Ask the deeper questions
May 5, 2013 § 1 Comment
The New York Times today, in an article titled, “The Apprentices Of a Digital Age,” continues the general trend of education articles by emphasizing non-traditional forums of learning, or, rather, forums of learning that are quite traditional but which, by today’s standards, seem non-traditional.
The article highlights a two-year program called Enstitute, which “teaches skills in fields like information technology, computer programming and app building via on-the-job experience.” The program is an alternative to the classic track of studies that leads to a four-year degree. It is meant to meet students who want to shun the outlandish tuition payments and loan amounts, and who would otherwise have to slog through courses that are unchallenging or unhelpful.
The article touched on a number of themes that I have blogged about here (and even quotes Tony Wagner, author of the book Creating Innovators, which I’ve written about on a number of occasions). I think I was most struck by this quote by one of the founders, talking about the program’s students: “They are not debating Chaucer; they are debating product features.”
While that seems to suggest the Enstitute ignores the humanities, the Enstitute seems conflicted, afraid to deviate too far from a standard curriculum that does include more liberal arts subjects. After a lengthy overview of how the Enstitute is supposedly very different, we learn that it offers a
semiformal curriculum, requiring eight hours a week on topics like finance branding, computer programming and graphic design, as well as English, sociology, and history, the content of which comes largely from online courses. The fellows also receive writing assignments every six weeks; outside academics and experts edit and review the work for writing style and grammar. Many fellows choose a less technical track for their course work and study subjects like Japanese culture or the poetry of Keats.
I don’t know precisely what that means; how, for example, you “apprentice” in Japanese culture or Keats. But if you can focus on the poetry of Keats, what is the larger aim of the Enstitute? And how is the study of Keats integrated with the study of products and apps? How are all the different programs unified? Are students being asked to reflect meaningfully on the nature of their apprenticeship, on the implications for society and the human person? These are key questions that I see unanswered. It seems most of these new programs, whether at the Enstitute or others, derive from a cost-benefit analysis almost exclusively related to getting a job and minimizing borrowing costs. I get it; those are important matters. But they do not exhaust the goals or meaning of human life.
There are questions about human life, about meaning, about the search for happiness and authenticity that have to be addressed. A student might be able to build an app or create a new software program, but, for example, can they answer the questions, “Who am I? What does it mean to be human? What is the purpose of education?” Unless students have made some meaningful effort to work through those kind of non-formulaic questions, and have done so through the lens of literature, faith, ethics, and the rest of the humanities, we will have a society only half-prepared to meet the demands of existence.