More Learning vs. More Degrees

01/08/2013 02:18 pm ET | Updated Mar 10, 2013

The past few years have been quite interesting in the realm of academia as the country has continued to struggle economically. As more and more questions have been asked about our economy, the bony finger of condemnation has been pointed yet again at higher education. In the minds of many, professors like myself are the culprit. We have failed the country because somehow not enough graduates are completing college with a degree.

Yet, the question nationally SHOULD BE do we want more graduates from higher education or do we want more learning, more educated, or "learned" citizens? If all we want are more graduates, then there are easy ways to do this, including giving courses away for free. If we want more learned citizens, then that is a more difficult road to travel.

Currently it seems as if the general public, along with many of our national leaders, believe that what will fix our country are "more children with more degrees." In this belief, if we really are hoping this will fix our country, we are instead doomed. We've been laboring in that hamster wheel since the 1980s. This is akin to the poor misguided philosophy that "more people owning homes even if they can't afford it means more people achieve the American Dream." No it doesn't. So, with a wrong-headed philosophy, poorly thought-out structural decisions are made (i.e., "let's give people loans who can't afford to pay them back"). In this case, the idea has been this rush to create even MORE diploma mills.

I've written much about this coming sea change to my professorial peers in recent years, including noting the coming of education vehicles like Coursera, Udacity, Udemy, TED-Ed, iTunes U and Youtube's education effort. The debate within academia is (or should be) are we the next RIAA, refusing to accept the change that our Napster-like foe (the above mentioned operations) is bringing? Will academia survive in its current form? That debate includes politicians and of course the citizens of the city, state and nation. Obviously, if a student can get a university-level degree without paying for it, or a transcript from Coursera touting classes from Columbia, Princeton and UF, with a smattering of other free courses from Stanford and MIT... why WOULD any parent want to pay, taking on tens of thousands in student loans? If they don't pay, and they don't come, taking what they can get for free, then academia, and the employees of that industry are in for the exact same rough ride that the music, movie, and journalism industry have faced.

But the deeper question that no one seems to be asking is where is the evidence of learning? I contend that the country has run off its rails not because of some failed decision of President Bush or the continued failed economic plans of President Obama, but because decades ago we lost our way regarding learning.

As I have written elsewhere, education, learning, is hard. Ask anyone trying to learn to play the piano or execute a dive from a three-meter springboard. Ask someone trying to master another language whether Mandarin or C++. Yet, over the past three decades, our country has worked tirelessly to argue that learning and education should be easy. We've tied financial aid to grades in such a way that today, most people consider a "C" grade akin to failing, rather than the "Average" statement that it is. We act as if this is a bad thing, when instinctively we know that many are only average (if that) in playing golf, knitting or crossword puzzles. Why would anyone think that biochemistry, calculus, 14th century poetry or my own field, history would be any different at the higher education level? Some will be exceptional, others above average, some merely average (just like I was in Science, once I got to Auburn University), and some will be below average. By giving honest grades to students, we strengthen what should be the national belief that education, and by extension, life success in a given field, requires diligent effort AS WELL AS expertise in that area.

There are more issues on the table here, of course, including economic standing both for individual families and communities, technology comprehension, the weakening and ruination of the family with the subsequent abandonment of child rearing, and cultural change that undermines issues like personal responsibility and an acceptance of hard work. Yet at the root we come back to this salient point. If we, as a society, fail to accept that learning often occurs best in the most challenging of circumstances, and that many learn AS THEY FAIL or do poorly (as I did in a few of my own college classes), then regardless of if we give away college credits or not... we will not have somehow "saved" the country because we have more people carrying around a piece of paper that says they have a degree. Moreover, carrying the degree in a field where I was allowed to pass, to graduate even though I did not fully learn, merely sets up the graduate to find struggle later when they can't find a job in that field, because they keep losing out in other job candidates who are simply better, who were the exceptional or the above average student. The upset former student then complains "I graduated; why can't I get a job." That person has equated graduation with learning.

I can become the most popular professor with students, having an amazing ranking on the "rate my professor" sites. All I need to do is ensure that I pass every student with at least a "B." If I did that, students would sign up for my classes by the droves. I would be popular. And, students would be no more "learned" the day they walk out than the day they walked in. Instead, what I should do if I wish to honor my profession is to present the material in a challenging way. Just like in any other field of endeavor like music or languages or sport or spatial ability, some will pass and others will fail. Until we, as a country, become at peace with this, and then look to honor Academia both for what it can do (produce learned citizens who are able to think critically, process information and communicate) and for what it can't do (produce a promise of "more jobs for everyone"), and then support other avenues like education with Technology Centers, the kind of work that groups like SkillsUSA appropriately champions, we will never make the correct choices regarding higher education.

In the Pixar movie The Incredibles, there is a telling moment towards the end where the "bad guy," a former "student" of a true superhero now turned evil through the use of technology, says to his foe, Mr. Incredible (along with the captured family), that once he sells all his cool technology to everyone -- "Everyone can be super! And when everyone's super, no one will be."

Learning is much like that. We dream of a day when "everyone can be learned at the level of a superhero... all we need is the technology to give everyone a piece of paper saying they are educated." But, that myth merely sets people up for failure because even with the piece of paper, that does not necessarily mean they are learned. Note, this isn't saying anyone should be barred from access to knowledge or learning, but rather that even with access, even free access given by technology, not "everyone's super."

Let's help our kids, and our country, by understanding that even with opportunities from places like Coursera -- and perhaps it will be a godsend to us all in improving education -- that our country is not better because we have more people with graduation degrees. It is better, and their individual lives are better, when the citizenry has learned, has become educated...even if the learning happens by failing out of a traditional College. That person then learns that their path to a future success lies in some other field in their own individual strength... or they learn that they are lazy and until they decide to work harder at learning, success will never come. In either event, they are better off... and the country along with them.