Writing for the journal Minerva in 1971, Edward Shils lamented the American belief that there was "no salvation outside higher education". Three decades later Anya Kamenetz reiterates this core idea, but not because she wishes to save universities and colleges from those the elites used to label "the great unwashed".
Quite the contrary. This book is motivated by three optimistic premises:
• The human potential for learning is awesome.
• Technology creates unprecedented opportunities for realising this potential.
• Higher education either adapts to the rising tide of edupunks (liberating monks) and edupreneurs (cost-cutting merchants) or becomes less central in human thought and daily action.
The transformation of higher education is coming, and that is the good news. The bad news, Kamenetz confidently asserts, is that in the land where mass higher education was invented, the system is broken. Americans continue to aspire to higher education and to enrol in an array of colleges and universities, but too many exit before completing a degree.
Kamenetz depicts the US system of higher education as one in which costs are spiralling, public investment is declining and sustaining broad access is challenging. To this problematic mix, she adds the growing sense that educational quality is eroding in most institutions. The higher education wage advantage largely reflects the stiffer penalty for failing to obtain a university degree. Running to stay in place is becoming a fact of life in the land of opportunity.
Even in comparative cross-national terms, the US is no longer at the higher education helm, not when it comes to producing graduates anyway. This reality is obscured by the fact that the top and highly selective US universities dominate the world rankings. But most Americans attend non-selective institutions; the part of the sector that includes most state universities, community colleges and for-profit institutes. Unfortunately, argues Kamenetz, many of these places seek to upgrade their institutional profile and invest in profile-enhancing policies instead of value-added-learning ones.
The book's first chapters are designed to make sense of how we got to where we are. Armed with statistical data and juicy quotes, Kamenetz covers a broad terrain informed by the disciplines of history, sociology and economics. She discusses the rise of the "certificational society" and its faith in the diploma. But she thinks the faith is waning and with good reason: many traditional universities are offering inferior services at exorbitant prices in confining paths. What is essential is to realise the learning society - for individuals, for universities (to save them from themselves) and ultimately for our evolution and survival.
DIY U's second half focuses on technology and the variegated opportunities for learning both outside universities and within the higher education institutions that embrace technological innovation. At this point, Kamenetz welcomes you to the world of the edupunks, the descendants of philosopher Ivan Illich who seek to continue his vision of de-schooling society. Where mere mortals see mobile devices, edupunks envisage liberation technologies.
Unlike edupreneurs who think in terms of cost-cutting and efficiencies in their bid to save universities, edupunks have moved past the universities in their visions of the future.
They are the vanguard of an "evolution from expensive institutions to expanded networks", says Kamenetz. A personal learning network and a portfolio of real-world experiences, achievements and skills is what everyone needs, not a four-year degree. The book's concluding chapter is an extensive resource guide to help you in your quest for a do-it-yourself education, and the ultimate celebration of the way of the autodidact.
Kamenetz's book is an exuberant undertaking, and very much a reflection of the zeitgeist of the 21st century. The individual is at the centre of all things. The individual needs information, and the internet bleeds information. Yes, the individual needs some interaction (which is why libraries had to become universities) but that too can be provided in the virtual world.
With a mere click, as Kamenetz observes, she can share her reading with several thousands of friends. These may be only virtual friends, but they share information, discuss ideas, teach and learn from one another, and they add up to the author's personal network. The future, Kamenetz knows for sure, belongs to personal networks, not to the certifying dinosaurs.
But therein lies the rub. To truly undercut universities, one must undermine their certification clout. Kamenetz imagines this will happen because technology allows us to peer into universities and classrooms and see results. We indeed can see results with respect to a narrow domain of skills. But as regards a broader range of more complex qualities - what she calls the "pearl inside the oyster" - results are murky. And it is precisely this uncertainty that will continue to give universities and their diplomas the edge over personal learning networks and their portfolios. When learning outcomes are like mysterious pearls, universities' preoccupations with their institutional profiles may be frighteningly rational.
What I know for sure is that American universities have always been changing but also persisting by adding their aura to all sorts of developments in the production of knowledge. Canonical requirements give way to curricular innovations. Personally designed undergraduate programmes of study are on the rise within US universities.
Neither Napoleon nor Chairman Mao succeeded in permanently terminating universities. I am betting that universities will incorporate and co-opt both the liberating monks and the cost-cutting merchants. They already are.
DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education
By Anya Kamenetz
Chelsea Green, 208pp, £9.92
Published 19 April 2010