This article was originally published on Medium Website 21 May 2018.
In the digital age of education, the call for mentors has never been louder.
Our current education system is undergoing a much needed wake up call. The XXI Century is here, and mass replicated curriculums based on memorization won’t cut it.
I remember when a close friend of mine showed me his phone and tapped the screen. “All of the information in the world is in the palm of your hands,” he told me with a smile. And then, a terrible thought came over me: “Why, then, should we go to college?” I was sure I wasn’t the only one to think this, so I punched into my search engine “college degrees are…” and these were the top results:
The truth is that that degrees are not returning their initial investment, and their cost is increasing more and more. The US has a student debt crisis has surpassed the $1 trillion figure by 2018. So, more debt means more students are enrolling, right? Well, yes, but it’s not that simple. Even though enrollment into higher education has increased approximately 200% since the 60’s, the completion rate is only 59%. More students are enrolling into college, but they aren’t graduating. And why should they?
The problem with mass replicated knowledge is that students can’t differentiate themselves from their peers on degrees alone, which makes entering the workforce much harder. Not only that, but putting together the rising cost of education and the internet: it makes sense that students are opting out of formal degrees.
Colleges are becoming outdated in the digital age and turning into accreditors of grades and not a place of genuine learning. Yet, one brilliant solution is digging its way out of the hopeless pit of formal education and it’s self-directed learning.
Ideas promoting an independent path to knowledge are more popular than ever. Viral videos such as ‘Don’t stay in school’ or ‘School kills creativity’ amass over 30 million views alone. This change can also be seen in the education system, in which methods such as Montessori schooling — based on hands-on learning, self-directed projects, and collaborative play — are becoming more widespread. Students learn subjects that respond to their skills and thus they develop uniqueness in the ever demanding economy.
Self-directed learning is the future of education.
As a result, leading institutions such as New York University, Duke University, University of Toronto, amongst others, are trying to catch up to the ever growing trend: teach yourself. Students all around the world are being empowered to ditch the traditional method of passive learning and jump into socratic dialogues. Online courses have had a 263% increase over the last twelve years and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.
In a digital age where there is over 1.2 million terabytes of information right under our fingertips, the need for colleges as primary sources of knowledge is dying out. We can teach ourselves what we want, how we want, and when we want. Why then should we need professors if we can learn everything by ourselves?
Simple, we still need guides. In fact, we need educators more than ever before and here’s four reasons why:
The literal definition of a professor is, “a teacher of the highest rank in an institution or university.” Yet, just like educational methods have changed, so should our idea of educators. Professors were couriers of explicit knowledge for a long time. Before the digital age, they were our web browsers. Professors would show up to class, teach what was on the syllabus, while the students sat quietly and took notes. It wasn’t that different from sitting in front of a computer screen and listening to a YouTube tutorial. In fact, it was reported that 34% of first-year students never engaged with their faculty members outside of school. Professors have been traditionally seen as transmitters of explicit knowledge and not as guides on a learning journey.
Learning goes beyond knowing facts. We’ve been conditioned by classical methods of education to see learning as the explicit acquisition of replicable knowledge. Professors do this, mentors go beyond that.
At the beginning of my Spring semester, I took a Philosophy of Being course as part of my self-directed semester. My course mentor said I should read Schopenhauer, which I did. I remember I came back the next class feeling disappointed. I explained to him how I didn’t like Schopenhauer one single bit. If I had been teaching myself without a mentor, I would have dropped the subject and moved on. My mentor, however grew silent and told me to read him again. I did. Schopenhauer then became one of my favorite authors from the whole course.
Mentors aren’t only there to hold students accountable for their learning. They are guides on an academic road they have already embarked. My philosophy professor was smiling when I told him I enjoyed Schopenhauer the second time around. “Yes,” he told me with an amused smile, “he tends to have that effect on people.”
