Whatever you may think of Peter Thiel, he’s smart. I don’t
just mean business smart but intellectually. PayPal entrepreneur, first
investor in Facebook, predictor of the financial crisis and so on… impressive
CV. Sure he’s an extreme libertarian, with some extreme views, but we need
people who pop our conventional bubbles. So, when I heard him utter the
following in an interview, it hung around in my head, until I was compelled to
expand on it….
Here’s the phrase, ‘Higher
Education is like the Catholic Church on the eve of the Reformation
That’s a damn interesting observation. Illich drew parallels between schools
and the church in Deschooling Society but Thiel captures both a diagnosis and
treatment in this one phrase. He’s talking Reformation.
What Thiel went on to explain, was that like the Catholic
Church, HE had turned into a global, institutionalised phenomenon that demanded
increasingly large sums of money from people, for an experience that is much
the same year after year. The cost of indulgences as well as the transfer of
productive wealth into the non-productive church, was a major catalyst for the
Reformation. People were literally becoming indebted to the level of indenture
to the church. This was impoverishing the populace while enriching the
institutions. $1.2 trillion of student debt in the US. and similar problems
arising in Europe? Even the rich, were handing over huge sums, not to charity
but to the Church. This is reminiscent of hedge-fund manager Paulson, who
recently wrote a cheque for over $400 million to Harvard. This is buying
personal prestige (used to be salvation), not in any way moral progress.
The insidious side of the Catholic Church was the threat,
that if you didn’t pay up, you were damned. This same powerful idea has been
nurtured by University-educated politicians and HE lobbyists. If you don’t get
a Degree, you’re damned as a failure. They perpetuate the myth, that if you
don’t go to University, you’ll go to some sort of economic hell, never being
admitted to the heaven that is gainful employment.
Like the enormous building projects by the Catholic Church,
Universities are spending untold sums of money on monumental buildings. The
occupancy rate of their existing property is already ridiculously low, as it was
and is with churches, yet the capital budgets keep on rising. It would be more
accurate to say, that like the Catholic Church, campuses have become huge,
self-sufficient, monastic communities, almost towns within cities. In some
cities they almost overwhelm everything else. With University Rankings they
also have their Cathedrals; Ivy League in the US, Oxbridge in the UK.
The dominant pedagogy is still the lecture, basically a
sermon to a compliant audience. There’s a lectern, a lecture, designed for the
one-way transmission of knowledge, surely as far from contemporary needs as one
can imagine. Stuck with a Medieval pedagogy, founded, through necessity in an
age when there were no books, the dominance of the lecture lives on as a
shameful, religious, pedagogic fossil.
We seem to have reached a position where HE has drifted in terms of relevance, whether it is the degrees offered, the way they are taught or the exaggerated promises. It seems to have lost its way a little, just like the Church in teh 16th century. Rather than serve our needs it often seems to be serving its own needs.
HEs increasing distance from practical skills, unless they
involve high salaries (medicine, vets, engineering, law, architecture…) has
turned them into seminaries, with the academic priesthood writing ever more
obscure manuscripts for smaller and smaller audiences. The scriptoria and
libraries are being flooded by manuscripts, most of which are read only by the
authors and reviewers. It has become increasingly scholastic, moving in decreasing
circles of relevance.
7. Undue political
We have politicians who almost universally went to
University, leaders who largely went to just two Universities and many
Ministers who did one particular course at Oxford, PPE, a medieval hangover (replacement
for Classics). Maybe the idea of a trained Priesthood for politics isn’t too
Like the scholastic age (the Dark Ages) this has also led to
the decimation, in some economies, of vocational education, which they are
desperately trying to revive. As HE sucks the life out of vocational learning,
we find ourselves in Europe with HE heavy economies struggling, while the German,
Austrian and Swiss economies thrive. Hold on – isn’t that where the Reformation
hit originated and spread from? Luther, Calvin, Knox….
Off for Christmas? Off for Easter? The University calendar
is punctuated by holidays, largely determined by religious and agricultural
concerns. The Michaelmas terms starts on the feast day of St Michael, the start
of the academic year.
The Catholic Church was none too pleased when the printing
revolution produced Bibles in local languages and thinkers who questioned their
authority. They found themselves losing control of knowledge; it’s censorship,
means of creation, production and distribution. That’s because
the Reformation was, in part,
amplified and accelerated by a technology revolution – printing.
The Church, which taught in Latin, kept their power by
excluding people from reading in their own languages, suddenly found that
people were not only reading scripture in their own languages but also writing
and challenging the orthodoxy. The Enlightenment came fast on its heels. Now we
have a technological revolution that is no less Copernican, the internet, which
democratises, decentralises and disintermediates the learning game. I expect
this revolution to have a similar effect on HE, driving access to knowledge and
learning through a new means of creation, production and distribution. Rather
than accepting increasing costs, we should demand lower costs, better access,
and a future where education is not seen as built on scarcity and elastic but
on scale and abundance. One beneficial effect and almost immediate effect of
the reformation was a push for universal education and access. That stuck.
This, in our modern age, is what we need in tertiary education. What I’m
arguing for is not the extinction of HE but a Reformation. The Reformation did
not destroy Christianity and its ethos. It was strengthened by shedding its
obsession with money, indulgences, outdated processes, hierarchy, priesthoods
and elitism. In fact, the Reformation led to the rapid expansion of our Universities and a change in their character, awy from religious centres towards more secular, intellectual environments. We need something similar today - a rethink about their purpose, processes, pedagogy and payment.