by Mike Meyer ~ Honolulu ~ August 29, 2020
Let’s try this again. Amidst all the immediate problems facing people today, many slow-burning disasters that we long noded to and ignored have grown teeth and become severe threats.
The most explosive is, of course, racism and minority exploitation that has been historically endemic and tied to both asset misallocation and rule by authoritarian elites in most parts of our emerging planetary civilization. The pandemic, as an aspect of the climate disaster, still actively ignored, has triggered an international wave of continuous demonstrations and violent reaction at the exploitation of low paid minorities disproportionately.
Unfortunately, the SARS-CoV-2 spread forces the shutdown of most public activity and commerce in continually shifting pockets around the planet. That means essential services are critical, and the modern digital culture offers remote work, with online retail and services, allowing the ordering of almost everything to maintain some level of livability. The lowest-paid service workers are now essential and face the highest risks.
The apparent unfairness is both embarrassing and troublesome at an instinct level. Our species of primate are very social animals, and despite our crudity and general thoughtlessness, we are intensely sensitive to fairness and its lack. When forced to see the exploitation of our fellow humans, we want to correct the problem. This instinct is characteristic of our related primates and, in many cases, a wide range of related life forms.
With two centuries of formal acceptance of human and living rights at the foundation of modern culture, the old tricks to justify this exploitation as variations on the theme of ‘not the same as us’ does not work. The century delayed destruction and removal of slave owner celebrity statues in the US and Great Britain, and the massive BLM movement planet-wide marks the mass refusal to allow that to destructively continue.
The growing outrage at the American police state murders of minorities without justice and similar actions in other countries, including the oppression of minorities in China and Myanmar, shows that these actions are no longer allowable. A great majority of people on this planet now completely condemn that injustice. Those people are the same as us, and we know that.
What to do about this, beyond increasingly risky demonstrations and the removal of offending official monuments to these condemned actions, is the prime political problem of the 21st century. The implications of this are becoming evident as this calls into question the dominant form of nation-state authority that marks the modern era. This type of oppression is structural to that form of economic and political rule, and that is the stuff on which large scale revolutions implement necessary change.
But that is not my main point here. Within this era of growing revolutionary change and natural disasters entangled in our destruction of this planet, all of the problems we have long kicked down the road are now a mountain collapsing on us as we are at the end of that road.
Despite at least sixty years of diligent avoidance of the chronic problems of our educational systems, the least acknowledged has been adult or higher education. The K-12 public education domain has long been a political football in the US, mostly as a point to defund education at the demands of the more privileged whose property taxes are used to pay for it.
The goal of this ridiculous funding process exists to support racism and minority oppression. That is a problem that needs correction, starting with funding education regionally at universal levels. But that, too, is another topic that is thoroughly entangled but tangential to my issue here.
Higher education must pay for their decades of refusal to change. We are entering our second semester of higher education that is predominantly online. Those colleges and universities desperate to restore the old ways of locked rooms filled with thousands of students on campus paying exorbitant tuition and fees are playing chicken with a coronavirus. They will lose. As I have written elsewhere, The Crononavirus Don’t Care.
Not only will the pandemic not go away soon or entirely, but many non-state colleges and universities are not going to be able to survive as the economy fails. Major research universities will survive, but private and some state teaching universities are going to consolidate as they realize that geographic location is no longer primary. The move to online and, later, virtual reality campuses open up significant efficiencies and expanded audiences for educational services in a rapidly changing world.
But it is a brutal change that has long been obvious. The steady conversion of higher education, in the US specifically, to business models based on late-stage capitalism makes higher education a producer of a set of products that must generate revenue or a revenue equivalent. For state universities and most private ones, success has become student outcomes. Those outcomes are limited to degrees and certificates that show completion of the revenue acquisition process. The success of the student in life is secondary.
The pandemic and the forced conversion to online education, currently still impossible for many career and technical education courses or lab activities, is not the fundamental problem. Enrollments in community college and teaching universities, not research-based, have been declining even though the Gen Z population is large. They are now very suspicious of the product marketing and their payback for the debt required. This suspicion is a valid concern. Jobs outside of technical skill areas and gig services are not guaranteed, so opportunities are limited.
