Recently joined a Coursera course on "History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education" - mostly to look at the forums to see if there are any good discussions about Humanities education in undergrad. Not much of interest, yet in a couple of posts I laid out some of my current thinking on undergrad education in a little bit more details - I find myself ending on the more pragmatic side of the spectrum of opinions - despite my interests in Humanities and my (completely unpractical) interests in canonical texts. Capturing those comments here as I am planning to unenroll in the course.
1. Humanities-defenders claim that they train "critical thinking,"but skeptics say "show me that after your training students in fact think more critically." And this type of discussion is typical of many Humanities-style discussions - both sides have good reasons and arguments - but at the end of the day, which side actually is thinking more "critically"?
2. I feel one critical issue here is that education here is implicitly talked about with a capital "E." The future / past, or manufacturing / art history, dichotomy is problematic not only because it is black or white as some classmates already said, but also that it did not try to make explicit what "students" we are talking about. My personal theory is Liberal Arts Universities have initially been designed as elite institutions, designed for the descendants of elites who can pay private tuition for general education, and those family would have enough funds to fund grad schools, or have enough connections / social status that those kids can land on prestigious jobs, or would not need a job at all. Now in the last 30 years or so, somehow a broader group are allowed access to these institutions (through loans), it created this "job access" problem. I think the fundamental issue is not whether Liberal Arts education is good or not, or whether it is about the past / not about the future, but most importantly, whether the institutions in question are right for the specific students in question (in the case I am framing it, I am referring most to the socio-economic background of students). The above is just a theory - one can agree or not agree. But the important point is that: talks about education needs to think through what "segment" of students we are talking about. The more we can finely define the student segment, the better education experience can be designed for them. This links me to the final point that I think the power of online education, ultimately will be in the fact that it can cater to very different education needs at low cost, rather than being able to teach the same thing to just 4-5 orders of magnitude of students. It is in a way just like internet - internet is powerful not because it is a cheap way for everyone to read Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, but because it allows everyone to access to different news that is of interest and or relevance to each.
3. Personally I think the issue has much more to do with the
fundamental supply-demand imbalance than anything to do with education system. Broad stroke facts - expansion of tertiary education after WWII at least in
developed countries - supply has soared; offshoring - manufacturing jobs going to "developing" countries - demand was created. At this point, supply/demand in developed countries were mostly
balanced. Then - expansion of tertiary education in developing countries - more supply; IT / internet - much higher "knowledge worker" productivity - no growth in demand - demand may have grown
less than productivity gain. Ends up with the current situation - more people with the brains and degrees (and time) to engage in thinking work or learning, but demand has not caught
Unfortunately there are no easy solutions. Does not seem like supply will be reduced despite high costs. Only solution is to improve demand. In terms of "work load" actually the internet is helping a lot - many "brainy" content are written / provided, and many "brain-power" are used to consume / digest these content. The problem is - for all the "value" created in these intellectual activities, only very few are denominated in $$ terms - the only forms of these value seem to be in Google's advertising revenues, or in entrepreneurs who get funded by the Venture Capitalists.
4. I think for the public opinions I have seen on liberal arts (especially Humanities), the skills claimed by most are: critical thinking, reading, writing, and speaking skills. The issue that seems to be not so frequently discussed have been why at the undergrad level. Critical thinking - probably should be life-long training; and it is hard to really know the level of "output" - whether a person A is better in critical thinking in person B is often subjective, and hard to see through on a resume, or even a 60 min interview. This is important skills that is just hard to "showcase" after undergrad. Reading / writing / speaking - many would hope that these are skills already acquired in high school. Even though truly that is often not the case, the debate needs to be why students need to spend so much to acquire skills that should have been provided through the public phase of education. For me personally (mostly interested in understanding what case should be made on Humanities) - the issue is that for undergrad education to be justified, "skills" alone are not enough. There needs to be set of "knowledge." And to link it with potential employment, that set of knowledge needs to be considered "critically useful" (often for further building skills on the job) by at least a small percentage of employers.
5. If education is mostly student-to-student, then MOOCs is really good - because it is essentially students volunteer to educate each other, for free. High costs for universities get even harder to justify.