The Commodification of Learning

Note: I wrote this article in late 2012, in one of my final few months of high school. I originally published it on Medium, where it was widely shared. What I was getting at, really, was the value of the liberal arts, though I don’t think I fully comprehended the term back then.

You can learn a huge amount by reading a novel, examining an artwork, or watching a movie. You can usually learn a lot more by doing one of those things than you can by reading a school textbook that spoon-feeds you information.

But every day, I see people choose to read a textbook they’ve already read a dozen times over a new novel, because they can see an immediate reward for reading that book. Namely, that reward is better grades.

But getting better grades doesn’t mean you’ve learned more. Getting a better grade on a topic usually shows that you’ve trained your brain to regurgitate information on a given topic so well that your brain isn’t even conscious of it anymore. It wasn’t learning beyond the point that you understood the concepts – from there, it was simple memorisation.

In other words, people choose to learn less, simply because there is a more obvious reward that society offers by reading something less insightful that they already understand to a certain extent.

I think the rewards should be given to the people who choose to broaden their minds by learning about a larger range of topics, rather than those people who devote themselves to being able to recite their textbooks.

Yet no one gets credit for reading a book that is unrelated to school. It doesn’t go on their report, and doesn’t contribute to grades. In the mental equation that all students carry out, the most obvious payout comes from continuing to read the already-familiar textbook over a new book on an entirely new subject.

This is the commodification of learning. Learning becomes a process where an economic value is attached to the outcomes, in the form of good grades that (eventually) are said to lead to a better job. Yet not all learning is assigned an economic value – only very specific, measurable, tangible learning that is done in a classroom is assigned this value in the form of grades.

The result of this commodification is that the incentives facing students are wrong. The incentives should be geared toward encouraging learning and understanding of a range of topics, not the recital of textbooks and basic knowledge that all high school students have. The incentives brought about by this commodification of learning lead to homogenous thinking and lack of creativity – undesirable traits in the world today.

To fix this problem, we need to either:

– Commodify the learning of everything.

or

– Ensure everyone realises that learning, in its true form, is an uncommodifiable concept.

Commodifying the learning of everything would involve giving individuals credit for the books they read, the topics they learn about, the subjects they speak on, and the artworks they create. In some ways, it’s fixing a problem by throwing more of the problem at it. But that might just work.

If everyone were to realise that learning cannot be truly commodified, then greater consideration could be given to individuals who exhibit learning beyond their textbooks. This attaches intrinsically recognisable value to all learning, without making that value economic, and thereby commodifying learning.

I don’t know which solution is better. But what I do know is that education, where it’s currently headed, shows no signs of creating broad-minded, creative individuals. And that seems a mighty big failure of twenty-first century education.

Selling the Liberal Arts

This is how the Council of Independent Colleges, an organising body for many small liberal arts colleges, describes the liberal arts:

A liberal arts education means studying broadly—taking classes in many different subjects—and building skills that are geared toward more than just one profession. By studying the liberal arts, students develop strong critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills. Liberal arts students learn to approach questions flexibly and to think across multiple disciplines. These are skills employers say they value most, even more than a specific major. In today’s labor market, career paths are changing rapidly, and graduates must draw from a variety of skillsets to adapt to challenges and capitalize on opportunities.

I understand the attempt to appeal to what future colleges students think they should want by highlighting the liberal arts in an employment context. But doing so anchors these future liberal arts students to the idea that their time at college is about maximising their employment opportunities. Before they’ve even started college, they’ve given up on what the liberal arts are meant to be about.

Yes, this approach might succeed in attracting more students to the liberal arts; but it does so with the wrong reasons, diminishing the chance of a liberal education actually being received. For studying at a liberal arts college does not mean you are receiving a liberal education; the latter is, of course, up to what the individual makes of it.

The approach makes even less sense when, in a rather inane dialogue meant to explain the liberal arts, the same website describes liberal education as being about “the abilities or skills appropriate to a person who’s free.” Which is it? Are the liberal arts a fast-track to a management career, or about learning how to be free in a deep sense?

The confusion over how the liberal arts are sold means that most of us liberal arts students, and most of our professors, aren’t sure what we’re meant to be receiving or what to be teaching. Is it employable skills? Or how to be wise? The difference could not be more stark, and it explains why in my time at college I’ve had to do assignments ranging from an infographic (because employers love that, my professor said) to being asked to write my own eulogy.

If the liberal arts are to mean anything beyond being a new marketing strategy for small colleges, we (and I mean students, professors, and college administrators) must promise what we actually mean. Only then will students expect to have their lives fundamentally changed at college, and be open to the experience.

A Sense of Motion Without Moving

We treat productivity as if it were an objective task, something clear and defined that we must all pursue.

