The ambivalent promise of higher education

In the latest collection of talks from Audrey Watters, The Curse of the Monsters of Educational Technology, she addresses an uncomfortable issue in higher education: the unrealistic claims made about the transformative aspect of university attendance. From loc 397-413:

These questions get at what is an uncomfortable and largely unspoken truth about education. That is, education, for its own part, makes all sorts of claims—sometimes, let’s be honest, fairly wild and unsubstantiated claims—about amazement, achievement, and transformation. These promises may well reveal that our field is full of Sea Monkeys—colorful promises of becoming that we might not actually be able to or even intend to honor. As we reconstitute technology-enhanced learning, are we simply reconstituting Sea Monkeys?

This is one of those issues that fascinates me because I can’t help but see it in ambivalent terms. On the one hand, the relative advantage of a university degree is manifestly in decline due to credential inflation and opportunity hoarding, such that to deny this would be fundamentally dishonest. On the other hand, this point is often made in a way that reduces the value of higher education to instrumental advantage accrued by individuals. On the one hand, the interventions of the Competition and Markets Authority within higher  education further the commodification of universities in a way which corrodes the intrinsic value that can be found through participating in them. On the other hand, it seems absurd to suggest that students don’t have a right to expect that the understanding upon which they took a university place is accurate, particularly as participation becomes ever more financially and personally onerous.

The more diffuse promises of education are even more thorny. My PhD was a study of personal change (and stasis) in the lives of 18 undergraduate students across a range of disciplines, during their first two years of university. One of the most important findings I took from this research was how rapidly the evaluation of our own lives and aspirations can change, particularly as we enter a new environment into which we have invested our hopes. My point is not to say that ‘false promises’ made concerning the university experience is necessarily a problematic category, only that it becomes ontologically rather messy once we move beyond the straight-forward level of what students were told about courses, facilities and workload etc.

But it is nonetheless crucial that we have these conversations. What is the value of an undergraduate degree? What expectations do students have of it?  What qualitative and quantitative evidence is there to support those expectations? If expectations are inflated, can we identify particular groups who are perpetuating these and the interests at work in their doing so? I can’t help but feel that Watters is correct, higher education is full of “colorful promises of becoming that we might not actually be able to or even intend to honor”. We urgently need to learn how to counteract this while still resisting the commodification and bureaucratisation which action taken in the interests of the consumer will likely entail.

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