The fundamental problem is that this and subsequent generations realize their futures are not bright. The promises that worked for their parents stalled for Gen X, failed for Millennials, and are an insult for Gen Z who see nothing but disasters and regression in America. But a college education is the only answer offered. The result for the significant percentage who have no family resources (see Gen X’s stalled economy) is debt or financial aid as their only opportunity.
For those with the resources or strong academic skills, the completion of baccalaureate degrees is still a good value. But in a collapsing economy with growing automation, many community college students identify financial aid, not traditional education, as the reward for survival. They learn to use open admissions and bureaucratic tricks to improve their survival. Education is not an immediate goal, although many enjoy it and value membership in the college community with helpful staff and faculty who understand the reality of their lives.
We have been struggling for most of the 21st century with increasing distortion of the base level of adult education. Community colleges were the fix for the growing demand and economic need for more knowledge for a more significant portion of the population in the 1960s. These colleges provided a low-cost route to a four-year institution with open admissions and the inclusion of expanded career and technical education for their communities.
These added educational options still work, but the mix is wrong. The university systems still insist on longer-term programs with degrees predicated on 19th and 20th century higher education as a training ground for the elite. But by the 1990s, this was a narrowing path, and the common joke of graduate degree holders in liberal arts working at McDonald’s was the reality. That reality was ignored with the push to STEM education to meet the needs of the new digital and technical world.
For many reasons, these were not viable options for many. In the US, the rise of late-stage, extreme capitalism removed support for education in favor of massive debt to achieve a working degree. The paradigmatic shift of the digital age also removed the value of the college as a repository for specialized knowledge and expertise. Knowledge became massively available.
The real shift, however, placed generating educational materials in the hands of the population. Anyone who found how to solve a problem or use technology could produce quality video and, even, interactive learning materials to share. For the most successful, this could include monetization though advertising on their creations.
Meanwhile, the traditional college format of non-technical classes relied on predominantly 19th-century teaching techniques in a closed classroom for sixteen weeks. For the younger generations, knowledge, and skills could be found and learned in a few hours as needed.
Higher education administrations ignored this as knowledge, delivered to students as they need it, was not an outcome. Profit equivalents (thinly disguised) were only full degrees are specified certificates requiring tuition and weeks of, primarily, passive learning. Over the first two decades of the 21st century, this steadily eroded enrollment and seriously reduced retention of students who failed to complete their programs.
With the trigger of the climate crisis and a resulting ongoing pandemic, classroom education mostly ended. The problems with this sudden transformation are the failures over thirty years to evolve pedagogy and the concept of adult education to the new media replacing all of the old media by inclusion. The medium is the message now, too, and it is a message that higher education is mostly irrelevant.
Because the evolution of pedagogy did not take place the pressure to make the internet a utility as a shared and public infrastructure did not happen, not did the replacement of expensive paper texts by low-cost computer tablets for all students. The real problem, along with the absence of educators with technical knowledge beyond simple PowerPoints, is the refusal to provide the needed tools to our society except as a luxury. This failure is a criminal, along with the pretense that this is a failure of online education. It is a cultural, political, and economic failure facilitated and supported by higher education.
Change can no longer be ignored or avoided, but confusion will allow politicians to avoid responsibility. For the US specifically, and much of the planet also, the pandemic is triggering the economic collapse that would become inevitable to survive the climate crisis. Millions of jobs lost to pandemic shutdowns are permanent, and this is now recognized, as pandemic countermeasures will become, to some extent, permanent. We must start the shutdown of the old materialist economies for us to survive the onslaught of climate disasters.
The gross distortions in planetary asset distribution must be corrected to provide livelihood and wellbeing to our population. Automation will allow growth in sustainable wellbeing once the brutal transformation of the economy and dysfunctional political systems begins. Time is of the essence, and the forces of reaction and refusal are lethal if they block the path to planetary success.
The institutions of the broadest form of adult education are the logical place to build that future with the skills and knowledge needed. But it must be based on the demands for information, knowledge, and skills that are now dominant among our youngest generations. That will produce a very different institution than the existing community college, although its ancestry will be apparent.