An Open Letter to the Higher Education System

Dear All,

I think what’s going on here is a confusion of ends and means. Guys, I believe very deeply in your end goal. I believe in the individual, and I believe every individual can and should be an expert in something, and that that person should be held individually accountable for her or his expertise.

But I don’t agree with the means. I don’t like your current model, where students sit in a classroom, take furious and wildly oversimplified notes in their own notebooks and parlay class discussion into an opportunity to impress the professor instead of inquiring deeper into some topic that deserves to be explored deeply.

I’m not the only one to see a different way forward, an alternate set of means to the same end. Over the course of my college career, I’ve noticed a shift in the way that young people get work done.  When I entered college, everything was pretty traditional: I did my own work, I interfaced with my professors, and I worked with my friends only on group projects, more or less.  And I did some copyediting on the side, so I guess in that capacity I worked with people on common projects.

Then, Facebook was kind of this thing one guiltily spent a great deal of time on. And everyone did this, spent time on Facebook. But we didn’t really talk about it because it was not considered standard, copacetic social behavior. One did it in lieu of spending time with friends. But over the course of a few years, we’ve changed the way we view spending time with other people online. Time on Facebook, for many of us, is time with our friends, now. Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter and other tools have changed the way a lot of young people view information, how we share information, how we understand what “our work” and “other people’s work” is and means. How we view privacy, and how we view propriety. Information, knowledge is social.

The fact of the matter is that I’m not the only one out there saying we need a change. We are seeing a paradigm shift, okay? Nobody told students to get together and share notes. Nobody told them to divide massive reading assignments amongst a group, and they weren’t instructed on how to outline their allotted segment of the readings in such a manner that, when shared with collaborators, it would be legible and intuitive. They just did it. Just do it now. At some primal, gut level, a whole bunch of people just felt that collaborating, doing their own honest work together, was the right or prudent thing to do, that it was morally and socially acceptable, Charles Lipson be damned.

So the burden shifts to higher education systems, and it shifts to the students who recalcitrantly adhere to academic solitude and puff themselves up, snobbishly, like they’re some paragon of integrity or whatever. To those students, I just say, “Keep on with what you’re doing, dude.” Because it’s working out so well, right? Because you really love sitting in the library late at night in the stacks, sweating jittery and alone with some ungodly pile of books beside your laptop. Because that silence is imperious but leads you to believe you can actually get something done because finally for once you are alone with your thoughts and you can get down to the business of making your brain dance, right?

Does this touch on something, here?

But even these most anachronistic of students will eventually notice that their collaborating classmates seem to be having a lot more fun, that they are, ostensibly, enjoying their work. They’ll also notice that these students do better on their exams and papers, and that they retain more material long after they’ve received their final grades, more material than the stoic academic marooned on her/his deserted island ever hopes to hold onto.

Because knowledge–thought itself–is socially constructed and should thus be constructed socially. Learning together makes knowledge a conversation, and contextualizes information in a medium–interpersonal communication–for which evolution prepared us.

Working together, thinking together, sharing with small groups and creating something bigger than ourselves is what evolution has programmed us to do. We are hardwired for small group work, whether it’s stalking, killing, skinning, breaking down, cooking and eating some poor beast out on the Savannah or taking lecture notes, making outlines, brainstorming, exchanging and critiquing ideas, hypotheses, and theories, sketching out and ultimately–privately or collectively–crafting some artifact–e.g. a paper–or facing some challenge–like an exam–of or to prove our newfound knowledge, we are naturally inclined to work in packs, in bands, in tribes.

The way forward is to turn things back to a time before anyone can remember.

Educators are now faced with a choice: either y’all can keep on with the whole individualism thing and face increasing rates of disaffection and more books ringing your death knell, or y’all can adapt to my generation’s new way of working. If you choose the former, I promise you, promise you, things will get worse and worse. You’ll be coercing ever more connected, instantaneity-fueled students into what they’ll find to be an ever more inflexible, insular, and depersonalized system of expectations: namely that they do their own work without the help or input of others.

Unless you change with us, you’ll be forcing us to conform to some broad-based standard, one with little bearing on our highly personalized lives.

