Less than 300 years ago, an institution existed throughout western Europe known as the guild. The guild was the center of commerce in the same way that the universities were the center of thought. In contrast to the guild where individuals learned to master trades through a complex system of apprenticeship, universities more closely resembled the monastic communities of the church where individuals dedicated their lives to the cultivation of their hearts and minds. These were the centers of literacy, art, and the less-practical subjects of the humanities (the domain of the elite).
When technology like the printing press made information widely available, literacy became a valuable commodity and teachers came from the intellectual centers to provide general schooling for the public. The wide accessibility of information did not replace the professor but changed his role into one of a guide for those wishing to encounter the information for themselves. They began to teach the public to read, write, and interact in a more complex world than had ever existed. The only requirement for a respectable commercial job at this point was probably the ability to read, spell, and add.
Meanwhile, craftsmen received their training through apprenticeship and their credentials through the guild. The title of “master” was conferred upon the one who was recognized within the guild as an expert in the trade. Sound familiar? Churchmen received their training through the church. Farmers learned the trade from their family. Those who attended university did so because they had the luxury of time and money to develop their network, their understanding of abstract concepts that were not useful on the farm, and perhaps even indulge their curiosity in the sciences. In some cases higher education was a necessity as they needed to understand principles of law and government that they would use in leadership positions within the community.
As time passed, this exclusive education in the liberal arts became more widely available and in countries like the United States, basic literacy itself was no longer a competitive advantage. One needed a high school degree in order to demonstrate greater potential for participating in more complex jobs. The businesses were too small to train the one accountant they needed and so economies of scale led to mass training for accountants. Those who did not participate in this training could no longer get a job as a book-keeper. And so a trend began in which the well-paying jobs required years of study to prepare for participation. Those who learned the information on their own lacked the credentials of the college and were not always recognized as capable. The university degree thus became the key to both the information and the certification needed for a respectable job. It had effectively replaced the guild, the church, and the community as the primary source of introducing information and credentialing individuals.
But then the industrial age came to an end with the advent of the information age. As industry became automated, the value of the homogenous individual disappeared and the specialist (craftsman) began to reappear. The guild came back with a vengeance under the guise of internships and technical college where students received training and certification for their pursuit of a trade. But more importantly, the internet was born as a new way of producing and sharing information through digital technology.
Like the printing press, it opened up a whole new world of information and complexity to individuals. And just like the role of the professor changed then, it will have to change again. The internet has replaced the university as the repository and dispensary of information. The professor is no longer the expert in the subject when compared with the collected knowledge of the world. The value of the campus as a place of learning and innovation has fallen relative to the amazing laboratories and experimental centers run by private companies. An internship with a well-respected company is more valuable for job prospecting than a degree at this point. And those who do get a job participate in ongoing corporate training to master their company’s particular knowledge base. As the guild (read corporations) has begun to resume its credentialing and training power, it is leaving the university in a rather uncomfortable position of irrelevance.
In many ways, I believe this is a good thing as the next 20 years will see the university begin to re-assume its position as the thought center of society.
Imagine children are trained in literacy by artificial intelligence designed by education specialists and technology gurus who learned their trades from dedicated schools on the subject and interact with a worldwide network of related individuals developing a greater depth of information about the field. The learning experience for the children is designed particularly for them from a dizzying database of information and can produce a high school or college level of subject mastery by the time the child has barely reached 13 years of age. Then they will begin to specialize in some particular field and join the worldwide conversation mediated by technology around a particular subject or career field. Some have speculated that at this point the institutions of the church of government, and of education will all be subsumed by the corporation, but I believe that if they adapt, these institutions will find their roles enhanced and expanded by the developments in technology that come from these corporations.
For most people, the university will no longer be a necessary part of a life that is filled with learning through exploration and interaction through digital and real world spaces. History will be experienced live through virtual worlds and ancient places can be explored with accompanying meta-information and guidance that is currently locked away in vaults and virtual databases waiting to expose its secrets to the world. Math will be visual and interactive. Virtual skyscrapers will rise and fall on the mastery of physical properties demonstrated by students in a safe and collaborative environment for exploration. In the rush of available information, much of humanity will be at a loss for how to transform it into something useful.
This is where the university will find its identity by returning to its quiet and noble roots of philosophy, literature, government, poetry, and art which will give meaning and value to the mad process of learning undertaken by the rest of the world. Perhaps for some, university will be a lifelong dedication, for others it will be a detour on the way to more information, and some might find a week at the university to be a relaxing vacation in a quiet and artistic setting removed from the rush of learning. But in order to return to its foundations and maintain its relevance in the next decades, the university must ask an important question: what is education?
For if education is simply the mastery of one’s subject, the university will be replaced by a digital crowd-sourced environment for discovering and interacting with information. If, on the other hand, learning is the mastery of oneself and subjects cannot be separated from the individuals who engage with them, the university will play a prominent role in the success of individuals using the available technology in a way that is profitable. In this second scenario, the university will become the center for the development of the individual as a holistic being who not only thinks and feels, but breathes and moves and loves and creates and will never be confined to a cog in the digital machinery of the information age.