Why College Is Still Essential

We just returned from a 60th college reunion, where we renewed numerous old friendships. Not surprisingly, given the setting, there was a lot of talk about how the internet might take over significant parts of higher education. Several resistant ideas began ricocheting around in this aging head.

The talk about the power of the internet to democratize and extend the “audience” of qualified and interested students, and to make accessible the benefits of great teaching to many more people, was quite compelling. There is a good case to be made that certain types of teaching, particularly in certain subjects such as computer science, lend themselves well to a digital classroom.Still, nothing in our experience to date suggests that “cloud-based colleges” will – or should – eliminate the need for college students to be part of a LIVE educational community.

Admittedly, the increasing number of college-bound students projected in the coming years will pose new challenges to “ground-based colleges.” But the personal growth afforded by a traditional, four years on campus experience simply cannot be replicated in an online environment. And the strongest evidence for that position is found, of course, online. In the “real” world, people normally have, for good reason, a limited number of friends. Even though the human brain is still much more powerful than any normal computer, it is very difficult for most people to embrace more than a handful of people they come to know as well as family.

Online, however, the world is far different. Many perfectly ordinary people have thousands of ‘friends’ on Facebook. That is surely distorting and diminishing much modern human interaction. The veneer of “friendship” that Facebook and other social media paint on remote and shallow relationships creates lots of illusions–sometimes good; sometimes scary. Good, if one is trying to promote or sell something. Scary, if one happens to believe all those folks are really friends, and then becomes a ‘friend in need.’

Everyone needs friends and intimacy as well as privacy.

We are already losing lots of privacy in the internet dominated world, yet the distinction between friends and acquaintances will continue to play an important role in the normal, personal everyday life of most people.

How does this relate to the place of ground-based education in the modern world? There is, and long has been, plenty of education available to everyone, everywhere, never more so than now, through the written word, television, movies. But, the power and intimacy of live performances by professors as well as other students has yet to be matched by any new medium.

At this reunion, we were treated to a lecture by a professor of music who entitles his lectures “The First Night Performance” when a piece of music is first performed to a live audience. His purpose is to make an end run around any need to read musical notes, which most students cannot do ( nor really want or need to do). Instead he conveys the “language” of music by indirection.

To accomplish this, he plays recorded pieces of great classical music and, as he is also a great actor, pantomimes and illustrates the themes and messages intended by the music when it was written — often hundreds of years ago,

It was an amazingly successful example of how the overwhelming power of a physically present person who is also a gifted teacher, cannot be pried apart and simply could not be the same captured on film and delivered in a modest window on a modest computer screen, days, months or years after the fact, and equally far removed from any meaningful interaction sparked by the live performance.

Education is, at rock bottom, about learning from and through real people – other students and teachers. The substance , of course, always has to be there, but the process of learning is still and probably always will be a relatively slow and accretive process that takes place as people are enjoying everyday life while taking seriously the challenge of growing up and learning.

Not only do students encounter diversity of people and cultures, they discover the diversity of minds.

Yes, there are potential benefits for further democratization of college education for people today who cannot afford to live away from home, and perhaps college does not need to be a full four years., We should not, however, let costs, or even great technology, distract us and risk robbing young people of the opportunity to cap their growing years in real educational communities.

Perhaps I got brainwashed all over again?


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