Re-igniting Education

The Austrian economist and philosopher F.A. Hayek is probably best known for his argument that we are usually better off if we rely on the spontaneous order that emerges from peaceful human interactions than order that is coercively imposed by government officials. Hayek kept ringing in my head as I watched this fascinating TED talk by entrepreneur Sugata Mitra. 

Mitra shows that remarkable learning occurs when we let it happen—young children from impoverished backgrounds figuring out how to use a computer. The examples he gives are both amusing and touching.

Conversely, learning occurs less (if at all) when we try to make it happen. Mitra devotes less time to that argument, but think about the contrast between the bright and energized children he shows involved in self-organized learning with the pictures we so often see of students in American classrooms—including college—who are bored and disengaged.

When Mitra suggests that schools as we have known them are obsolete, I think his point applies with equal force to colleges (at least as we now think of them). We insist that students take a certain number of courses to amass enough credits so school officials can paste their degrees on them. Many of those students don’t want to take more than a few of those courses, if any at all. They barely go through the motions of learning (but usually pass anyway because giving less than a B has become pretty much unthinkable).

Sometimes, though, a class will touch on something that really interests a student or two. Then they will dig into that point on their own, just as Mitra’s “hole in the wall” kids in India did. A passing reference in a lecture might motivate a student to immerse himself in the history of the Peloponnesian War, the latest research into the human genome, or (and this is personal history) how the “Austrian” economists differ from “mainstream” economists in their understanding of the economy.

That’s how much of the lasting knowledge students derive—as opposed to short-term “cram it for the test” learning—comes about in college. And out of college.

Beyond teaching fundamental literacy, little of our formal education establishment seems to be necessary. Children are not apt to pick up the “3 R’s” on their own, but once they have the essential learning tools, formal, structured education becomes less and less useful as they progress.  Teachers (and I’m using that word broadly, to include parents, relatives, clergy, older siblings) may in fact do more good if they guide learners rather than try to instruct them.

If the revolution Mitra wants to catalyze—his school in the cloud—takes hold, colleges and universities are in for enormous change.

Perhaps some will survive by following the model Thomas Jefferson had in mind for the University of Virginia: a community of scholars and students where there would be no degrees but just the opportunity for students to learn what they wanted for as long as they wanted to stay.

Jefferson’s vision was not something he dreamed up on his own. The earliest renaissance universities in Italy were also unstructured, merely places where scholars acting as independent contractors could interact with students who wanted to learn from them. (In time, the professors figured out that they would be better off with a structured learning institution that guaranteed them an income, and  they overthrew the laissez-faire university from within.)

Most human learning usually occurs not because we’re told we have to learn, but because we decide we want to. That being the case, perhaps the minimally structured college that lets learning happen spontaneously is an idea whose time has come again.