Of missiles, the three little pigs and the future of higher education (#CFHE12)

“… 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?

About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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5 Responses to Of missiles, the three little pigs and the future of higher education (#CFHE12)

  1. Howard says:

    My take on this issue is that the time factor is just as important as the direction. 4 years is not enough; ongoing support is needed. When you say the direction is changing, I also hear your take that the curriculum is more backing looking than forward. You also point out that knowledge has a sell by date, no matter how good the direction. We now have more informal and networked ways of learning, but we also need institutional support for lifelong learning. This is my greatest hope for MOOCs. Some MOOCs have become little more than an online form knowledge delivery that Hagel Brown and Davison have called push learning. George Siemen’s MOOCs are closer to pull learning and are one model for how MOOCs can be an institutionalized support for lifelong learning that allows one to pull relevant learning to them as their unique needs change and grow.

    • Howard – good points.

      It is interesting that Bauman (2012)says that the Greek ideal paidea morphed over time into lifelong education which, for many years, has been an oxymoron.In recent years lifelong education has become “a pleonasm (akin to ‘buttery butter’ or metallic iron'” (2012, p.16). I foresee that with the number of ‘informal’ learning opportunities increasing (e.g. MOOCs), Bauman is most probably right. There is increasing convergence between formal and informal learning making the distinction obsolete.

      You mention an interesting point regarding support for lifelong learning. Personally, I think there is more learning opportunities available now than ever before in the history of humankind. Although many of these opportunities are not formally accredited or certificated it does not take away the immense contribution these opportunities can make for individuals and groups who want to learn.

      We have possibly entered an era where saying “I don’t know” will no longer be an excuse…

  2. Tony says:

    I like the analogy of the little pigs’ houses straw, wood, brick and the snail shell – all different versions of the same concept of ‘house’. I think if we can help students to engage with core concepts in deep and meaningful ways, including increasingly the likelihood of contestation, the details of particular instances in particular contexts will be something they will be able to discern for themselves. We tend to push too much content, which dates rapidly, and do not spend enough time exploring and unpacking the underpinning concepts and the established and emerging schools of thought regarding these.

    • Tony, very interesting response. You wrote “we can help students to engage with core concepts in deep and meaningful ways” and this raises the question what is considered “core”? Who defines “core”? Of the many “cores” defined today, how much of them are really core for living a meaningful life in an increasingly in-flux and uncertain age?

      I suspect the notion of core knowledge has always been foundational to the notion of bildung – but as disciplines arose and claimed different domains and cores, I think we have lost track of what is really core? If I understand Bauman (2012) correctly, it would seem as if we need to expose students to Bateson’s (in Bauman, 2012, p.13) notion that providing students with a cognitive frame (a core?) is not enough, we should also encourage them to “dispose of it completely, without a replacing element” (Bauman, 2012, p.13; emphasis added). The last part, I suspect, is the important part…


      • Tony says:

        Hi Paul
        Hmmm. I suspect that is something you work towards. How do you engage a school leaver or someone new to the discipline without first saying here a few ideas that seem to be widely accepted for the following kinds of reasons; here is a way of thinking that works for me; you are welcome to adopt a different perspective (but please help me to understand your perspective). I could see as a teacher thinking over the course of study how I might systematically attempt to open up possibilities/ question assumptions etc.because ultimately I/we cannot be certain about anything but I am not sure I want to nurture graduates whose decisions are all subjective/relativist?

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