2. More than explicit knowledge
Mentors are more than couriers of explicit knowledge. For a true understanding on any subject, tacit knowledge is required. Michael Polanyi first coined the difference in his book The Tacit Dimension, explaining that explicit knowledge is easy to find and replicate, while tacit knowledge is hard to articulate and express verbally. What this means is that reading about horseback riding is not the same as being flung off a saddle.
Understanding how we acquire knowledge helps us understand how we share it. In theory based learning, students are bereft of real life experiences. On the other hand, project based learning with no theoretical background leaves students scattered around trying to make sense of fundamental principles.
At the end of the day, we need both. We need theory and practice. The problem with learning is that there are meanings that cannot be verbally understood. You can read about failure but never replicate it through explicit knowledge alone.
This is why the bond between a mentor and a student goes beyond the explicit transmission of knowledge. A mentor facilitates spaces for dialogues and exchanges of meaning, so that students can construct new forms of understanding. It is not replicating knowledge, it is constructing comprehension.
This is what separates a true educator from a Google search engine. And besides, technology can be a challenge when we want to learn unexpected things.
3. Meno Paradox and The Filter Bubble
Meno is a socratic dialogue written by Plato. In it lies a critical paradox regarding the search for knowledge. “A man cannot search for what he knows — since he knows it, there is no need to search — nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for.” Here lies the direct threat of self-directed learning without any kind of mentorship or companionship: self-affirmative bias.
Not only that, but we already live in a digital world of affirmative bias. The Filter Bubble is a phenomena in which search engines, news, and even our Facebook feed are tailored to our personal preferences. Google is not as impartial are we believe it to be. The problem with technology is that it has an implicit bias towards everything you’ve ever searched before.
Technology will only give you the information that you want. The sense of discovery will always be one-directional, with no inquiry on the other side.
Mentors, however, are not inert sources of information. Another key role of mentors is to question you. Hard. Unrelentingly. Thinking requires questions. And then questions regarding the questions. When you search for something on the internet, you already assume the question you are making. This is where mentors step in and kindly ask you why you’re even asking the question in the first place.
One sided acquisition of knowledge is comfortable and it helps us avoid one of the most terrible truths regarding a learning journey.
4. Learning is painful
One critically acclaimed professor that comes to mind when talking about the pains of learning is Jordan Peterson. I remember the first time I saw one his videos. His sharp stare with a bark in his tone as he snaps, “universities are not safe spaces.” The notion of a comfortable learning journey is completely unrealistic. Learning is one of the most painful human processes that we can fathom.
Knowledge will confront your understanding of life itself. Learning entails listening to differing opinions that will personally attack your own and having to glean meaning from them. Life isn’t easy, so learning shouldn’t be easy either. There’s a reason why the term growing pains exists. Learning is a journey of transformation. In the terms of Joseph Campbell, as self-directed students we must begin our hero’s journey. Hear your call to adventure and then find assistance.
The learning journey is hard and arduous, and even the toughest student will need a mentor at their side. An educator, a professor, a master in her or his craft. Find these people and engage. Forget Coursera or Khan Academy as primary sources of information. Go out there and talk to these people.
The world is your oyster
To be a self-directed student is to be a student of the world. And the world is a lot of people interacting. It’s a galaxy of knowledge ready to be discovered. Educators are mentors, professors, and fellow students that helps us confront this onslaught of knowledge. They assist us on our learning journey and sometimes tells us the name of the book that will save us a whole semester of frustration.
As a student who is part of a self-directed educational program, I cannot stress the importance of mentors in the learning process. People with mastery who are able to help us cultivate deep explicit knowledge and guide us towards tacit knowledge. The call for mentors, professors, and teaching enthusiasts has never been louder. In a world of self-governance and self-directed learning, we need more examples of mastery and companionship.
“Dialogue is the pathway to truth.
Humility is recognition of personal insufficiency and the willingness to learn.
To learn is to die voluntarily and be born again, in great ways and small.”
– Jordan B. Peterson