The first approach towards education is gaining enough skills to do a certain job. We can consider education as a tool to have a salary and to customize social goods. A person takes responsibility for gaining a good education and the universities are becoming more individual oriented.
This attitude is driven by corporatization. There is an increasingly large trend to cut public funding for educational programs in Western societies. For example, in my own field, linguistics, the COMPETES Act being debated in the USA potentially cuts 45%, or $120 million, of social science funding from US universities. To maintain institutions education turns to privatization. However it’s worth noting that some of the best higher education systems – Finland and Germany – are free.
Another trend in is putting responsibility on students. The result is unaffordable fees for tuition for many, but especially poor students. Inequality is created and society becomes differentiated. The secondary effect of this is to create debt slavery and indentured labor. Companies increasingly demand highly educated workers, for logical reasons. However, if they can’t pay $45,000 per year, students go into debt to get the education they need to get this work. Because of the crushing debt, the students clamor for any job, and sacrifice their rights, only to get a wage to cover their college debt.
These effects are even more apparent in the situation for researchers, professors, graduate students, those doing the academic work. Graduate students teach many classes, and professors are demoted to less hours or adjunct positions, if they even get one. There is a study out recently by Aaron Clauset and others showing that, in the USA at least, a huge majority of college teachers and researchers come from an astonishingly small group of universities. Behaviors like these really perpetuate the inequality present in austerity thinking.
However, there are hopes, but they must, and do, come from the students, the public. The Maagdenhuis occupation in Amsterdam is fighting against the austerity movement. In Canada the student-driven protests against tuition raises resulted in not just reversing the decision, but in actual government change as well. In Chile and Mexico recently a marvelous student grassroots movement accompanied a similar situation with the same results. Mexico is a great example. Mexico is a relatively poor country with quite good education. In Mexico City there was a leftist mayor some years ago who opened a free university, with open admission and, if you needed them, adaptive courses. This is a really wonderful idea to me.
A really interesting development to come out of this is the online education movement. We have technologies to educate a huge amount of people and it doesn’t depend on location, background, or even being physically present. MIT, Harvard, Stanford, and HSE have launched online courses. This raises questions about the value of the university if it doesn’t have to physically exist.
We must realize that the point of education often has very little to do with the amount learned, and sometimes even what you do learn. There are two basic metaphors that came out of the Enlightenment era: the first is the student as an empty vessel, where the teacher fills the vessel with water, so that the knowledge would fit the student. This is the education mentioned above, and it’s been the model for most of the world, and we can see the effects. The second is less straightforward, where education is growth, or a path. The student is like a flower tended by the teacher without force or dogma, or education is a string laid in front of the student, guided by the teacher without forcing them to follow. John Dewey even recognized this, that the point of education is only to produce “free, creative people”. And this is important.
The drive for creative work is a very basic human instinct. People just aren’t satisfied with work that doesn’t allow them to use their full potential. Yet by treating education as something to just complete, you miss out on the rich personal development it brings, totally independent from what you’re learning.
Education is not just a paper but a symbol. Why do companies want people with advanced degrees? A graduate degree indicates a real interest in the particular sphere, not the ability to work hard. A graduate diploma indicates a real passion for what you study. Companies want people who are not only profound in their sphere but want to explore and apply their knowledge. The physical degree is symbolic but the symbol plays a huge role. It emphasizes your ability to explore and to develop.
I came to Russia because of new opportunities. The cognitive science program at HSE is a new program where we have a full access to many scientific laboratories and a vibrant scientific environment. I’m very interested in studying and doing science research and here I’m not treated as a customer. I think a real education can exist anywhere if you try. Of course we have access to resources but what is special in HSE is people who are eager, curious, open, work hard and a huge field for exploration.
Right now my work is mainly in theoretical neuroscience and linguistics. I study how our minds allow us to learn and keep a native language, but have trouble with second or third languages. I explore how the ways our neurons biologically function determine how our language works. We know so little about our minds, neuroscience, and language that it’s such an exciting field to work in.
I love education and it is our right, as long as the UN Human Rights laws mean anything. It doesn’t matter for me where I’m educated, but what I really care about is the way of teaching and opportunities given.