We don’t need no education

Well, I don’t really believe that. At all. But I am starting to wonder if it is at all necessary to participate in said education in a brick and mortar building. Of course, lots of people before me have pondered and resolved that very question, taken online classes, and gone about their lives. I, however, naysayed online classes for a while, figured they were all a big cop out, probably not challenging, hardly even “real,” etc. I also failed to stay put in any standard brick and mortar school longer than a year at a time after graduating high school.

This year, I’m back in school again, and taking two online classes. As I noted a little while ago, my online classes pretty much consist of forum-based discussions about assigned readings, a few short quizzes, and a couple of essays or projects. Essentially, stuff I’m already doing. It’s only the beginning of the semester, but I’ve noticed some pros and cons to both on-campus and online classes. Online is great for some obvious reasons: I took a quiz yesterday at 9pm in my pajamas, with a glass of wine in my hand. While showing up to an on-campus class with alcohol is certainly not unheard of (in fact, I’d almost call it common), it’s usually quite explicitly grounds for punishment of varying severity, depending on the circumstances.

One definite benefit to being on-campus is doing your learning and working in a place that is both designated for those very things, and is largely free from distractions like Facebook, Nintendo, your Netflix queue, or the rest of the bottle of wine you’ve just corked. I also personally get a lot of benefit out of talented instructors’ lectures.

The arguments in favor of taking online classes over on-campus classes tend to revolve around convenience, in one way or another, but I think we may be missing a vital piece in this dialog. In my current online classes, I am usually, at minimum, at least aware of the general information we’re learning about. American Radicalism, for example, incorporates the history of oppressed and marginalized people in the US since 1492, and the radicalism each of these groups used to gain equal social, economic, and legal power. It’s a fascinating class, and for it I’m reading A People’s History of the United States and The Radical Reader, both very interesting and illuminating for someone who usually finds history to be a challenging subject in which to remain engaged. What I’ve noticed, though, is that I already knew about a lot of the things I’m learning about, and what I’m benefiting from most are two things: someone with authority telling me I need to read something or I will suffer negative consequences; and my instructor is a great lecturer who puts things into perspective in that really great-teacher sort of way. Otherwise, though, what I’m learning isn’t anything that can’t be learned in ways that I’ve already been getting an education: from the internet.

That’s the best and most amazing thing about the internet. If you can afford an internet connection, or have regular access to the internet, you can learn just about anything you want. Even given Wikipedia’s occasional criticisms, or the elitist nature of the blogosphere, one can find a wealth of information if you look hard enough. All you really need these days is one of those obnoxious Facebook friends (cough, sorry friends) who constantly posts links to topical stories, blog posts, talks, and petitions to get you started. And I’m not even talking about reading links people post and agreeing with them; mostly, I think that following links to blogs is vital, because people always have blogrolls, and you can go nuts with all the access to all the information you could possibly ask for to find counterpoints, opposing arguments, new and exciting ideas whose existence you were, until that very moment, unaware of… the list goes on.

I’ve spent a while feeling somewhat inferior for not having a degree, so, every couple years, I attempt to remedy the situation by enrolling in some school or another. Since getting a grownup job and having more responsibilities and all that good stuff that comes with being an adult, I’ve also found that I have less and less patience with what “going back to school” actually means. Right now, it means driving 36 miles round trip and walking what feels like miles in wickedly frozen wind and snow two days a week, acquiring several tickets for expired car tabs, and dealing with the rowdy, inconsiderate, loud masses of people in the common areas. I look at my more academically-inclined friends and family, and I feel a mix of envy and awe. For one thing, they’ve usually been in college since the fall after graduating high school, so they aren’t 27, stuck in community college classes with 19-year-olds who still think the White House is in Washington State, doing assignments on things they already learned on their own in the blogosphere two years ago. Also, they’ve stuck with it. They have managed not only to get their asses out of bed and to a class at the right time, but also to focus their energy on completing assignments, learning material, and engaging in the learning process.

Realizing the redundant nature of my current “official” education is making me feel strongly about democratizing our education. An article in the Washington Times, while a couple years old, remains relevant in its theories:

Abraham Lincoln did not attend a formal law school, yet he practiced law. While I do not advocate going backward and allowing just anyone to put up a shingle, I suggest people might be able to meet certain academic goals and objectives through nontraditional means, at less cost, and be able to prove their level of education without receiving a degree from a traditional institution. It is worth exploring.

Why not allow people to prove their knowledge and experience in a way that does not require money, or access to money, or prestige, or access to prestige? It’s elitist snobbery at its finest, and I am officially opposed to any such thing. In the meantime, practically anyone, practically anywhere, can learn practically anything, by just looking.

Some of my favorite places:

TED.com and PBS’s Forum Network for lectures and talks about new ideas about anything you can think of, from religion, scientific breakthroughs, current events, philosophy, and more;

Netflix, obviously, because there are scores of documentaries from reputable sources about everything;

Bankers Online, which I realize is a little industry-specific for me and my job-related experience, but seriously, it’s an amazingly valuable resource to learn about anything banking-industry related;

GovTrack, which will inform you of everything Congress is up to, summaries and full text of pending legislation, etc.;

Wikipedia! Of course! The place where no one can visit just one page.

