A New Reality, Part I: The Model Is Broken

We live in a new reality. Like the music industry before it, the Internet has broken the scarcity model of higher education. No longer does one need to pay for or be accepted to a university to watch lectures from the nation’s top scholars. Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can now watch lectures taught at schools like MIT, Stanford and Yale for free online. Granted, you will have to be accepted to the university and pay tuition to receive a degree, but the information that was once available only to the nation’s brightest students is now available to anyone, anywhere at any time. Yes, the scarcity model of higher education has been broken, and this is the new reality—higher education can happen anywhere.

The Internet has also made college degrees more accessible than ever. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Colleges saw a 17 percent increase in online enrollment, with more than one in four students taking at least one online course in the fall of 2008.” Ambient Insight, a firm which researches online education, believes that, “by 2014, the number of students taking all of their classes online will increase 3.55 million, while the number of students taking all of their courses in on-campus classrooms will drop 5.14 million.” Armed with these statistics, state and private universities from across the country are scrambling to hire outside companies to develop online degree programs so they can compete for these students. Again, the new reality—higher education can happen anywhere.

The ‘new reality’ is that higher education can happen anywhere, which begs the question, Where does this leave George Fox? I’ll begin to answer this question in this post by first setting up what I believe is the deficiency of today’s higher education. Then, in my next post, I will show how George Fox is a solution to this deficiency.

Although higher education becomes more accessible through the Web, evidence suggests that something is missing. In his 2007 article, “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited,” Parker Palmer describes how some of the most egregious failures in our society—from corporate scandals to social injustices—are the result of educated people who “collaborate with evil” (institutional and otherwise) because their knowledge is detached from the human experience. In simple terms, the “head and heart” were not integrated in the learning process. Palmer notes how this lack of integration has created “a crisis common to every profession” (morally and financially) since graduates are increasingly unable to “act ethically and courageously in the moment” when their highest values (or those of their profession) are threatened.

Palmer cites many reasons why today’s professionals are unable to act courageously. Their education often included the devaluation of emotional intelligence, the lack of values integration (due to the persisting myth of “value-free knowledge”) and the absence of discernment communities to help students emotionally and intellectually process the knowledge they receive. However, Palmer’s thesis is simple: “knowledge is not enough.” What is needed, he argues, is the education of whole persons—people who are not only competent in their disciplines but who have the skill and the will the deal with the challenges that threaten their highest values. He refers to these whole persons as the “new professionals.”

If Palmer’s assessment of today’s universities is right, it would explain, to some extent, the growing trend toward the commoditization of higher education. If universities are primarily concerned with the transfer of knowledge, then their focus will be more on information than transformation. And, as we have seen in my previous post, information is now a commodity available to anyone, anywhere at any time for free. So, not only is this model of higher education deficient from a missional perspective, it is also deficient from a business perspective, since commodities are valued according to the lowest price. And one need only to look at the rise of large discount stores, like Walmart, and the decline of the small-town general store to see where this business model is heading. George Fox will not have a sustainable future if it follows the knowledge-transfer paradigm of higher education.

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