“… we no longer possess a home; we are repeatedly called upon to build and then rebuild one, like the three little pigs of the fairy tale, or we have to carry it along with us on our backs like snails” (Melucci in Bauman, 2012, p.22).
I would like to continue my reflection on the future nature and scope of higher education, and for this blog I chose as conversation partner, Zygmunt Bauman in his latest book “On education” (2012).
Bauman (2012, p.13) refers to Bateson’s three levels of education namely “the transfer of information to be memorized| (as lowest level), and ‘deutero learning’ aimed at “the mastering of a ‘cognitive frame’ into which information acquired or encountered in the future can be absorbed and incorporated.” Of particular importance is Bateson’s third level of education which refers to “the ability to disassemble and rearrange the prevailing cognitive frame or to dispose of it completely, without a replacing element” (emphasis added). While the notion of replacing existing cognitive frames with new ones is not really new, I found the notion that there may be no replacement for an obsolete cognitive frame, very interesting. I will return to this in a moment’s time.
Bauman (2012) explores the metaphor of education as ballistic or as smart missile. I must confess that I am not particularly fond of using metaphors from the military, but Bauman’s explanation somehow redeems his use.
Ballistic missiles, once they are fired, cannot change direction – “their direction and distance of their travel have already been decided by the shape and position of the gun barrel and the amount of gunpowder in the shell” (Bauman, 2012, p.17). It is therefore possible to calculate with very little margin of error the spot where the missile will land. Ballistic missiles have however, one major drawback, namely the inability to change their direction once fired. Should the target change from its original position, the missile will still land at the target’s original position.
In non-positional warfare, smart missiles, in contrast to ballistic missiles, allow for a change of direction in full flight should the target change its location. As these smart missiles travel, they have to continuously update their information on their intended point of contact. According to Bauman (2012, p.17), smart missiles use an “instrumental rationality” where they “drop the assumption that the end is given, steady and immovable for the duration, and so only the means need to be calculated and manipulated. Smart missiles are “guided by an assessment of the most they can achieve given their technical capacities, and which of potential targets around they are best equipped to hit” (Bauman, 2012, p.18). The final destination of these smart missiles is therefore continuously updated and changed, as their target change or move out of their range. Smart missiles differ from ballistic missiles in their ability to adapt and learn as they go. Interestingly, Bauman (2012, pp.18-19) also points to the ability of smart missiles to “instantly forget what was learned before.” He continues – “What the ‘brains’ of smart missiles must never forget is that the knowledge they acquire is eminently disposable, good only until further notice and of only temporary usefulness, and that the warrant of success is not to overlook the moment when acquired knowledge is of no use any longer and needs to be thrown away, forgotten and replaced.”
I do recognize that the above thoughts fit in well with Bauman’s point of departure seeing the present age in terms of its permanent flux and his work on “liquid fear” and “liquid identity,” to mention but two gestalts of the flux. Should one accept, for now, his point of departure, what does this mean for how we develop curricula, assess and accredited learning? If “liquid modern life is a daily rehearsal of universal transience”, where everything “is born with the brand of imminent death and emerges from the production line with a ‘use-by-date’ printed or presumed”, what type of values and skills do our graduates need? How does this impact on the accepted construct of a bachelor degree or the increasing convergence between formal and informal learning?
In such a fluid and uncertain context, we (and our graduates) increasingly make choices on the basis of incomplete information, and the results of our choices place us on a totally different trajectory without the possibility of return. We increasingly make choices without any trustworthy reference points and guidelines and keep moving while trying to rebuild a home after the big bad wolf has blown it down (yet again). How prepared are our graduates to face a world where the certainties of today and yesterday are continuously debunked and where their choices permanently shape their quality of life and future?
We pride ourselves with introducing our students to new cognitive and disciplinary frames, but do we warn them about these frames’ sell-by date? We accredit their successful acculturation into (our) accepted ways of thinking – but do we prepare them to question and replace these accepted ways of thinking and even live without a replacement?
In conclusion: Despite my initial discomfort with the metaphor of education as ballistic or as smart missile, I do think that the metaphor poses some important questions for consideration. I suspect that we develop curricula based on an arrogant presumption that the world, as we know it, will still be the same by the time students graduate (if they do). We develop learning experiences and course content aimed at seemingly fixed points in the future which are but a mirage of an era foregone. Our institutional and quality assurance regimes often don’t allow us to change direction mid-flight when the target has moved. Even more scary is the possibility that we have not noticed that the target has moved… We sell our qualifications without recognizing the sell-by date and we market our programmes as if the future is stable.
How do we prepare the three little pigs for a future that is and will be permanently in flux?