Wikileaks, too, if you understand WTF a “cable” is;

Google! Where it all begins!

MIT Open Courseware. I have yet to try this, but I think it’s fantastic, and I hear other schools are climbing aboard this trend. And it raises the question, yet again, of why someone completing MIT courses and possibly coursework can’t get professional recognition for their work just because they aren’t paying anyone.

How Stuff Works, which also has a podcast that I used to love listening to at work, is great. It’s basic-but-interesting information on topics you wouldn’t otherwise have a reason to understand, like How Quicksand Works, among many, countless others.

Of course, if education as we know it now were to become easily accessible to everyone, how instructors and professors earned a living would dramatically change, as well. That is a complex issue in itself, but the idea of democratizing education is a powerful one, and worth really digging into.

What are some valuable educational websites or forums in which you participate? Do you think there is a value to maintaining the prestige of Ivy League schools? How do you feel about easily and affordably allowing people who are largely self-taught to receive academic and/or professional credit for their work?

Do you see any benefits to maintaining the educational system as it exists right now, thereby restricting access to certain people who are unable to meet certain demands, like tuition?

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22 Responses to We don’t need no education

  1. catullus says:

    You might have a point, but the Lincoln example doesn’t fly. A bar exam or a medical licensing exam is anything but ‘elitist snobbery’. In fact, democratization in fields like these leaves the door open to quackery like ayurveda.

    • April says:

      It goes without saying that highly-skilled professions would require formal and thorough training. I’m referring primarily to fields of study pertaining to the liberal arts.

    • Amanda says:

      The bar exam isn’t law school, though, and you spend three years in law school learning things that aren’t on the bar and not learning things that are. if you can pass the MPRE and bar without a J.D., well, why NOT be allowed to practice?

    • April says:

      I’m glad you mentioned that, Amanda, because I’d also like to add to my initial reply that I don’t consider exams to be elitist. What I’m really more in favor of is allowing people access to take these tests in order to prove their knowledge in the field, and be able to earn certification by proving themselves without requiring them to attend a school, if they’ve attained the knowledge required elsewhere. Proving the knowledge would always have to be done, regardless of how it was obtained.

      Amanda, you’re in law school, right? I was just wondering today, actually, whether anyone’s gotten into law school without having completed a bachelors degree. Like, maybe they’ve earned an associates, then studied and took the LSAT, passed, and got in. Have you heard of anyone doing that?

      Or, you know, I could Google it… but sometimes first-person experience is far superior to the occasionally muddy trenches of teh google.

    • Byron says:

      “you spend three years in law school learning things that aren’t on the bar and not learning things that are”

      -Lovely rhyme

    • Byron says:

      I don’t think you can get into American law school without a bachelors degree.
      It’s a professional doctorate, and like all of those, requires a 4-year degree for admittance.

      However, you say you live in Minnesota, so you could study the law in Canada, at University of Alberta or U of Calgary with only two years of college education. The distinction is that the Canadian degree is not a professional doctorate, so you need an additional year at an American school for an LL. M.

      A Minnesota resident pays Canadian tuition fees (very low) in Alberta.

      I know all of this because I asked myself the same question that you did the other day.

    • Byron says:

      I apologize for overpopulating your comment field, and especially for this apology.

    • April says:

      A Minnesota resident pays Canadian tuition fees (very low) in Alberta.

      I know all of this because I asked myself the same question that you did the other day.

      I’m both amazed and thrilled that you also recently wondered the same thing. About your Canada suggestion, I’m going to look into that. I’ve been daydreaming about studying abroad (as “abroad” as Canada is to a Minnesotan…), and while it may not be my ticket to a bachelors-degree-free law school admittance, it sounds like a great plan, nonetheless. Thank you for the suggestion and all the tips.

  2. David K says:

    Also recommended for netdidacts :
    for public lectures:
    RSA events
    and Gresham college, which started public lectures 400 years ago
    and Google scholar for finding real academic papers http://scholar.google.co.uk/
    and Amazon Marketplace which is a brilliant resource, especially for finding less common books which don’t turn up in charity shops on a regular basis.

    • April says:

      “netdidacts”! Great word. I had to look it up. Of course, I didn’t find a definition, but instead clicked Google’s suggestion, “autodidacts,” clicked on the Wikipedia entry on it, and understood.

      See, there goes the internet, teaching me stuff again.

  3. Desipis says:

    There are some interesting links there, I’ll have to make some time to check out the ones I’m not already familiar with. I’m actually starting up my second round at university study. It’s been about 6 years since I finished my engineering degree and I’m going back to do law. Given my interest in the ‘liberal arts’ has grown a lot since I first graduated, I did consider going to study something in that area, however for the reasons mentioned in the post I think I could probably do just as well in such areas online at my own initiative.

    As far as the education system goes, I think tertiary education is something that would work better along side a growing career rather than something that comes before it. I’m dropping back to part time work (w/full time study) so I’ll probably be quite busy. However, I imagine this time I’ll get much more out of the studies with the perspectives I’ve gained from professional experience that one simply cannot get as a student in the education system.

