A Nation at Risk in the 21st Century
American postsecondary education is at a crossroads. The system of undergraduate education that was forged in the twentieth century has become technologically outmoded and manipulated for political ends. Both forces create conditions for radical reform to shape new ways of preparing upcoming generations to become skilled and informed citizens, unburdened by senseless debt, equipped with more objective viewpoints of American history and its present place in the world, and capable of engaging in self-directed lifelong learning.
The title of this report resonates from the 1983 report of a commission formed by Ronald Reagan’s first Secretary of Education, Terrell Bell, to examine the state of K-12 education. The 1983 report of that commission, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, was a landmark. Though there had been many previous critiques of the nation’s schools, A Nation at Risk in its 36 pages ignited unprecedented public concern. The second paragraph of the report particularly hit home:
If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.
In the eyes of the commission, “mediocrity” was the abiding condition of American schooling in 1983, and the dangers that ensued from educational mediocrity included economic decline, the erosion of national power, a decline in “skilled intelligence” in the workforce, and the dissipation of the “intellectual, moral, and spiritual strengths of our people which knit together the very fabric of our-society.”
Our project examines the current state of American higher education and only tangentially refers to K-12 education. We depart from the 1983 Nation at Risk project in more ways than one. Hindsight reveals that the Bell Commission was largely comprised of members of the educational establishment—college presidents, school system superintendents, organizations of educational administrators, and the like—all of them with rather conventional views and a strong commitment to preserving traditional public education.
The Commission’s stern warnings led, one after another, to a series of major initiatives to reform the nation’s schools, including most recently federal initiatives such as No Child Left Behind and the Common Core. Few believe that these efforts have solved the problems that A Nation at Risk diagnosed, but in the 35 years since the Commission’s report, we have encountered new and additional challenges. Some of these arose from the changing world situation. (The Soviet Union collapsed. Japan no longer looms as a major economic competitor. China does.) Other challenges arose from the very reforms that were meant to address A Nation at Risk. (No Child Left Behind ushered in an era of “high stakes testing” that undercut qualitative instruction; Common Core diminished attention to history, literature, and other subject.) And still other challenges arose from cultural and technological changes in the America. (Loss of memory about the Cold War; the rise of the internet and the dominion of personal devices.)
Our small band of scholars and public intellectuals and experts in higher education have decided to focus on higher and postsecondary education, because this level of education is the most influential and most broken system of education at this moment in history. Our goal is to synthesize a new, comprehensive critique of higher education and to point the path toward new models that go beyond mere reform and, instead, represent a clear understanding of the way in which our near-term future is affected by radical change in how people access information through technology and how new generations are being influenced by competing interpretations of vast changes in the dynamics of history.
A New Generation of Auto-Didacts?
In the nineteenth century, formal schooling was far less important than the possession of knowledge. As Mark Twain noted, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Abraham Lincoln may be the most famous illustration of this point—a skilled attorney and brilliant writer and orator who, by most accounts, had perhaps three years of formal schooling. Colleges and universities in the nineteenth century were largely available to small numbers of students from elite families, and while their accomplishments earned them access to power (as is the case today), the notion that a college education was necessary for success and prestige simply did not exist. Books, private tutoring, apprenticeships, and private systems of knowledge dissemination, such as sermons, political debates, and the Chautauqua circuit of public lectures, were just some of the ways in which higher learning were disseminated.
Today, we have the Internet, social media, You Tube, podcasts, smart phones, and TED talks as new ways of spreading knowledge outside of the halls of academe. In business and technological fields, the old apprenticeship model is coming back. Online courses, many of them provided by academically sound organizations that have forgone the bureaucratic steps of seeking accreditation, are providing a more universally accessible and lower cost form of earning college credits. As we shall explore in further depth in this report, the “universal, ubiquitous access to information” envisioned by the late media critic Marshall McLuhan, has now come to pass.
These innovations in information dissemination are creating conditions where individuals with basic levels of literacy and numeracy can become self-taught at levels unimagined in the past. The Millennial Generation represents a transition from post-World War II initiatives to vastly expand public universities and federal student aid to a new model where competencies can be assessed and validated by private organizations who judgments are respected by employers. There are already signs that requirements for a bachelor’s degree are being eliminated for professional and technical entry-level jobs. At some point, probably within the next twenty years, a tipping point will be reached where a typical employer will no longer rely on a bachelor’s degree as evidence of an individual’s readiness for certain types of work. At that point, the new generation of auto-didacts will have achieved well-deserved leverage for participating in the economy on an equal basis with colleges graduates. They will be liberated from the burdens of excessive student loan debt and from being led astray by Progressive political operatives who have been systematically hijacking traditional higher education institutions.
The 23,250 word manuscript for A Nation at Risk is available for review by publishers.