Thursday, April 26, 2012

Does education come before employment?

That education precedes employment is a belief so widely held and loudly asserted that it must be, in significant ways, wrong.

And wrong it is.  Many young people work while in high school, even more work while in college--some as much as 40 hours a week.  This has also been the case historically--hence the academic calendar that affords students time off for the harvest.

But I am even more interested in ways that key movements for social change have made employment a precondition for education, not the other way around.

 Jane Addams' Hull House, and other social settlements, set themselves up to help factory workers make meaning out of their working lives by creating formal educational opportunities around the work schedules of their neighbors.

The Greyston Mandala, founded by Bernie Glassman, created a bakery to employ homeless people, and then wrapped Buddhist practice and education around that work. (For a great book on Greyston and its meaning-making, see Glassman's Instructions to the Cook.)

The Delancey Street Foundation takes recently released felons, employs them in its businesses, and uses that employment as a source of learning, of dignity, and direction.

And this recent Fast Company article on Homeboy Industries makes the same point--that regular employment is essential to rehabilitating prisoners, who can then take on a formal education, which expands and contextualizes the human changes that come through work.

All of these examples are of organizations that take people on the margins of society, helping them find "menial" jobs, and using that as the basis of rebuilding their lives.

All of which suggests that educators ought to be much more thoughtful about how their work relates to the work of their students, and build academic programs that are informed by the work lives of their students rather than seeing education as a way to escape the drudgery of labor.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Where are the entrepreneurs for community colleges?

It is basic economics that when demand outpaces supply, prices rise.  The rise in prices signals to entrepreneurs that profits are available, and so they enter the market.  So this report detailing the shortage of space at community colleges, on the heels of stories about the collapse of state systems of higher education, the precipitous decline in enrollment growth at for-profits, and the rise everywhere in tuition rates, ought to signal to entrepreneurs that the time is ripe to provide a top-quality education to prospective community college students.

I've argued before that private liberal arts colleges could move successfully into this space.  They already have accreditation, and excellence in the sorts of general education courses that community college students need.   K-12 systems could move into that space as well, since they, more than anyone else, know what 18-year olds who have struggled in high school need in order to move ahead.  And tech entrepreneurs could build online community colleges, drawing on the best content out there and bundling it with the sort of support that community college students need to succeed.

It is a shame that while the prestigious colleges and universities roll out campuses around the globe chasing international dollars, or combine to offer their courses ( but not their degrees) online for free, there is little attention to reaching students in the US who could benefit from the sort of education that community colleges offer--important, basic courses built for students who want to learn but who are not well-served by 4-year institutions.

That challenge is one that ought to set entrepreneurs and educators with a passion for the opportunity that education provides, hard to work.  It is not every day when one can do well by doing good.  But this is that time.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Should service make things better?

The notion behind a typical service project or service-learning class is that acts of service, civic engagement, or activism take a flawed reality (homelessness, poverty, hunger, discrimination, etc.) and tries to move it towards an ideal (justice, equity, access, peace, etc.).

But consider these lines, from Shinso Ito, a master in the Shinnyo-en branch of Japanese Buddhism:

By channeling your energy into acts of service, you transform the ideal into the real.

Here, Ito is arguing that the "ideal" is that thing floating in our heads--some notion about how things are, or should be.  But since all is impermanence in Buddhism, that ideal in our heads is really getting in the way of our ability to perceive things as they are.  Service, he suggests, can strip away the falseness, both because it gets us out of the conversations running in our heads (in the way that meditation aims to do) and because it introduces us physically to a reality that does not get experienced otherwise.

So what are civic engagement practitioners to learn from Ito's argument?  To be humble in the face of reality.  To trust that when service leads someone to say they have been changed in ways they cannot describe, they are telling the truth, not being superficial. And to be skeptical of efforts to respond to abstract problems in abstract ways.  "Service" does not help "homelessness." But people can work together in ways that helps them see the world real, and as they remake that world, remake themselves as well.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Introversion, active learning, and the need for deep reflection

Susan Cain's new book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking,  argues that the current fascination with group-work and charismatic leadership is both a historical phenomenon and one that ought to be viewed with some suspicion.

This is particularly the case for educators, who, if they take Cain's work seriously, now must balance the benefit of active learning (which often draws on group work and values outgoing-ness) with the knowledge that such forms of learning have a politics to them--one that values extroversion over introversion.

It would be a mistake to think that old modes of learning--the lecture, the multiple-choice exam, etc.--were better for introverts than is active learning.  But it would also be a mistake to think that active learning, as is typically done, works for introverts.

Instead, teachers and learners alike ought to be paying much more attention to deepening the reflective and contemplative component of learning, for introverts and extroverts alike.  Reflection as is currently practiced in higher education is hardly reflective at all.  Writing an essay after service-learning that explains what you learned is no more reflective than writing a book review.  And that act hardly sustains the contemplative practices that lead both to learning and to a deeper sense of how one fits in the world.

For reflection to be meaningful, it must be regular, habitual, and tied to a philosophy of living well in the world.  These things were once a part of some types of colleges and universities.  Today they rarely are part of the core of the educational experience.  Some students experience such things, it is true.  But most students do not.

So Cain's book ought to remind us that reflection is more than an assignment at the end of a class. It is a way of being in the world, one that is good for one's health, and better for the health of our societies.