  4. JohnE says:

    The Khan Academy is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) with the mission of providing a world-class education to anyone, anywhere.


    • April says:

      Ahh! I’m so glad you linked there. I just heard about this site, and promptly lost the link and forgot the name. Thanks! I’ll be compiling a list of these for blogroll use soon.

  5. Amanda says:

    I went to a private college and a private law school and now have a HUGE amount of debt and no job prospects. And you are at LEAST as intelligent and educated– even if it IS self-educated– as my average former classmate. I think college is awesome if you’re academic and want to learn, but there are so many ways to learn beyond it, and if you’re interested in things courses don’t cover, you STILL have to put together some sort of schedule that ends up incorporating topics that simply aren’t relevant to your interests or career. (Yes, Theater History, I’m still bitter about you. Buddhism overview, you’re cool, though.)

  6. Danny says:

    While not as formal as the sources listed so far I do think that when it comes to educating and learning Instructables and Life Hacker can be pretty educational. In fact I’m going to be spending some of this weekend looking at Life Hacker Night School’s Learn to Code series of videos.

  7. Byron says:

    I’m homeschooled through FLVS. If you like your on-line classes, then FLVS would have been great when you were in high school. However, a lack of constant teacher attention and 10+ hours of freed up time a day makes for a slippery slope to being completely behind.

    The great thing about online education is that you’re less hindered by your classmates, not because of differing levels of intelligence, but rather your own personal interests in the course. Maybe a little bit of intelligence, too. In brick-and-mortar English II, one girl always volunteered to read Shakespeare out loud, however, she wasn’t a good reader, so it was the Bard at 1 word a second:

    “O Romeo … Romeo … where- … -fore art thou … Romeo?”

    Like the previous poster, I dreamed of going to a private college one day, until I awakened from my fantasy and into my lower-middle class family.

    • April says:

      An instructor making students read out loud is the bane of my existence. Hearing people unable to manage properly reading a sentence in the proper construction makes me want to tear each of my eyebrows out of my face, individually. For example:

      “After Spot jumped, he rested. Then the Pilgrims came.”

      or, if you’re all of my classmates ever,

      “After, Spot jumped. He restedthenthe Pilgrims. Came.”

      Motherfuckingseriously, a comma and a period are not that difficult to differentiate between.

      I also had several classes in high school with a girl who refused to read aloud parenthetical statements. She would read everything before it, sigh a little awkwardly, pause, then read everything after the closing parenthesis. It was very confusing, but for whatever reason, I completely understand her hesitation.

    • Byron says:

      First of all, the tuition reciprocity is actually with U of Manitoba, not Alberta/Calgary.

      I also dislike paranthesis when reading out loud, since they require that you put an extra layer of drama in your voice, as if you were an actor giving the performance of your life time at So-and So high school.

  8. Clarence says:

    Generally, I’m for online learning, but you really can’t do it for all subjects.

    For instance, at all collegiate levels but Chem 101 and 102 (where you could possibly buy an online kit from a science supply or something) it’s pretty much impossible to really learn chemistry without access to a good lab with thousands of dollars (minimum) worth of equipment. Same with biology. You could learn some of what I did in my zoology class online (and possibly even better when it comes to the fact we can do 3d closeups) but most of that class was : look at dissected specimens and identify them. My microbiology laboratory and biotech lab would be far harder to emulate, and you really don’t get the same experience if you don’t have to construct and conduct your own experiments, deal with contamination and other issues and learn first hand about the inevitable unreliability of some parts of your data collection.

    I guess what I’m saying is that online learning is best for courses that don’t require labs, with the exception of a few beginning level courses (you could learn pretty much all of electronics at home with a few kits, but that’s an exception) you really can’t learn science or most of medicine in that manner.

  9. Random thoughts:

    My ex husband, who talked about revolution every single day, now works at Harvard. If that doesn’t sum up everything wrong w/the Ivy League, nothing does.

    I don’t have a college degree, which means I go thru life amazed at the ignorance of those who have them. Just yesterday, someone with TWO degreeS asked me what the reference to “kundalini” on my blog was… really. What good is a degree that 1) does not teach you about kundalini, and 2) seems to guarantee you don’t think you need to look it up, if you don’t already know.

    That last point is salient: people with formal educations think they know everything already. If they don’t know it, well, must not be important, or they would have been duly informed by their educators. Right?

    • Byron says:

      Isn’t that a good thing? If a college education helped lead him into a more moderate way of life. Assuming many people believe in radicalism, with a myriad of different paths, where would be if they all carried out these glorious revolutions?

      I’m sure there are many people who don’t know what kundalini is, including moi. But perhaps they asked you instead of looking it up because they wanted your personal opinion or commentary on it, or to flatter you.

      We all can’t be autodidacts, and the true value of a college education is to give someone who doesn’t have the talent to teach themself an opportunity to gain their desired knowledge.

  10. ballgame says:

    My ex husband, who talked about revolution every single day, now works at Harvard. If that doesn’t sum up everything wrong w/the Ivy League, nothing does.


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