Deliver this package and your task is done—content “delivered.” Information that had not yet penetrated the brains of the target population has now been successfully deposited into those brains. We know this because multiple choice tests have delivered the required results: An appropriate percentage of students has “exceeded,” “met,” or “approached” the outcomes, as measured by percentage of correct answers/guesses.
Meanwhile, the companies that have stuffed curricula into “cans,” and “marketed” them to (or foisted them upon) entire educational systems, pat themselves on the back for increasing company profits and shareholder value. More money to plow back into more "marketing”—wining and dining those who hold curriculum decision-making authority, hosting elaborate cocktail parties at academic conferences (each for-profit educational enterprise trying to outdo the next), paying commissions to traveling salespeople, lobbying Congress to mandate standardized tests (also for-profit) issued by these same companies, which will necessitate more canned curricula and tests (and test preparation materials) that only they can provide. All for a price. Genius system.
The Brazilian educator Paulo Freire referred to the "information deposit" approach as the "banking model" of education, and there are more valid arguments against that approach than I can possibly fit into one post. Thus, this is a topic to which I will return repeatedly. For now I'll just say that in the most extreme version of for-profit, corporate, and dehumanized canned curriculum, a human teacher is eliminated. Make no mistake: Even as we speak, for-profit corporations are working their butts off to create and market electronic college courses that can be delivered without a professor at all. At best, such "courses" will be "facilitated"--and guess what? "Facilitators" will work on a contract basis, for less than a living wage, without benefits. Sound familiar?
Dehumanized education is a profiteer's dream. And to make it work, one needs to subscribe to an educational paradigm like the one expressed by Charles Dickens' fictional school headmaster Gradgrind in the 19th-century novel Hard Times: "Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else." (Side note: On shmoop.com, someone points out that even as Gradgrind extols the virtues of "facts," he can't avoid using a metaphor. Ha.) If your vision of education varies from the banking model, it can't be delivered by machine.
Some may ask: So what? Isn’t the transfer of information the definition of learning? Isn’t the purpose of education to convey a body of information into an individual brain? And if corporations happen to make a few bucks off the process, so what? Everybody's gotta make a living, right?
But information is not the same thing as knowledge. Knowledge is not the same thing as wisdom.
It’s now beyond mundane to note that we are awash in information, that information is at everyone’s fingertips, blah blah blah. Some of the anti-college blogs I’ve skimmed lately go so far as to posit that college is now unnecessary because “anyone can Google anything.” Personally, I hope the people I interact with professionally--whether they are doctors, lawyers, dentists, accountants, school teachers, music teachers, cooks, carpenters, nurses, pharmacists, auto mechanics, or landscape gardeners--have not relied solely on Google. I also hope they haven't been taught primarily through disembodied online modules and assessed primarily through multiple-choice online quizzes (though I do believe quality online education is possible, provided there is an expert human being designing the course and interacting with the learners). I also hope the people I deal with haven't been conditioned to look for the one “right” answer lurking among four possibilities (one or two of them probably absurd), as though all of life were an endless episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Life isn't like that and education shouldn't be either.
There’s a big difference between the great glob of disorganized facts that we call “information,” and knowledge--a deep, cognitively automated understanding of an organized, purposeful body of information that the person-who-knows can use to achieve a particular goal. Cognitive psychologists further point out the difference between declarative knowledge, or knowing "about" something--and procedural knowledge, or knowing how to do something. (The stadiums of America are filled during football season with thousands of people who think they "know" how to throw a touchdown pass, and two guys down on the field who actually do.)
How does information become knowledge? Through human-to-human interaction, and through hands-on practice. (I'm happy to provide references from cognitive psychology to anyone who asks.) People who "know" things know how to do things--whether you're talking about building a house, analyzing a historical event, preparing a tax return, explicating a novel, or fixing your overflowing toilet. Knowledge can't be captured in a can, and not all learners respond to--or need--the same can. Knowledge develops in conversation between human beings. Knowledge also requires the learner to practice doing the thing being learned, under the guidance and with the corrective feedback of the experienced mentor.
Then there is wisdom (bringing to mind the old joke about being "knowledgeable" when you know the tomato is a fruit, and "wise" when you realize it doesn't belong in a fruit salad). Wisdom can't be canned, it can't be automated, and it certainly can't be sold. It also can't be rushed. Nor can wisdom be separated from deeper questions: of morality, of life's purpose, of values, of meaning.
A true education leads not just to knowledge, but to wisdom. While that can happen in school settings (though often it doesn't), it can also happen outside of school (and often does). And while an education leading toward wisdom can happen in concert with one's occupational training, that is not always the case. Not everyone with a formal education grows wise, and I've known many wise people whose formal education ceased early. (One of my personal gurus was a self-educated uncle, famous among our family for his book obsessions.)
That being said, I still believe it's crucial to preserve the ideal of the university as a place that encourages the pursuit of both knowledge and wisdom, and the perpetuation of both for future generations. Are formal institutions of learning the only place where that should happen? No. Should those of us who attended college feel superior to those who did not? Never. (Arrogance is obnoxious, and arrogance on the part of academic folks does much to alienate those following other life paths--something we can ill afford right now.) Does this mean job training shouldn't matter in college? Of course not. But if we hold to the ideal of the university as one crucial site for the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom--as well as certain kinds of job training--all of society will benefit.
And if we don't?
Do we want our citizenry to be educated by machines, assessed by machines, and certified by machines? Do we want to have the whole process managed by impersonal, profit-minded corporations who pour their resources into luring educators with high-end, can-you-top-this cocktail parties (even as their ultimate goal is to render some of their own customers obsolete)? Do we want to perpetuate the specter of Dickens' misguided Gradgrind, by arguing for an education that teaches "facts, nothing but facts"? As human beings, aren't we meant for more than that?
Have we stopped and thought, truly thought, about what kind of world we are wishing for if we turn a blind eye to the long-term implications of abandoning the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom in favor of a for-profit, utilitarian-minded, canned curriculum?