The notion of productivity itself requires an endpoint, a goal. Productivity is a means to something else (even if, much of the time, we seem trapped into thinking of it as its own end). To treat productivity as objective requires, then, that we have in mind the same endpoint to productivity as everyone else.

And that endpoint isn’t too hard to decipher. It consists in checking off tasks, being efficient in one’s work so that one may get a promotion or advance in some vague sense. Productivity is the means of moving through the world faster.

That is despite Parker Palmer’s forewarning that “The tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness the smaller the tasks we’ll take on”.

If one sees through that endpoint, one sees through the trap of productivity thinking. If you don’t believe in moving upwards, forwards, onwards for its own sake, you cannot believe in productivity as we are forced to pursue it. 

To believe in both that hollow endpoint and the notion of productivity is merely to have, in Ray Bradbury’s words, a sense of motion without moving.

Peter Sagan and the Paradox of Eminence

Every sport needs its hero, those once-in-a-generation individuals who come to redefine a sport. These protagonists first shape the public perception of the sport, becoming its symbol for those with no sense of its history. And, ultimately, public perception works backwards to influence how even the sport’s traditionalists must understand the new reality of their sport and its meaning for millions around the world.

Whether one is inclined to like it or not, many of these battles seem to be playing out with the person of Peter Sagan. His name is increasingly thrown about, perhaps too often, as a “great”. Yet what is less understood is how he increasingly symbolises the age-old battle between ambition, tradition and greatness in sport. The way that the paradoxes between those three things are resolved may very likely define this sport’s twenty first century. Change in a sport like cycling happens rarely, and when it does happen it happens slowly—but there are telltale signs that minor battles we are seeing today are a sign of larger changes underfoot in this sport of ours.

There’s more to Peter Sagan than his palmarès . Sagan the person, Sagan the personality, complicates the cycling world’s love for him. There is, most obviously, his continual ability to tease this sport.

Sometimes he teases cycling through an unsuspected seriousness. For instance, right after he won the world championship last year in Richmond, he ignored the interviewer’s questions to instead talk about the European migrant crisis, and the good that individuals can do by believing they can improve the world. When the interviewer tried to change the subject back to the race he had just won, Sagan seemed frustrated that someone could lose so much perspective to come to think that a bike race was more important than migrants’ lives. “Sorry? The race?”, he questioned, with a mocking expression. In three words, he put everyone in cycling back in the real world, popping the bubble that so frequently surrounds those who define themselves by a sport.

Other times he teases cycling by ignoring its customs. We all know about Sagan not shaving his legs at the start of the 2016 season. Sean Kelly perfectly summed up the view of cycling’s old guard with his comment about Sagan to CyclingTips that “He’s wearing the world champion’s jersey, and he owes it to be respectful and to be clean and presentable.”

This sport can be a serious one, and Sagan seems to take pleasure in developing the persona of a kid who just loves to ride bikes, and who couldn’t care less about its customs and seriousness. This is all very much on display in a recent GoPro video featuring Sagan on holiday at a mountain bike race. His occasional infidelity to the road discipline by entering mountain races (including at the upcoming Rio Olympics) are a cause for concern to some who see it as a lack of devotion and dedication.

But the 26 year old Slovakian’s palmarès, too, points to some anomalies which in turn many have suggested are a sign of greatness. To start, there’s his exceptional success across a wide range of races. Then there’s his surprising versatility for a supposed sprinter. He can limit losses to, if not quite contest, pure climbers, as he did in the queen stage of the 2015 Tour of California, which set him up to win the general classification. And he can descend as well as Nibali, which was on full display at last year’s Tour. Four times winner of the Tour de France points classification, winner of the Tour of Flanders this year—the list goes on, all highlighting his versatility.

This versatility is itself relatively rare in a sport where to win one classification, or one race, can require complete dedication and a very different training regimen. The versatility upsets the expectations about the physical builds of riders who win certain races, and many have noted how the style harks back to at least one of the cycling greats of the twentieth century.

All that, and he’s young, with many years of riding ahead of him. There’s a great deal more Peter Sagan to see.

Sports are rarely changed from the inside. The process of change cannot happen in any community where its most ardent supporters are those who hold its positions of power. We can see this all too clearly in cycling with the UCI. History and tradition are paramount to those who live a sport rather than watch it, to those who study it and not just support it. And with the preeminence of history and tradition comes the belief that things are best as they are now, or even as they were thirty years ago; and even if one does not believe that, a traditionalist will still believe that the future presents dangers rather than opportunities. Enter Sean Kelly’s comment about Sagan’s unshaven legs.

Change is a slow process precisely because of this resistance, and it is not guaranteed. Any single rider who begins to be discussed as a potential “great” must then grapple individually with the paradox between ambition and tradition.

