How Do We Know If They Know What They Say They Know?

Imagine two individuals waiting outside an office for a  job interview. They are both smart, hard workers with an excellent education. The difference: one is a university graduate, the other has never been to university. Have you spotted what’s wrong with this picture yet? That’s right. The autodidact would never be considered for the job in the first place.

Can you tell the difference? I cant tell the difference.

Now I say that both have an excellent education, but what does that mean? A university education is one thing, but immediately after hearing a word like autodidact we collectively cringe. Something is fishy about learning without the supervision of an accredited institution. This rogue self-education cannot possibly be as valid as one from a university. That, I say, is open to debate.

Universities are home to the world’s knowledge, expertise and research. There are only so many seats in lecture halls, and so many papers that professors will correct, so standards are kept high.

But there is a new kid in town. Every day more and more of this knowledge, once jealously-guarded in the sacred tomb, is becoming accessible to anyone with a computer. There is a wealth of lectures, readings, lesson plans, data, reports and even discussion forums that are all practically free. Students and casual users alike are finding specific knowledge as they need it, without the direction of academics.

So why buy the cow if we get the milk for free? This question goes to the heart of the matter. It makes us question what education really is. What metaphysical quality do schools offer that cannot be found elsewhere?

Whatever that quality is, institutionalized schools are gradually going to have to account for it. Sadly, for many it will mean actually figuring out what it is. For others it will mean making sure that quality is being honored. Either way, the monopolistic rule of institutional education is over. And I say that with optimism. A little competition never hurt anyone. If institutionalized education is going to keep up with digital age and defend its title, it is up against a formidable enemy.

The internet is younger, better looking and more charismatic. What it lacks in experience, it makes up for in energy and potential. While universities are steeped in tradition and strong values, they are arrogant and inflexible. It is in the internet’s nature to make information more accessible. Conversely, traditional education makes obstacles in order to separate the men from the boys. While the internet adapts to the needs of its users, libraries are staunchly defending their laborious ways based on tradition.

So what is the magic quality? What does the interviewee with the degree have that the other doesn’t? For one, degree holders have jumped through some well-established hoops. They have proven that they can comply with a set of behaviors and values. They have proven that they can survive in an environment full of counterproductive and archaic methods, and even thrive. They have proven that they can submit to authoritative assessments and live up to their expectations. Good pencil-pushing drones, at your service.

The autodidacts didn’t go to university. They achieved their knowledge the old-fashioned way; by their own initiative. They pursued it by reading at their leisure, by their own interest. They somehow learned that knowledge is everywhere and its pursuit is a lifelong achievement. They are in constant competition with themselves. They are motivated by a desire to communicate better with others, and to know things for their own sake. Self-employed with initiative, at your service.

Well, not at your service, actually. They never got called for that interview. Why would they be in competition for a plot in the cube-farm anyways? And yet these are the people that many companies say they want.

The problem is that there are no standards. I am all for engineers and doctors having to earn their qualifications according to rigorous standards. But not all knowledge needs to be certified. How, indeed, can you know if an autodidact knows what they claim to know? That is a question I would like the answer to. We cant expect universities to come up with the answer. The government…. What am I saying? Either way, this will become a problem.

Two things can happen:

  1. Universities will start to embrace autodidactic principles. They will follow the example of the internet and promote accessibility and self-motivation.
  2. Autodidacts will have the chance to prove their knowledge without having to submit to a system based on behaviorism and moral values.

It is already happening:  Universities are offering superb online facilities. Teachers are figuring out ways to get in touch with the “digital age”. In fact, many are vanguards of information technology. Some universities are even marketing themselves as such. Change is in the air, we can smell it everywhere.

But what of the autodidacts? Maybe they don’t want our help. No doubt they are just fine on their own. They have long ago decided to take matters into their own hands. But aren’t these the people that we want as students? Think of the potential these individuals would have if only they had an accredited education.

The ideal student/job applicant is a combination of both; an independent, self-motivated go-getter with ambition and drive who can comply with the demands of academics and make the most of their resources. An ideal school is one that accommodates this kind of student and makes the most of their potential.

Or am I wrong? Maybe we should stick with what we have: A system that rewards those who submit to authority, and who comply with a system that is convenient for educators. Maybe we are better off staying with stuffy lectures, archaic standard tests, dusty lesson plans with blinking eyes staring back waiting for the ordeal to be finished.

I favour knowledge being accessible to everyone who wants it. It is not a commodity to be given to some and flaunted in front of others. Nor is it to be rationed sparingly simply because our institutions cannot keep up with demand. The education system has gotten lazy, and the new kid in town is pretending like it doesnt exist.