Is it time for the Un-University?

I was watching a news program in which a young man was proposing the “Un•University.” I wondered whether it was another buzzword like the Un•Mortgage, a.k.a. a different mousetrap, but then I slowly realized that this young man was making a lot of sense, with a few caveats.

The Un•University works on the premise that there is so much knowledge available in cyberspace these days that all one needs is the right band of mentors to network with and expand one’s education along the right channels. Seems simple enough, as long as these mentors are findable and willing to contribute for free. But then I have seen writers collectives emerge the same way; when traditional channels became restrictive and irrelevant, collectives went on to publish breakthrough literature.

The traditional university has a few things that do not sit well with us. First off, it takes in students at an age when they really do not know what the heck they want to do with the rest of their lives. Five years later perhaps, and a few changes to their major, and they may stumble on their chosen path—an expensive way to find one’s soul.  I have often heard the term “universities teach you a lifestyle, colleges teach you to get a job,” in other words, you still have to learn a skill or a trade, after university, if you want to earn a living; or get an employer to train you when they are busy outsourcing employees and jobs. And universities charge a heck of a lot of money for the experience; so much that our governments (most governments) cannot afford to cover this cost anymore. And universities dislike standardizing their programs between each other for reasons of differentiation, reputation and brand – all necessary to create distinction and command a premium price. A situation that is ripe for the introduction of disruptive innovation, the start of one of those dreaded S curves. Hence the Un•University.

However, the university has a few things going for it too. Years of conditioning have convinced us that one has to have a tertiary education to be taken seriously and act responsibly; that non•university educated people are blue collar and the university•educated ones have collars starched in white; that without a tertiary education one is a black•and•white kind of a guy, not used to accommodating new ideas or seeing a different perspective or practicing critical thinking and problem solving. One is supposed to gain depth during those university years (along with a copious appetite for alcohol, partying and sex). That the one who is disciplined enough to have attended all those lectures and written those dreadfully boring exams, while flowering adulthood could have led to many other gratifying pursuits, is a testament to the quality of the university graduate, they say.  These are perceptually difficult hurdles for the Un•University to overcome.

I can’t take a side here, as many of the next generation in my family are university•educated and are passionately defensive of their status, and I would like to continue to be invited to family gatherings in future. But I would like to support the Un•University concept, given that it has been my experience, more by accident than by design.  I wonder how much more depth, critical thinking, problem solving and all those other university –educated attributes would accrete to the young person who leaves the nest and goes out on his own to earn a living, preferably far away from home, and who carves out a couple of hours a day towards furthering his education by forming the discipline of reading and discussing all there is out in the fields of literature, economics, politics, mathematics, science and technology? Not for a year or two but for the rest of her life. This lifelong learner would be far more valuable than the guy who slapped a degree behind his name and never learned a thing afterwards.

I’d really like to support the Un•University concept under these conditions, but who would listen? And more importantly, who would hire a Un•University graduate?

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