Will we see the unbundling of university educations in the 21st century?

Clay Shirky’s latest piece on the unbundling of journalism (no longer putting disparate pieces of content and subjects together to sell ads), has spurred an equally thought provoking piece on unbundling university educations:

Teaching accounting courses in order to take money from state legislatures and businesses and give it to the humanities department never made much sense.

Majors that prepare students for specific jobs and careers are like the sports section. They put students in the seats. States and businesses want strong economies, so they are willing to subsidize students’ educations, in a variety of ways. Universities use part of the money to support higher-minded educational goals, such as the liberal arts. Everyone is happy.

Well, they were in the 20th century.

The disruptive influence of the Internet and economic issues, particularly the lack of state funding for state schools and the rapidly rising cost of higher education, are leading the way towards a higher education revolution. What will it look like? Far too early to tell.

The fear that I and many have is that higher education is swinging far too much towards trade school with a focus on getting a job today, instead of teaching a person how to be a lifetime student, critical thinker and an active participant in society and democracy. There are many issues with higher education being focused too much on specific careers. First, we can’t predict what quantity of jobs we’ll need in five years, let alone 50. The entire point of a traditional liberal arts education is to further educate someone and give that person the tools for additional inquiry. A traditional liberal arts education is supposed to be the beginning of your education, not the end.

With a strong traditional liberal arts background, a person would not only have strong critical thinking, reasoning and writing skills, but they would also be adept at philosophy, math, science, English, music, etc. I keep saying traditional liberal arts education, because most liberal arts majors do not receive a traditional liberal arts education that would provide this foundation.

Math majors are allowed to get by taking mostly math classes. English students take mostly English classes. A true liberal arts education challenges a student in a variety of topics, so that even if you graduated with an English degree, you would have a good understanding of topics such as logic, math (at least calculus and statistics), several sciences and the scientific method, philosophy, economics and even music or some kind of art.

Jeremy and I will be talking a lot more about education on future episodes of the podcast, particularly higher education, online learning and new ways of learning information such as Wikipedia, Academic Earththe Khan Academy and Open Study. Perhaps the need for traditional educations is withering. I learn so much online today, and the Internet is humanity’s greatest warehouse of knowledge. It’s all there for the taking.

Or perhaps the Internet shows us how much more we need a good educational foundation to be able to judge the quality of sources. The Internet is full of sources of information, and there are no barriers to publishing information, regardless of the author’s merit. The real skill that people need is be able to tell which sources are worth trusting.


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