All media is social, now. Media is us. Our likes and dislikes are customizing, personalizing each of our media-consuming experiences. Just as the value proposition of television to advertisers–that “hey, we just produced this show that’ll attract a demographic of _____ ages __ to __,”–is getting a little old, because, let’s face it, markets and demographics are so segmented with such fine granularity today; that narrative of “Hey, guys, so I’m going to ask all of you to read this book or take this test so I can certify that you know __.” is also drawing some questions. Because why do we all have the same discussion that nobody likes when we could split up into groups and discuss a couple of  ideas we’re all passionate about?

I’m not suggesting that you guys go that far, letting us author our own syllabi (unless I am).

But in all honesty, I’m not suggesting that. For real.

I guess I just want to say that if we’re all going to be evaluated on the same material, I believe students should be able to learn that material however they please. And I believe it’s your responsibility as the guardians overseeing our intellectual journeys to equip us with the tools we need and want. If you have a policy against collaboration, change it. If I can’t convince you to change it, you’ll still end up changing it within the next few years. If you stand by a basically non-functional technology platform for officiating coursework and haven’t yet heard complaints from students about it, you will.

Take a walk around your campus.  Ask students whether they would like to work with their friends on coursework. If you’ve done what I’ve done, and pitched them on the idea that they can take notes together, share ideas together in real time, do readings together, team-edit papers, and eventually do all of this not only on the university’s web page but on an app that runs natively in Facebook, where they spend the overwhelming majority of their time already, you’ll notice that the overwhelming majority of them light up. They smile and say something like “wow, that just makes so much sense.” Because it does. Because it’s what they’ve been itching to do all along.

I am working with two of the brightest people I know. We all have our different talents. One of us is a brilliant computer programmer, another is a whip-smart tactician, product developer, operations guy and is a fellow tech journalist. Together we are working on something that will change the way students work. I’m still figuring out where I fit into the whole equation of our little company. You could think of me as the “Ideas guy” or the “Vision guy”, or as our first sales guy. What I am for now is an articulator and an elaborator; I’m proud to say that I’ve come up with some of the core features and functions of our software platform, but I’m even happier that we as a team have run with them far beyond what any one of us could have imagined. We’ve gotten as far as we did through teamwork, by assuming good faith. And if I have my druthers, we will change the way people conceptualize work, learning, and knowledge.

Steve Jobs was the guy who changed the way we think of computers; he made them personal. Mark Zuckerberg changed the way we think of our social lives; Facebook showed us that it’s not all about us, that our interactions are part of a larger conversation happening all around us all the time. I want to be the guy who changes what it means to think, what it means to work, how people work together, and how people do the two things I love more than anything: sharing and developing new ideas, and learning.

To be honest, there is nothing I’ve been raised to believe in more than the higher education system. My mother’s parents came over from Greece in the late ’40s. They raised my mom and her brothers with the understanding that a college degree was the key to success, a way out of the immigrant existence that found my grandmother a garment worker and cut my grandfather’s dreams of going to law school short. My maternal grandfather, despite his lack of formal business education, became successful in the restaurant business, and despite the fact I always bring this up when he mentions that I must finish college, I can never seem to refute his argument that a degree makes life easier, that it’s something to fall back on.

My dad’s side has more academics than you can shake a stick at. And all from the University of Chicago, where I’m a student now. In all likelihood, my grandfather wouldn’t be able to do his immunology research, and my grandmother wouldn’t have discovered the Philadelphia Chromosome, a genetic mutation that causes some types of leukemia, and her findings wouldn’t have been extrapolated to explain that genetic mutations cause cancer and not the other way around if it wasn’t for the intellectual openness of an academic institution and academia in general. Would they be afforded the same freedoms at, say, Eli Lilly, or Abbot? Unlikely.

So why is it that my generation, this group of kids who’ve been told since they were infants that they are going to college, that it’s the best time of their lives, that it’s a transformative intellectual experience, (because their parents have been saving for their children’s college education practically since they started dating,) find the college experience somewhat empty? Is it because we’re just too smart for college? I don’t think so.

