Monday, October 24, 2016

Communities and Education

It is perhaps quite obvious that Universities are communities at the core, but perhaps not. While we may pay leap service to the idea of a community, from the language we employ, we mean them to be factories.

Nothing against factories, and they are indeed communities too, it must be said. However, that is not how we see a factory, do we? In fact, that factories are communities of people have been lost from our imagination. Rather, we have developed a top-down, process view of what happens in factories - raw material comes in and finished products go out - and regarded the human community around this a distraction, a cost, something to be dispensed into once machines have got smart enough.

We adopt a process view of the universities - applicants come in and graduates go out - and regarded them exactly as factories. Our focus has shifted what happens afterwards, to the finished good and its demands, and not so much what happens inbetween. That knowledge could be created through interactions and connections is lost on us, and rather, we see the process in the university as a fixed amount of knowledge, pre-packaged (in the form of textbooks or online content), that needs to be injected into the learners, and, bingo. Our conception of educational quality has become progressively industrial, to be measured in terms of employment outcomes and starting salaries. 

This is all very fine - students need jobs, after all - but overdoing this, as we do now, undermines the community life in the university. It is now referred to as 'social life', with some justifications when you consider party school culture of some universities, but not so when this becomes a sweeping label for everything that goes on in an university. In fact, this 'social life' label, which consistently scores on the students' agenda, transforms university life through its usage, as private institutions stretch themselves to create facilities and arrange events to help build 'social life', retroactively justifying its usage. So, the label becomes the concept it is meant to be, excluding everything but the core process - or what is deemed to be the core process - and sweeping the university community under the carpet.

The problem with this is that universities have more functions that certifying graduate skills. This may be cliche, but universities are not training departments of big corporations, nor just research labs, but a social institution. I am often told that the current spread of youth discontent, Arab Spring is cited as a particular example, is there because universities are not doing their jobs and young people are not finding employment. This may be true, but, equally, turning universities into narrow silos, where one goes to do just one thing, learns and gets out, shuts up all the conversations across political and social group boundaries, limit the ideas within a narrow disciplinary spheres and create boundaries of connections and thoughts that are bound to flare up one day. 

There is another way: Thinking of universities as communities. Not training places with degree granting capabilities, but a place to engage, converse and explore, run into ideas that one would not otherwise encounter, meet someone who do not belong to one's side of the street and live in a microcosm of the world at large. It is hardly reducible to some online classes, time tables and assessment grades: It is a way of coming to terms with the world. 


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How To Live

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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