Monday, January 4, 2016

How Youth Angst Invites Reinvention of the American Education

Over the coarse of 2015, a culture wave of political correctness arose out of emotional frustrations on university campuses and consumed the American psyche. This revival of social sensitivities, described [by NYMag] as "a strange and sudden ... hypersensitivity among young people" (November 10, 2015 9:01 a.m.), gained a prominent foothold in public awareness and propagated "a widespread expectation of a right to be protected from offense." (9)  

Professors at major universities around the country documented students' incapability of handling failure and uncertainty. These students are "very uncomfortable in not being right"; to them "external measures of success are more important than learning and autonomous development". (12)

This hypersensitivity has created a sound-bite out of the term "safe space" (14), and precipitated the creation of cultural entities like South Park's PC Principal:    

These events have persuaded a great amount of speculation (12)(13), which may have panned out as the continuation of our [media's] dissection of the Millennial consumer mentality (7)(15).  
Because this cohort is at the bleeding edge of education's contribution to our economy's workforce,
the psychology of this phenomenon may be valuable to perceive in the context of its (our) economic reality.    

Today's college graduates drag oppressive student loan debts shackled to their credit: Goldman Sacs reports (in late 2015) that our nation's student loan debt is now summing higher than $1 trillion.

The room for revolutionizing our view of education is pronounced by the increasing costs of college attendance, the diminishing fiscal returns on a Bachelors degree, and the rising number of earned supplementary Masters degrees (further augmenting our educational expenses). (7)

Sachs also reports on increases in unmet demand (vacancy) across fifteen verticals, disaffected by increases in college degrees earned (since the start of the millennium, until now):     

With the exception of Health Care, all these industries have experience a hike in unfulfilled demands by the labor force, within the last 5 years. (Colleges have improved on training students going into the Health Care industry since the first 5 years of the new Millennium, but have been stagnant over the last decade. The vacancy gaps widen steadily with the growth of industries like Information.) New demands are outpacing the adjustments required in our education system.  

Sachs' forecasts on the decline of the [values of the] college degree interrupts our short-lived, pro-college traditions, similar to that described in The Value of a College Degree by American RadioWorks.
Despite their competing sentiments, even this pro-college advertisement acknowledges that "by year 2018, the United States will need at least 22 million more people to have college degrees in order the meet the growing demand for educated workers - and at current rates, the nation will fall short." (11) Concern for this supply-demand mismatch has been reviewed by both opposing perspectives.

In an economy with lucrative opportunities remaining vacant, we recognize a generation of our society that is characterized by an anxiety-driven fear of failure, an aversion to risks and open debates, a dire need for external approval, armed with an oversensitive sense of self-entitlement. It is inviting to conclude that this recent cultural wave of "political correctness" could have been a part of this debt-entrapped generation's attempt to explore their income possibilities, maintaining heads above water in an economy which demands skills that colleges are failing to teach.

As the weakness of the American college education is revealed through our culture and our economy, we are also witnessing the largest increase in global information availability in human history. As we take our first few steps into the time tunnel of 2016 CE, we observe the awakening of Generation Z, the successors of Millennials who are the first human generation "born device in-hand" (7).

Education may be "in crisis worldwide" (17), but efforts to remedy this condition with the use of technology are viciously underway. (16) Regardless of any particular leanings for or against [types of] pedagogic institutions, information is the lifeblood of one's education, and technology provides the arena to unite education and equality. Regardless of the fate of our costly institutions, an education will remain central to one's survival and human rights.  

The Industrial Era ripped through the spacetime of the 20th century, reducing distance and reinventing the speed of human movement. However, Eben Moglen affirms an indispensable change in the nature of our humanity that took place between the 20th and the 21st century. (6) The rate of increase in universal access to information is an intrinsic consequence of our transition.
Today the Industrial Era is finished and the supply-demand mismatch presented by Sachs (also foreseen by others) reflect the gaps in our knowledge on how to behave, as the Digital Age articulates its reach through nearly every vein of personal and organizational life.

The new economic demands that this historical epoch is presenting to our education system can be addressed with programs to improve our institutions, or -- in the opposite direction -- eliminate them entirely. Technology makes education more affordable by bringing information straight to one's fingertips. Information technology should be introduced to rural isolation, building communication infrastructure between villages (3)(4), protecting individual identities and activities within each home (5).  

Denouncing our educational traditions could allow us to fully recalibrate our vision: one's education can be measured by the very value (usability) of the information consumed, rather than by the price (and brand) of one's degree. The internet should be as available as a utility like electricity. (2) Everyone should have access to some system of consumable education like they have access to water.

Education can be brought into the centerfold of our country's infrastructure by providing access to information as a necessary staple, consequently marginalizing our institutions that are proving to be costly and ineffective.  
Without the need to focus on an academic curriculum, we will have the time find the information we need to know, in the overlap of market demands and our own professional interests. The student loan debt can become an arcane relic of the 20th century (depending on the decisions made by Gen Z).

In the face of growing industries like Information, the American economy is moving away from manufacturing, into a more service-based economy. An economy of services demands more skill-intensive training.

According to Forbes, "Americans have a romantic connection to manufacturing" which is being overshadowed by the persistent growth of high-skill industries like Information [Technology]. In 2003 iTunes took its first steps into the future by offering a service to music consumers. Today, "IBM is in the throws of a revolutionary five-year strategy to shift its product focus to software and services." (19) A more detailed look at our shift in this direction can be found here.

History has demonstrated that a nation running on a strong service economy is inarguably better fit to face the terrain of 21st century globalization. (18) Internationally outsourcing our industrial labor is par for the course: we are not in competition with developing countries.

In this post-industrial era, we can no longer afford to be chained to the scholastic dogma of our sinking institutions, or to our glorified images (of ourselves) borne out of success from an Industrial Age that has long been dead. 

Our new role in the global economy in this Digital Age awaits us, just as the vacancy for a rising new world power awaits China. To arrive, we must view Education as tantamount in value to our right in the Pursuit of Happiness. Each American should have the right to have access to public knowledge, and methods of protection from private interests (ie: FreedomBox).

This tidal wave of tech unpacks new economic space that is disrupting higher education. Fortunately, it also delivers Connectivism: a learning theory that helps us better understand the "knowledge worker", a labor entity essential to resolving our supply-demand mismatch. Our success lives in our economic transformation toward services, which will be achieved through the reinvention of The American Education.





  1. "Far from a static utopia, or centrally managed welfare state of the past, a resource based economy is built upon a decentralized automated workforce. Artificial intelligence would monitor, manage, and distribute the world’s resources based upon human requirements; both sustainably and efficiently. This system is designed to liberate all of humanity and allow individuals to pursue their passions unhindered. People are free to determine their own paths, and are empowered to develop a diverse and dynamic global society."

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