Thursday, October 08, 2015

10 similarities between Higher Education and the Catholic Church on the eve of the Reformation?

Whatever you may think of Peter Thiel, he’s smart. I don’t just mean business smart but intellectually. PayPal entrepreneur, first investor in Facebook, predictor of the financial crisis and so on… impressive CV. Sure he’s an extreme libertarian, with some extreme views, but we need people who pop our conventional bubbles. So, when I heard him utter the following in an interview, it hung around in my head, until I was compelled to expand on it….
Here’s the phrase, ‘Higher Education is like the Catholic Church on the eve of the Reformation’. That’s a damn interesting observation. Illich drew parallels between schools and the church in Deschooling Society but Thiel captures both a diagnosis and treatment in this one phrase. He’s talking Reformation.
1. Costs
What Thiel went on to explain, was that like the Catholic Church, HE had turned into a global, institutionalised phenomenon that demanded increasingly large sums of money from people, for an experience that is much the same year after year. The cost of indulgences as well as the transfer of productive wealth into the non-productive church, was a major catalyst for the Reformation. People were literally becoming indebted to the level of indenture to the church. This was impoverishing the populace while enriching the institutions. $1.2 trillion of student debt in the US. and similar problems arising in Europe? Even the rich, were handing over huge sums, not to charity but to the Church. This is reminiscent of hedge-fund manager Paulson, who recently wrote a cheque for over $400 million to Harvard. This is buying personal prestige (used to be salvation), not in any way moral progress.
2. Promises
The insidious side of the Catholic Church was the threat, that if you didn’t pay up, you were damned. This same powerful idea has been nurtured by University-educated politicians and HE lobbyists. If you don’t get a Degree, you’re damned as a failure. They perpetuate the myth, that if you don’t go to University, you’ll go to some sort of economic hell, never being admitted to the heaven that is gainful employment.
3. Monastic campuses
Like the enormous building projects by the Catholic Church, Universities are spending untold sums of money on monumental buildings. The occupancy rate of their existing property is already ridiculously low, as it was and is with churches, yet the capital budgets keep on rising. It would be more accurate to say, that like the Catholic Church, campuses have become huge, self-sufficient, monastic communities, almost towns within cities. In some cities they almost overwhelm everything else. With University Rankings they also have their Cathedrals; Ivy League in the US, Oxbridge in the UK.
4. Teaching as preaching
The dominant pedagogy is still the lecture, basically a sermon to a compliant audience. There’s a lectern, a lecture, designed for the one-way transmission of knowledge, surely as far from contemporary needs as one can imagine. Stuck with a Medieval pedagogy, founded, through necessity in an age when there were no books, the dominance of the lecture lives on as a shameful, religious, pedagogic fossil.
5. Crisis of relevance
We seem to have reached a position where HE has drifted in terms of relevance, whether it is the degrees offered, the way they are taught or the exaggerated promises. It seems to have lost its way a little, just like the Church in teh 16th century. Rather than serve our needs it often seems to be serving its own needs.
6. Scriptoria
HEs increasing distance from practical skills, unless they involve high salaries (medicine, vets, engineering, law, architecture…) has turned them into seminaries, with the academic priesthood writing ever more obscure manuscripts for smaller and smaller audiences. The scriptoria and libraries are being flooded by manuscripts, most of which are read only by the authors and reviewers. It has become increasingly scholastic, moving in decreasing circles of relevance.
7. Undue political influence
We have politicians who almost universally went to University, leaders who largely went to just two Universities and many Ministers who did one particular course at Oxford, PPE, a medieval hangover (replacement for Classics). Maybe the idea of a trained Priesthood for politics isn’t too far-fetched.
8. Academic dominance
Like the scholastic age (the Dark Ages) this has also led to the decimation, in some economies, of vocational education, which they are desperately trying to revive. As HE sucks the life out of vocational learning, we find ourselves in Europe with HE heavy economies struggling, while the German, Austrian and Swiss economies thrive. Hold on – isn’t that where the Reformation hit originated and spread from? Luther, Calvin, Knox….
9. Calendar
Off for Christmas? Off for Easter? The University calendar is punctuated by holidays, largely determined by religious and agricultural concerns. The Michaelmas terms starts on the feast day of St Michael, the start of the academic year.
10. Anti-technology
The Catholic Church was none too pleased when the printing revolution produced Bibles in local languages and thinkers who questioned their authority. They found themselves losing control of knowledge; it’s censorship, means of creation, production and distribution. That’s because the Reformation was, in part, amplified and accelerated by a technology revolution – printing.
The Church, which taught in Latin, kept their power by excluding people from reading in their own languages, suddenly found that people were not only reading scripture in their own languages but also writing and challenging the orthodoxy. The Enlightenment came fast on its heels. Now we have a technological revolution that is no less Copernican, the internet, which democratises, decentralises and disintermediates the learning game. I expect this revolution to have a similar effect on HE, driving access to knowledge and learning through a new means of creation, production and distribution. Rather than accepting increasing costs, we should demand lower costs, better access, and a future where education is not seen as built on scarcity and elastic but on scale and abundance. One beneficial effect and almost immediate effect of the reformation was a push for universal education and access. That stuck. This, in our modern age, is what we need in tertiary education. What I’m arguing for is not the extinction of HE but a Reformation. The Reformation did not destroy Christianity and its ethos. It was strengthened by shedding its obsession with money, indulgences, outdated processes, hierarchy, priesthoods and elitism. In fact, the Reformation led to the rapid expansion of our Universities and a change in their character, awy from religious centres towards more secular, intellectual environments. We need something similar today - a rethink about their purpose, processes, pedagogy and payment.

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