While I have my doubts about disrupting any public service, including education, I can’t deny that the internet has made it possible for alternative learning communities, especially those that don’t have an established hierarchy such as professor-postdoc-grad student-undergraduate student. I call communities of self-organized individuals organic learning communities.
The organic learner’s biggest advantage is also her biggest disadvantage. She can choose to learn whatever she wants and at the pace she desires. College students don’t have that luxury. They have to learn on someone else’s schedule. In order to major in history, a college student has to take certain classes in history and not others. Even if they’re interested in physics, they can’t take all the physics courses they want. The organic learner doesn’t have those disadvantages. On the other hand, they also don’t have the benefit of learning from a tradition of inquiry: if the organic learner wants to learn the same history as the college student, she will soon find herself devoid of companions and mentors.
The worst case scenario for the organic learner is when she has to learn a difficult subject that has a long tradition behind it; physics, mathematics, philosophy, economics are all too difficult to learn on your own, especially if you are competing with other learners in a formal system where the student, her peers and their mentors are all agreed upon the content to be mastered and the means of assessing that mastery.
In contrast, there are two best-case scenario’s for the organic learner:
- New topics that haven’t made their way into the conservative world of academia. Data science is an example of a new field which is still best done outside academia.
- Topics that academia finds unacceptable, either because they are not part of the modern worldview or because they are considered too low brow. Astrology is an example of the former while gardening is an example of the latter.
It’s easy to see how organic learning is a good way to nurture a hobby or cultivate a gifted amateur. However, we are not talking about amateurs, however gifted; we want mastery. Is it all possible for an organic learner to become a master? I believe it’s possible, perhaps even desirable, but in order to do so, we have to delve deep into the nature of knowledge itself.
The term university suggests a repository of all knowledge in the universe. In practice, universities are shockingly narrow in their epistemic and cognitive diversity. For the most part, universities are temples to the intellect — when they are functional — but other forms of human knowing are barely tolerated. The arts are allowed, but religion, contemplation and the ways of being of non-dominant cultures are all outside the realm of the university. In other words, the university is really a small corner of the knowledge universe, which gives the organic learner her biggest opportunity. While the professor thinks that knowledge is a rather special affair, something that happens only in very special circumstances, and the production of knowledge requires enormously controlled spaces, the organic learner might well benefit from a very different intuition:
Knowledge is everywhere. It’s constitutive of human activity; it pervades all human situations, from home to the playground, from the dream world of the Australian aborigines to the dream world of string theory.
This is not a relativist position, which says that all belief systems are equal. Evolution isn’t just a theory. Instead, it’s a statement about human dignity; it’s saying that non-pathological human communities are all unique repositories of knowledge, and as a corollary, it’s possible for organic communities to create and communicate knowledge without the intervention of the dominant traditions of knowledge.
The ubiquity of knowledge is even more important for the organic learner for another reason:
If she adopts the attitude that learning is possible in every situation, she’s likely to be a much more resilient and adaptive learner than her university counterpart, whose learning is specialized and brittle.
In other words, if the organic learner is to fight the battle of knowledge on her terrain, she should systematically tilt the scales so that:
- Her idea of knowledge is fluid and open; not defined within narrow constraints. She should paint the academic knower as a specialized niche, only good at producing certain kinds of knowledge (though very good at that special knowledge when it works).
- Embrace much greater epistemic diversity, acknowledging the enormous universe of knowledge that exists outside academia.
In other words, the organic learner should start by redefining knowledge so that academic knowledge is a small part of knowledge and perhaps even more importantly, redefining the knower so that the organic learner is the normative individual, not the lifetime academic.