Real Learning Has Become Impossible in Universities: DIY Programs Offer a Better Way

Deep Reading Will Save Your Soul

William Deresiewicz at Persuasion: Higher ed is at an impasse. So much about it sucks, and nothing about it is likely to change. Colleges and universities do not seem inclined to reform themselves, and if they were, they wouldn’t know how, and if they did, they couldn’t. Between bureaucratic inertia, faculty resistance, and the conflicting agendas of a heterogeneous array of stakeholders, concerted change appears to be impossible. Besides, business is good, at least at selective schools. The notion, floated now in certain quarters, that students and parents will turn from the Harvards and Yales in disgust is a fantasy. As long as elite institutions remain the principal pipeline to elite employers (and they will), the havers and strivers will crowd toward their gates. Everything else—the classes, the politics, the arts and sciences—is incidental.

Which is not to say that interesting things aren’t happening in post-secondary (and post-tertiary) education. They just aren’t happening, for the most part, on campus. People write to me about this: initiatives they’ve started or are starting or have taken part in. These come, as far as I can tell, in two broad types, corresponding to the two fundamental complaints that people voice about their undergraduate experience. The first complaint is that college did not prepare them for the real world: that the whole exercise—papers, busywork, pointless requirements; siloed disciplines and abstract theory—seemed remote from anything that they actually might want to do with their lives.

Programs that address this discontent exhibit a remarkably consistent set of characteristics. They are interdisciplinary, integrating methods and perspectives—from, say, engineering and the social sciences—that are normally kept apart. They are informal, eschewing frontal instruction and traditional modes of evaluation. They are experiential, more about doing—creating, collaborating—than reading and writing. They are extramural, bringing students into the community for service projects, internships, artistic installations or performances. They are directed to specific purposes, usually to do with social amelioration or environmental rescue. Above all, they are student-centered. Participants are enabled (and expected) to direct their education by constructing bespoke curricula out of the resources the program gives them access to. In a word, these endeavors emphasize “engagement.”

More here.