transcending "freedom and dignity" remain quite as disturbing on their own even when not linked to the idea of "cultural engineering". Still, narrow and fragile notions of "freedom" and "dignity" are being whipped into a toxic melange of ideas regarding "identity", "race", and "nation" with this process driven, in part, by dangerously reckless and irresponsible provocateurs. Skinner's challenge, "We have not yet seen what man can make of man" leaves no one off the hook. To not self consciously participate in creating culture may be the most bitter form of irresponsibility. This can be done in a way that avoids heavy-handed “centralized” control.

The role of formal education in creating and recreating culture can easily be exaggerated, but it's just as facile to minimize its role. Certainly, this role is limited by the more informal mechanisms of education wafting through popular culture (online and off).  These include family, religion, and everyday interactions of participation, domination, resistance, diversion, and mutual appreciation, all of which are powerfully influenced by traditions, history, and the assiduous influence of concentrated wealth.

No doubt we all must invest more effort and intentionality in building a culture that supports everybody's opportunity to realize freedom and dignity in meaningful and responsible ways. And just as surely, this is a Sisyphean endeavor. For even if there was ever no chance for backsliding, the daunting slope would inevitably increase exponentially and asymptotically. Such is the "nature" of insatiable humanity. But like Camus's Sisyphus, we must not be discouraged. To the extent we can, we must work to ensure we all have access to the necessities of food, shelter, meaningful occupation, and dignified leisure.

The role of formal education, another basic human "right" is a considerable factor in how cultures and economies evolve to meet (or fail to meet) these needs. The right to life long educational opportunities is now within our grasp. We can continue to build upon the models of public education inherited from the Puritans, Horace Mann, and industrial magnates with an eye toward humaneness as we balance challenge and support for all learners. We can learn from models provided by free online resources such as DuoLingo and Kahn Academy. There are also lessons to be learned from (and about) the Massive Open Online Courses offered now by so many major universities. Schools and colleges all around the world are experimenting with distance and blended learning models of all stripes. All manner of experimentation should be encouraged and supported with a wide range of funding and accreditations backed up with pervasive mechanisms of informal attention and scrutiny.

We are all culture creators even as we are all constantly being shaped (or distorted) by vaster cultural currents. We can responsibly open the institutions of higher learning to all regardless of class, race, or age. And then let's see what we make of ourselves.

Joe Panzica (Author of Democracy STRUGGLES! and Saint Gredible and Her Fat Dad's Mass for which he is seeking an agent . . .)

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