The past 130 years have been an exercise in increased connectedness. That’s history in one sentence for you.

But education hasn’t meaningfully progressed, technologically, since the printing press, and before it, paper and ink. (And I know what you’re thinking, but the progression from handwriting to typewriting to word-processing is still inextricably linked to the limitations inherent to paper, and to bookbinding, etc.) And now, we’ve come to a jerk in the curve representing innovation in communications and information technology.  My generation, more than any before it, is deviating from paper and all its limitations farther and faster. We’ve plowed brain-first into this wide open world where everything is contextual, everything is embedded and linked and showcases an emergent intelligence. Our intelligence, together. But if you take a look at the kids just a few years younger than me, they’re a different animal altogether. You guys think 20 year-olds think in threads? Do we parse, recall, and concatenate thought into syntax faster than those thirty-somethings? Just a few years ago, we were the news story about those crazy teenagers and their texting. I have nothing on your average seventeen year-old. But I can articulate in a way they can’t understand.

My syntax, like yours, is somewhat deprecated and is decreasingly supported by each successive generation. We speak a dying language.

Here is my indictment: You, people in higher ed, constantly complain that technology is dumbing us down, that it’s making us scatterbrained. That’s the defeatist message of a system which was too inflexible to change a hundred-some years ago.

If you embrace it, now, if you communicate with and to us through the media and in the language that we use to communicate with each other, you might just save us from an eternity of sex scandals and asinine Youtube videos of cats playing pianos, which is what mass culture is becoming today. If you allow my peers and the kids younger than me to engage with you and your system and your vast resources in the same way that we engage each other, we’ll get more out of the student experience. It’ll be more than just four years of partying and half-assing assignments because we were busy chatting with friends on Facebook about the onerous nature of said assignments. And I think that this would make the world a better place, because your capital-L Learning and capital-W Work would be brought to the level of little-c conversation. It would bring knowledge and information back to its roots. It would become less laborious for everyone.

And if my core belief is true, that everyone retains in their core a curious kid with a butterfly net and a magnifying glass, maybe some of the interesting things you try to teach us will trickle deeper than those who’ve gone to college and heard it firsthand. Maybe, just maybe, y’all can shepherd us through this storm of stupidity. Because perhaps we’re being beaten by it, just like you.

And this was just a 2,420-word way of elaborating my points in summation:

  • With regard to your adherence to the ways of bygone analog days, it does you no favors. It hurts you more and more the more you adhere to it. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
  • If you are willing to change your expectations of what constitutes academic work, we’ll be able to change our expectations of you.
  • We want to help you change the world, ostensibly the goal of education writ large. But you’re going to have to change with us.
  • Ends are achievable by different means.

And I want to help you too. The team and I, we’re doing our part right now. If you are interested in learning more, please sign up. At the time of publication, we just got a bare-bones website up this week. There’s no real content, yet. But you can leave your email address. We’ll keep in touch.

Best Regards,

Jason D. Rowley

 

On Being an Entrepreneur: A Maker’s Manifesto

Below is an excerpt of an essay I wrote for Flyover Geeks. Read the whole thing here.

As the (very) unofficial higher-education reporter for Flyover Geeks, I’ve said a lot about college, what’s wrong with it, some of its good bits, and how it needs to change. The first piece I published here was about the dangers of corporatism, and the soul-sucking nature of “good jobs” in large companies. As a general rule, a minuscule proportion of complainers ever do something about what bothers them; whether their action is to a stand and fight to change a broken system, or leave such systems entirely, most just don’t. And that, more than anything else, depresses me.

FG Reader, whoever you are, this is not another sardonic article from Jason Rowley. Consider it a mini manifesto. I want you to reclaim yourself.

Doesn’t it seem a little irrational, this subsumption of personal happiness beneath… what, exactly? I challenge you, especially if you work a corporate job (which I’m not denigrating, I just think you could do better), to answer this question: why would you ever, ever do something for any extended period of time if, in the morning, you couldn’t upon waking leap from your bed and say, as Gary Vaynerchuk might suggest and say of each new day that you are going to CRUSH IT!!!! with four exclamation points?

