On the Nature of the Educational Institution | Day 20
Although I believe that economic/commercial reductionism – the act of reducing all phenomena to a paradigm of exchanges, with buyers and sellers – is a poor filter through which to view every social situation, I will attempt to apply it in the context of higher education. Even if such a lens of observation may appear distasteful to the academic purists, there is much insight that can be gained from its application to our subject of investigation. Throughout, we will be operating under the assumption that education is primarily a social endeavour and experience.
If we are to accept our aforementioned assumption, then several interesting facts emerge. Primarily, the institutions of higher education would not be purveyors of intellectual goods but, rather, purveyors of something akin to events – they would be facilitators of packaged social experiences in the form of classes and the like. These institutions could thus be understood as physical platforms that help to connect people – an institutionalized version of what Seth Godin would term as an impresario. In the Godinian sense, being an impresario is a good thing; however, it is hard to justify the degree of importance and status that these institutions hold when they are performing a task that nearly anyone can now do in our age of the connection economy.
In a different sense, when we recognize these institutions as connectors, many parallels can be drawn with the conference organizing circuit. In both cases, there is a cult-like element permeating the undercurrent of the events involved, where acolytes willingly submit to the authority of various speakers, be they professors, thought leaders, or high priests for that matter. It is for this reason that I have always been drawn to church metaphors for describing the university experience, where the institution can best be understood as a secular seminary. Even though I like to conceive of the university as a record label of sorts, with the professors being the signed artists – as such a lens sheds light on the exploitative aspects of the administration in relation to the teaching talent – this model does not quite fit the situation since the students are not entirely consumers. There is a participatory element to the educational experience which eliminates any conception of a product paradigm – the students are co-creators of their education, not mere passive recipients.
In understanding the students as co-creators – or members – in a dynamic social environment, the cult element begins revealing its face. These members have the opportunity to rise higher in their cult, by degree, whereby participation and recruitment are one and the same. A corresponding model exists in the conference circuit where, should one like a conference after attending, one has the opportunity to volunteer to help organize future conferences and ascend in the hierarchy of leadership. The end result of this line of thinking is that we may understand an individual applying to an institution as seeking membership within a society. Nonetheless, all of these observations mean nothing lest we identify the defining factor of these cults: ideology.
In themselves, ideologies are not rational constructions – they appeal to the irreducible element of faith that exists, always, in the heart of man. They lack rationality because the system of logic was never meant to describe the numinous. The language of logic exists for the realm of matter, whereas a different mindset is required to understand the operational affairs of the intangible spirit. Like a program installed as a super user, ideologies take root in the mind without question – once installed, they become the operating system that functions in the background. Even though you are not always aware of the operating system’s presence, it is very much alive and shapes your quotidian computing experience.
When groups form, they assemble for a purpose – a specific cause or function exists as a rallying point. In the conferences that I attend, it is very clear that an entrepreneurial ethos permeates the air. People attend these conferences not merely to meet fellow-minded individuals but to swim in the ideological current. We seek to be shaped and we desire to have an external reference point around which we can attach ourselves. With this in mind, it becomes increasingly important to identify the ideological current that flows outward from our educational institutions. I need not articulate my personal observations, for I encourage you to take the investigative journey yourself. What is the ethos that underlies your institution? What psychological programming is at the core of your education? Look not at the letter of the words but at the spirit of what is spoken and arrive at your own conclusions. The message may be less evident depending on one’s field of study but it most distinctly emerges for those pursuing a course of study that is inherently ideological in nature. Rather than dealing with embedded ideology that informs the operations of pragmatic courses of study, the ideological veil is thin for those wrestling with abstract concepts.
Keenly selecting some insights from the above commentary, let us refocus upon the metaphor of the educational institution as both a secular seminary and a society. Even though I have in no way undergone formal religious training, I would posit that evangelization is a key operational tenet to any faith – a belief system cannot exist without believers. The seminary thus acts as an ideological training ground from which exponents of a faith can emerge and thereafter evangelize their faith to others. In a similar sense, our institutions of higher learning, as secular seminaries, are training their students in a particular ideology – whatever that may be – from which those students may expound that faith in their working lives. Moreover, as members of a closed society who then occupy positions in general society, graduates are given the opportunity to externalize the tenets that they have internalized through their ideological training. In this sense, we must see ideology, and its propagation, as the chief function of an educational institution. At this point, we may realize that the precise ideology of an institution becomes a salient factor to identify.
Given that ideologies are inherently tied to group structures, that these ideologies are merely systems of thought that are not intrinsically good or bad, and that ideologies can be actively constructed and deconstructed, we are presented with an uplifting conclusion. Rather than having unquestioned ideological frameworks that linger in the subconscious of an institution’s collective mind, these ideologies can be actively questioned and brought to the forefront of said mind for closer scrutiny. When we can see these systems of thought for what they are, we are in a position to reshape them for ends that are beneficial to the collective group. This sequence of thinking of course assumes that something is wrong with the status quo and I leave the careful observer to identify the flaws where they exist. Lasting change can only be brought about when there is an active awareness of the importance of what is being done – without this consciousness, the changes will eventually fade.
In the end, I simply wish to highlight that there is a greater operational undercurrent that informs the gleaning surface of higher education and its traditional institutions of implementation. The product, if we can even consider it as such, that these institutions are selling and what we are buying is far more than mere “learning.” There is a foundational social element and ideological agenda that is continually at work, whether one is aware of it or not. Furthermore, I wish to emphasize that in our present connection economy, every individual is blessed with the ability to create his or her own platform of connection, which is the core element of these educational institutions. Above all, I encourage everyone to take control of their own education and to be actively aware of the ideological frameworks at play – we have so much power right now that it is baffling that we could ever hand it over so blindly to others. Acknowledge this power and cultivate it: you will be in full control of your life’s direction.