Future of an Illusion

AtlanticHEIf anyone’s premature death has been announced more than Mark Twain’s, it is that of higher education. September’s The Atlantic arrived in my mailbox proclaiming itself the “Education Issue” leading with an article “Is College Doomed?” While I appreciate the headiness of Atlantic articles, they run long and my time runs in the opposite direction. I have to read selectively. Things like paying bills and work vie for my time as well. I flipped it open to the article actually entitled “The Future of College?” by Graeme Wood. Four words in, and I froze. The fourth word is “entrepreneur.” Don’t get me wrong; I’m open-minded. Having seen higher education showing its teeth and claws, I know it isn’t the nice pet that the dean will tell you that it is. Nevertheless, from my viewpoint, the main problem higher education is experiencing right now is entrepreneurial in character. Perhaps it’s old school to say, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but it is perhaps the most apt phrase to apply to colleges and universities prior to the twenty-first century. And, in my humble opinion, today, while some vestiges can be salvaged.

Oh, I know I’m a dinosaur. I literally finished my formal higher education last century. Still, the experience worked well enough. I can’t express, even with daily posts on this little blog, how much I learned sitting through bachelors, masters, and doctoral programs. None of the institutions I attended was perfect (although Edinburgh came pretty close), but they were largely faculty led, and they all recognized that their primary function was to educate, not to prep for entrepreneurial enterprises. There were business schools for that. You couldn’t learn dead languages in business schools. Or even great ideas beyond those with an economic twist. What hath Nietzsche to do with supply-chain optimization? Oh yes, the death of God. My mistake.

In my younger years, I had no preconceived notion about higher education. My high school teachers and the clergy in my life encouraged me to go to college, despite the fact that nobody in my family ever had. Even though it was only Grove City College, as soon as I got over the homesickness, I realized I was home. Higher education—my assumptions were challenged. I had to learn to weigh the evidence. By the time I was finished, I had learned to create content as well. And then I started to hear that higher education had one purpose only—to prepare the young for the job market. A place that is too often unthinking and uninspiring. We aren’t educating, we are teaching conformity. And those who don’t have jobs don’t have healthcare coverage. Survival of the fittest. Entrepreneurs by definition. A quarter of a century ago I didn’t even know that higher education was sick, let alone dying. When the future begins with entrepreneurs, however, I’m going to side with Mark Twain, even if he is really dead.

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