Read the whole thing here.

College Tuition: LOL! WTF?

Today, as I was looking at my Twitter feed, a message seized my attention.

Apparently, according to the article, “The total cost of undergraduate education for the 2011-12 school year will be $55,416; of that amount, tuition is $41,853, and the remaining $13,563 is for room, board and fees.” To which I responded by shooting warm coffee out my nose, as I laughed.

Now, I don’t want to reveal too much about my current writing projects, but one of them is an essay about the coming crisis in higher education. My thesis, that a credit crunch in student loan markets will precipitate the collapse of that $1.25 trillion asset pool, which will in turn preclude otherwise bright and eager high school students from attending decent colleges because of financial issues, is, I admit, a little alarmist. But today’s news release from my college reveals a different, and significantly more troubling scenario.

But first, some facts: Continue reading “College Tuition: LOL! WTF?”

An Observation Regarding Truth & Competence

“Being labeled ‘correct’ or ‘true’ is very. uhhh, pre-postmodern. You know better than to make such judgments. Now, I suppose, one could only call someone ‘legitimate’. It’s not the same thing. So, it seems, my goal is not to be objectively, verifiably correct; instead, it suffices to merely speak and/or write as though what I’m saying is true. The verity of my message is irrelevant: verity is a romantic myth. It suffices to sound as though I know what I’m talking about, you know, to seem smart, or whatever. Today, seeming precedes being.”

Some Quotes & The Halcyon Days Goes on Academic Lockdown

Such is the life of a student. In the coming 168 hours, I have to write more than 40 pages. One of the papers, about the future of the intellectual in the age of the blog, is worthy of publication on The Halcyon Days, but the others are exceedingly, brutally dry. They are, like certain cuts of meat, too tendinous and gristly for human consumption. I feel kind of bad for the underpaid graduate students forced to grade this stuff. At least mine’s grammatically correct.

For the next week, activity on HD will be minimal.

Now for some quotes. The bottom one is me.

– – –

“…a large percentage of bright young men and women locate the impetus behind their career choice in the belief that they are fundamentally different from the common run of man, unique and in certain crucial ways superior, more as it were central, meaningful—what else could explain the fact that they themselves have been at the exact center of all they’ve experienced for the whole 20 years of their conscious lives?—and that they can and will make a difference in their chosen field simply by the fact of their unique and central presence to it…”  – David Foster Wallace, “Mr. Squishy”. Oblivion: Stories.

– – –

“I read,” I say. “I study and read. I bet I’ve read everything you read. Don’t think I haven’t. I consume libraries. I wear out spines and ROM-drives. I do things like get in a taxi and say, “The library, and step on it.” My instincts concerning syntax and mechanics are better than your own, I can tell, with all due respect. But it transcends the mechanics. I’m not a machine. I feel and believe. I have opinions. Some of them are interesting. I could, if you’d let me, talk and talk.” – David Foster Wallace

An Excerpt from My Upcoming Kindle Release

Here’s an excerpt from a longish (~2500-3000 word) essay I’m writing for publication as a Kindle Book. It frames current belief in the college degree vis-a-vis traditional monotheistic religions’ value systems, and critiques it thusly. Do enjoy:

Other doctrines with similar promises of deliverance (from evil, which is defined by each organization) have since emerged alongside the political -isms. These doctrines, much like those of monotheistic religions, moralize participation. No neutral “other” category exists if a doctrine’s raison d’être is predicated on establishing the supremacy of the doctrine’s adherents with respect to unbelievers.

And this brings me to my absolute favorite organizational whipping boy: the university system. If we want to use Atran’s three factor framework, evaluating the university system as one promising salvation, defining itself in terms of good and evil, and defining aforesaid good based on subscription to, somewhat mechanistic participation in its doctrine, it becomes clear that in many ways our longstanding infatuation with the university, its straw-man promises of material prosperity and intellectual richness, deliverance from poverty and dullness, resembles the unquestioning religious fervor and generalized dogma of monotheistic traditions Atran warns against. Drinking the Kool Aid is what we’re programmed to do. I’m just here to make it sour.

