UnCollege? A Stroll Down Memory Lane...

UnCollege? A Stroll Down Memory Lane...


Is "UnCollege" a bold new approach to one's education? My reaction: been there, done that; still have the T-shirt in my rag pile though...

A colleague told me about the UnCollege web site and the related manifesto. I'll take a closer look later -- my first reaction may sound cynical, but with good reason. Reading this manifesto was a stroll down memory lane, recalling the similar movement in the 1970s and the critics who proliferated then. I did not see anything in this manifesto which I have not seen before, although maybe I'll find a new nugget or two upon closer examination. (Nice collection of past critical quotes though, although where's the Vonnegut quote about how my teachers could have ridden with Jesse James for all the time they stole from me?). Coyne and Hebert's book This Way Out covered this ground for its time back in the mid-1970s, as did Ronald Gross's The Lifelong Learner.

Despite the wonders of the Internet and digital technologies, the shortcomings of this approach are essentially the same now as they were then.

The "academic deviance" approach, like Anya Kamenetz's, is a DIY (Do-It-Yourself) approach; the problem is that most people don't want to be DIY with their education any more than they want to be with their car repair, home building, etc. Everyone's an autodidact to some extent, but academic autodidacts are a far rarer species. The manifesto may move a few to action, but it lacks a driver to move masses of learners to action.

The real crux of the issue is that learning is not the same as formal education. There's always a semantic thicket to negotiate when making this distinction, especially when "education" is used to mean "learning from life" in the broad sense that Mark Twain used it ("I have never let my schooling interfere with my education"). We tend to forget that Twain made this observation at a time when relatively few people were schooled, and before the time when formal schooling replaced the world of work as the de facto career of youth. So to say, as the manifesto does, that:

"To learn from life you do not need anyone’s authority. You only need to believe that what you are doing at this very moment is somehow educational."

not only confuses learning with formal education, but also reflects a naive, oversimplified notion of what education is really all about.

Being dogmatic and reactionary will not help one's cause either. For example, the manifesto's argument for saying the education system is "broken" is very shallow, as a recent blog posting of mine demonstrates.

Having said all that, it's good to see this meme alive and kicking again. It's certainly an understandable reaction to our society's current overemphasis on educational attainment as the sole path to career success, but by itself I don't expect it to make much impact.

These days, I find it more interesting and potentially more fruitful to explore ways to make education more open and permeable rather than rejecting it altogether. (There is, after all, more than one way to be contrarian.) Promoting initiatives like prior learning assessment, stackable credentials, reviving the knowledge creation function, greater use of learner-generated content, will all help make education more permeable.

There are also a lot of good ideas contained within this manifesto -- challenging authority, self-directed learning, promoting creativity, strategies for developing independent capacities for success -- which also happen within education and of course should happen more. As with the Free Learning Rules movement in general, this manifesto could become a useful foil to a greater educational permeability.

But please, let's not delude ourselves that a new Aquarian dawn is within our grasp and that formal education will dissolve before the awesome power of free learning. Personally, I have no desire to re-live the 70s -- Been there, done that; still have the T-shirt in my rag pile....

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