It’s Time to Redefine Higher Education

Higher Education is typically defined as “education beyond the secondary level; especially education provided by a college or university.” In recent decades, the scope of high school curriculum and associated testing in the United States has shifted to the very narrow goal of preparing all students for higher education regardless of their desires, interests, skills, or innate talents. This is a departure from the earlier educational practice of including vocational training and home economics in the curriculum alongside more traditionally academic courses.

“. . . In the 1950s, a different philosophy emerged: the theory that students should follow separate educational tracks according to ability. The idea was that the college-bound would take traditional academic courses (Latin, creative writing, science, math) and received no vocational training. Those students not headed for college would take basic academic courses, along with vocational training, or “shop.” Ability tracking did not sit well with educators or parents, who believed students were assigned to tracks not by aptitude, but by socio-economic status and race. The result being that by the end of the 1950s, what was once a perfectly respectable, even mainstream educational path came to be viewed as a remedial track that restricted minority and working-class students.”

~Nicholas Wyman, “Why we Desperately Need to Bring Back Vocational Training in Schools,” Forbes.com

Throughout most of history, vocational training (metal and wood working), artistic instruction (theatre, dance, art, vocal) and apprenticeships for skill-based jobs like plumbing, mechanics, and electrical work were all considered respectable alternatives to academia. This approach recognized the value of individuality and supported the notion that not every young person wanted to, was designed to, could afford, or needed to go to college.

But with the introduction of ability tracking, “higher education” became equated with an intellectually elite upper class which closely associated education with economic success. It also gave rise to competition over admission to private universities, not only for racial and socioeconomic minorities, but for any student who wanted to “succeed”.

Conversely, craft-based, manual, or artistic endeavors became stigmatized as fallbacks to the ubiquitous university education. The mere fact that most states in the U.S. continue to substantially cut or no longer fund this type of skill-based vocational training is proof of a lingering societal bent towards hierarchical learning and a dependence on degrees and diplomas. However, the reality of the current job market no longer supports these attitudes. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 53 percent of recent college graduates are unemployed or under-employed; 37 percent of those currently employed are doing work for which only a high school degree is required. Thankfully, the emergence of and need for careers in technology has provided alternatives to traditional study for an entire generation of tech-savvy teens and young adults. Technology giants like Google, IBM and Microsoft Apple often seek out alternatively educated and self-taught programmers and marketing managers for their creative problem-solving and critical thinking abilities.

There is another movement that has arisen as an alternative to university study which revolves around solutions and practices for healing ourselves and the planet. It consists of study programs, internships, workshops, and volunteer opportunities in areas like permaculture, ecology, organic farming, urban farming, meditation and other forms of mindfulness, holistic healing, energy work, alternative medicine (healing with plants), sustainable building, and community structures. These programs also encourage travel and cultural immersion, helping to break down stereotypes and barriers of “otherness,” emphasizing instead the importance of interconnectedness.

Charles Eisenstein, author of “Sacred Economics”, in his essay entitled, Institutes for Technologies of Reunion praises these alternative programs (which both of his college-age sons have chosen) because they “prepare people to participate in a future that is not just an extension of the present, but a different world with different values and different ways of seeing.”

“Programs like these exist all over the world, yet still they are scattered and lack a unifying narrative that might present them as a solid alternative to traditional higher education. Young people must luck into them or know enough to seek them out. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this kind of education–education in what the planet needs most right now–were more easily accessible? Imagine a worldwide archipelago of land-based institutions of learning for people like my sons, sanctuaries of alternative technologies of earth, mind, matter, and body that are marginal or absent within conventional universities. So much of the most exciting work whether in medicine, agriculture, or social change is happening outside academia, invisible to many of the young people who might otherwise follow them into a career, and lacking the financial support and community of research that could propel them to the next level.”

Eisenstein goes on to point out that, although not yet mainstream, these programs are increasingly sought out by a generation of young adults “who do not fit into dominant models of higher education. The rewards and threats that bring most people into conformity with the old story do not sway them. They cannot be bribed into a normal career. Therefore, most of what conventional universities offer is unattractive to them: both the curriculum content and the form in which it is offered.”

I’ve had the opportunity to meet several such young adults at a local WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) affiliated farm here in Greece, where they come to learn about organic farming and participate in the daily work of planting, tilling, weeding, watering, harvesting, and cooking together. Every one of them without fail expresses the desire to have an authentic experience of the soil and its preservation, to learn skills that can benefit others, and to be a part of something greater than themselves, even for a short period of time. Their language is often surprising in terms of their awareness of the disconnect between what society (and often their parents) want for them and how they feel they can contribute to the world in meaningful ways.


WWOOFers at organic market garden. WWOOF.gr

Having my children exposed to these types of dialogues and actions and their desire to participate in work like this at a young age gives me hope that one day higher education will take on new meaning. What if, inspired by programs like these and the youth that seek them out, we could redefine the term “higher education” to signify education for a higher purpose? What if, instead of being designed hierarchically, education was seen as lateral sharing and fostered connection over competition? What if “higher” was defined by moral imperatives that encompassed the good of all humankind (and animalkind and plantkind), not just one’s individual career path and monetary success? The more we value this type of learning and the skill sets that go along with it, the greater the chances are that “higher education” will have enormous implications in the betterment of our world.

Excerpt From: Ellen Rowland. “Everything I Thought I Knew: An Exploration of Life and Learning.”

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