The Challenge of Higher Education Today
In the past few years, we have witnessed a slew of articles with titles like “Is College Doomed?” the lead story of the September 2014 issue of The Atlantic; “I Kind of Ruined My Life by Going to College,” the August 2016 cover story of Consumer Reports, and "Silicon Valley's Increasing Skepticism about the Value of a College Education," which appeared in the April 10, 2017, issue of Forbes. The question of education is on everyone’s mind right now; however, the problem, we believe, is substantially larger than what it seems; the stakes, considerably higher. In the wake of standardized testing, reading-surveillance software, high-interest student loans and massive debt, uncertain if not precarious professional futures, OpenCourseWare and its multimillion-dollar consortium, generalized automation, and the ubiquitous problem of lack of verifiability, the transmission of critical knowledge can no longer be considered a given. Education has not been able to keep up with new developments whose scale is increasingly nonhuman, and these new developments, in turn, have not concerned themselves with the long and painstaking process we call civilization, culture, knowledge, symbolicity, way of life, . . . lifeworld.
In “The Medium Is the Message,” the most famous of the chapters of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, media theorist Marshall McLuhan remarks on the irrelevance of the Schoolmen, who, incapable of fathoming what was happening around them, could not meet the challenges of their time, and, accordingly, were simply “swept aside” along with the culture they represented and embodied. “The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts,” notes McLuhan, “but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance. The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception.” McLuhan, notably, wrote these words back in 1964. Although most new research and learning models have been devoted to e-learning, and while we believe that many of these new platforms can be useful, our approach reconsiders the necessity of human contact in the generation of intelligence, perception, and shared goals: the making of meaning. We believe that people are motivated by other people and inspired by them and that shared learning means learning that lasts.
One of our major models and sources of inspiration is, again, Black Mountain College. (Among the many figures that graced the former YMCA camp at one time or another were Ruth Asawa, Josef Albers, Anni Albers, Elaine de Kooning, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Buckminster Fuller, to name but a few.) In addition, we desire to situate ourselves in the tradition of the Oregon Experiment, the name given by Christopher Alexander to the radical experiment in community planning (and subsequent theory) carried out at the University of Oregon in Eugene, beginning in 1971, with collaborators Murray Silverstein, Shlomo Angel, Sara Ishikawa, and Denny Abrams. Indeed, we have the blessing and imprimatur of Christopher Alexander to do just that. We hope to assemble a remarkable group of people who share a common vision of the world to work on what will hopefully become a new, old model for the project we call education. It is not clear what will happen in the future to this enterprise on which, until now, everything has depended. The world is changing very fast under extreme pressures, contradictions, and dyssynchronous developments. Intelligence itself may very well become unrecognizable once it is fully divorced from the senses. Indeed, it is not inconceivable that it might disappear as such.