This morning, Inside Higher Ed published an interview with Peter P. Smith to discuss his new book. I began reading the article in a pro-forma way since the “middle third” isn’t a strong interest of mine. But I found possible gold near the end of the interview where Smith mentioned something that I’d heard before but which had never really resonated. Something about the way Smith described it clicked with me this time:
In the book, I devoted a chapter to the “End of Scarcity” and its impact on higher education. It is difficult to overestimate the significance of this trend. Colleges are built and organized around scarcity – the expertise of faculty is in short supply, classrooms and labs are limited because they are expensive, and the authority to offer a course of study is limited. Additionally, reputation is built around who you exclude as much as it is who you include and who succeeds. In fact, the whole concept of meritocracy is built on the notion of scarcity because there is not enough room “at the top” for everyone.
People who follow Pedablogy know that I am suspicious of the filtering function of education, which often conflicts with the teaching/learning function. Filtering makes sense in a world of limited jobs relative to the number of workers. In such a world, education is limited to those “who could best take advantage of it.” But filtering no longer makes sense when the number of (qualified) workers is limited relative to the number of jobs. This is the world which Smith says is upon us.
One of the reasons people stop their (formal) education is the sense that they are not smart enough to learn more, that they have reached the limits of their ability. But is there truly a limit to the learning that a person can achieve? Could those filtered-out students perhaps learn with more time? (What is sacrosanct about a 14 week semester?) Could they learn under a different teaching/learning model?
If so, is there a social benefit to people/workers continuing to learn, and does that benefit extend beyond to need to fill those excess jobs? Is there a social benefit if an individual (say) learns the classics on their own outside of school? Does this social benefit exceed the social cost?
As I was reading this, I saw a connection with what macro economics call endogenous growth theory. In traditional economic theory, effort is confounded by diminishing returns. At some point, the benefits of additional effort fall below the cost. Endogenous growth theory suggest that technology may be different—it may not suffer from diminishing returns. (I’m using the term ‘technology’ the way economists do to refer to technique or knowledge of how to do something.) Can you ‘use up’ an idea? If numerous people adopt a good idea, is there any reason to expect that the idea won’t be as fruitful with the 10th adopter as with the first? In many contexts, the answer is no. I wonder if education could be one of those contexts.