The Curious Case of Higher Education

| June 25, 2010

In case you only managed to scan the education headlines of the past two weeks, allow me to piece together the narrative subtext for you.

A country knee-deep in reasons to worry about losing its competitive advantage over the rest of the world turns to its universities to spearhead the effort to maintain excellence, only to find loan sharks and crooks guised in velvet tams. Real educational innovation, meanwhile, has shifted to a new breed of institution that eschews all academic convention and instead directs its energy and talent towards confronting the planet’s most pressing problems head-on. Yet neither national nor global progress rank as high on its list of concerns as does the explosion of computer (and human) intelligence.

Though a bit overblown, the above story does convey the various ways higher education has recently surfaced as an object of intense scrutiny and debate. After the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce projected that by 2018 the American populace will have three million fewer postsecondary degree-holders than it should, the National Research Council yesterday announced the creation of a 21-member body charged with exploring the evolving potential of the American research university. This occurred the same week that the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions targeted the for-profit university industry, responding to concerns about massive student default on loans.

While the state of American higher education appears in flux, the outlier Singularity University recently received an in-depth profile in the New York Times. Founded by the controversial and contentious Raymond Kurzweil, Singularity U. has drawn criticism on a number of fronts while it continues to receive corporate endorsement from Google, among others. Kurzweil’s personality and beliefs seem to overshadow the school’s stated goal of leveraging technology for global development, an increasingly visible and high-stakes endeavor- Nokia, for example, is offering a cool million for the winning app intended for the other 90%.

Any evaluation of higher education is in part a reflection on our education system as a whole. As the postsecondary terrain evolves, so too should learning at every level.