As soon as I am out of school, it’s getting a good edit and going up for sale. It will be $2 or $3, and will be available free to those who want a .PDF copy emailed to them.

A Modest Proposal

Saying that one “must have a B.A. or its equivalent to apply” is akin to signage in the early 1900s stating that “Irish need not apply”. It’s merely discrimination on the basis of social constructs, one on the basis of ethnicity and the other a basis of credibility. A further parallel can be drawn between such mandates: both are decrees issued to maintain the status quo.

I propose the following: a movement to extend affirmative action protection to those without college degrees. We live in a country that prides itself on its (alleged) meritocracy. Let’s let those with merit compete.

… I’m just sayin’.

P.S.: Bring it on.

On Redefining Intellectual Entrepreneurship

The intellectual entrepreneur is one who develops, researches, discovers, or learns in order to fulfill objectives beyond the attainment of credentials, approval of peers, or furthering of career goals in a manner or process primarily outside the bounds of extant educational institutions, systems, and pedagogies.

Based on my current, independent study in entrepreneurship theory and practice, I’ve taken issue with the lack of a formal definition of what, exactly, an entrepreneur is. Is “the function of entrepreneurs is to reform or revolutionize the pattern of production,” as Joseph Shumpeter suggested in 1942? Perhaps we should shift our locus of attention from individual “entrepreneurs” to the entrepreneurial process, thus conceptualizing and defining entrepreneurship as a successful act of organizational founding. (see Carroll and Khessina 2005) Perhaps we should do as eighteenth century economists Richard Cantillon and Jean-Baptiste Say did and emphasize the literal translation of entrepreneur as those who “undertake” risks in starting a business or enterprise.

There are dozens of other possible, applicable definitions of what entrepreneurs do, how they do it, and the results of their doings. So, in the spirit of clarifying increasingly varied definitions of entrepreneurship qua entrepreneurship, and entrepreneurship as modified by a preceding adjective (i.e. Social Entrepreneurship or Serial Entrepreneurship) I propose a new, radical redefinition of what’s currently come to be known as “Intellectual” or “Academic Entrepreneurship”.

Continue reading “On Redefining Intellectual Entrepreneurship”

On Realism and Graduate School Applications

I applied and was denied admission to the University of Chicago’s Masters Program in Social Sciences summarily and without review of my application. This was, to a certain extent, expected. I am a third-year. I spoke with one of my professors, a well-known political scientist at the U of C, about my denial from the masters program. His advice:

“Here is the reason why you were denied: you posed an existential threat to the established system. Now, I know how tempting it is to make the argument that rules were made to be broken, that there are exceptions to expectations, but I implore you to evaluate the implications of your actions had you been successful. You would have turned over an entire institution, one predicated on a sequential acquisition of credentials. You don’t have to sell me on the fact that some undergraduates are more intelligent than graduate students; I’m trying, here, to sell you on the structural realist argument that how smart you think you are, or whatever intelligence you might exhibit–none of that matters. Okay? Do you see what I’m getting at here? Your actions, their potential outcomes, are defined through systemic constraints–you could’ve been omniscient, for Chris’sake, but because you don’t meet their parameters for admission–acquisiton of a bachelor’s being one of them–they won’t accept you. My best recommendation to you: game the system. Expose it, too. The College needs some shaking up.”

The Upstart’s Conundrum: Time Crunch

College entrepreneurs around the country are at once impelled by their institutions to “innovate” and launch ventures, yet stymied by organizational structures and other systemic constraints that render college an inopportune time to gain entrepreneurial experience.

This is the first part of a two or three-part series I’m writing for Flyover Geeks. Below you’ll find a paragraph excerpt, but to read the rest, you’ll have to click here.

College entrepreneurs around the country are at once impelled by their institutions to “innovate” and launch ventures, yet stymied by organizational structures and other systemic constraints that render college an inopportune time to gain entrepreneurial experience. In spite of the recent groundswell in enthusiasm for entrepreneurship–focused specifically on developing “social” and technology enterprises–among business leaders and students alike, there has been little change on the part of institutions to support the development of these ventures in any meaningful way.