Matt Yglesias over at MoneyBlog makes an interesting point while responding to Felix Salmon's suggestion that watching lectures on YouTube is “100% education, 0% credentialing.” As Yglesias sees it, education isn't just about the learning; education signals something about one’s normalcy.
"In particular, since going to college is a normal bourgeois thing to do in America in 2013, doing it indicates that you are a normal American who subscribes to normal bourgeois values. A summer intern who's just finished up her third year at Yale doesn't have any kind of particular credentials, but we know that she probably has very good SAT scores and sounds like an exceedingly normal person. A young woman who got a 1600 on her SATs and has been spending the past three years working at 7-11 and watching Open Yale Courses videos sounds like a huge weirdo.
And employers seem to genuinely value that "you're not a weirdo" factor. … “
I see and hear this sort of discourse about higher education frequently in one form or another. From my perspective as an educator, there are at least 3 things misguided about it, starting with Salmon's equation of watching video lectures with getting an education. While learning can certainly take place in many forms and modalities, an education implies something more structured and systematic than streaming among some YouTube videos: An education includes exposure to a breadth of knowledge, appropriate assessments, feedback, and interaction with others. To be sure, fully online degrees can provide this sort of structure, and the technology is getting better to the point that meaningful interaction can take place too, but you can’t exactly find that for free on YouTube just yet. Second, I think it’s important to keep in mind the purpose of an education. Indeed, if we want to render any worthwhile judgments at all with respect to our social practices, we need to keep in mind what our purposes are. This is hardly a new claim. Alasdair McIntyre and other neo-Aristotelian thinkers have been making this kind of argument since the late 1980s. Third, as I’ve argued before, the purpose of higher education is learning, and on a broad social level that learning is related to the empowerment that comes with the pursuit of knowledge and truth. Granting degrees and credentials are a means to ensure student learning, but those aren’t the real purpose. In short, Yglesias gets the purpose wrong. Ideally, education isn’t about signaling to the world that you’re normal or that you’re qualified for a job, even though those considerations may play into why some people are interested in obtaining a degree or credential. Education is about transformative learning. It’s just that too often in our discourse we reduce education down to an instrumental interest, which could possibly have the effect of degrading the original purpose. I’m willing to admit that some people—including more than a few students—may disagree that the “real” purpose of education is learning, and there are different ideas as to what learning means as well. I’ll need to leave it at that for now, but it’s an issue I’ll come back to soon in the future. Our education depends on us getting the purpose(s) right.