Ambition for greatness in any sport steeped with history and tradition is always going to be a convoluted, messy path. And the paradox of eminence in sport is that greatness is less likely when you play within all the rules, as the sport was practiced and won by its last star. Merely repeating former greatness may seem like the obvious path, but what was greatness decades ago may not be greatness today. And yet to break those rules leaves one open to being rejected by the sport as much as being recorded in its books—as Sagan has already seen.

Change seems to happen backwards. That is, a protagonist first influences those with no sense of the sport’s history, who in turn force the sport’s traditionalists to reconsider their own views. Because of this, Sagan’s unconventionality may already be working, and change in cycling as well as the unmistakable eminence of a new star may be well on their way.

All greats, in all sports, have struggled to find a path through this paradox of ambition for greatness and tradition, and sports’ history books are written about those who navigate it successfully. Peter Sagan already has the signs of greatness attached to him, but rarely have we considered what exactly greatness will require of him. Perhaps most interesting of all will be his appearance at this year’s Tour and those in future, where the meeting of cycling’s new unconventional star and its bastion of tradition will be on full display.

A writer who happens to use a blog as one medium amongst others

“Blogging” describes the medium rather than the activity. When one is blogging, they are writing with the intent to publish on a website that displays content in a reverse chronological feed.

But it also has certain connotations. A blogger will be young; will have a focus on the instantaneous and immediate; will be innovative, looking for page views, and untrained as a writer; and usually favours quantity over quality.

We can see the real confusion over the term when we look at how many large news organisations now publish their articles in a reverse chronological feed. Are journalists then bloggers? By definition, yes, by connotation, no.

Many great writers of the twentieth century started off as junior journalists, covering issues that fit most of my descriptions of a blogger above. But they were always writers—there wasn’t a term that was applied to them to diminish their work.

The great writers of the twenty-first century might never publish in print; their medium might always be the blog.

And make no mistake. They are still writers.

They are writers who happen to use a blog as one medium amongst others.

Studying Abroad in the Asia Pacific Century

If New Zealand is to gain from its proximity to new global economic power, we cannot simply expect the rewards to come to us.

New Zealand is fortunate both to be located in the Asia Pacific, and to have deep and long-standing ties with other countries in this region. As global economic power is increasingly focussed on our part of the world, our relative proximity to Asia rather than Europe has made it easier for more people to visit New Zealand, and has reduced costs for businesses exporting goods and services. Economically, we are reaping the rewards.

But one area in which we seem to neglect the importance of our location is in education. When government thinks about education in terms of the Asia Pacific century, it is thought about primarily as an “export”. In other words, education is a service that we can sell to other countries. Through thinking of education only in this way, we are missing out on the real educational opportunities that the Asia Pacific century presents us with.

The government has even established a new agency to develop our education exports to Asia. Education New Zealand (separate from the Ministry of Education) states explicitly that its two near-term outcomes are both to increase the economic value of international students studying in New Zealand, and to increase the economic value of education products and services delivered offshore. These are both worthy goals that will help to achieve the government’s goal of growing export markets, and to ensure that New Zealand has a competitive and productive economy.

However, in economic terms, we are neglecting the benefits to be had from the other side of the education equation. This side deals with sending young New Zealanders overseas to develop deep personal connections, to learn languages and skills, and to come to understand in a meaningful way the other countries in the Asia Pacific that will be so important to New Zealand’s future.

One reason we shy away from thinking about this side of the equation is that in the immediate term, it is thought about as an “import”. In other words, sending young New Zealanders overseas is an economic cost to New Zealand, because the money they spend on education is spent overseas and not domestically. The other reason we neglect this part of education in the Asia Pacific century is that we have a deep-rooted fear that sending young New Zealanders overseas will be to lose them forever to the brain drain.

But what I’ve learned from the past few years studying at a university in Singapore, in the heart of the Asia Pacific, is that two-way educational links are one of the most fundamental components necessary for New Zealand to take advantage of what this century will offer. And they must be two-way linkages. Just as we bring bright students from around the Asia Pacific to study at our schools and universities, so too must we send young Kiwis to spend extended periods of time at schools and universities throughout the region.

These young Kiwis will make deep friendships, will learn languages, and will move beyond the crass stereotypes we hold of other countries in the region. In the longer-term, these connections and understandings will come to bear on New Zealand’s economy in a meaningful way. They will ensure New Zealanders have the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to participate actively, even centrally, in the Asia Pacific. We would be, in this sense, “importing” critical connections in the region, and an accurate understanding of countries throughout it.

What I’ve also seen is that fears of a brain drain from New Zealanders studying overseas are overblown. In fact, they may be made up. What I’ve observed in myself and in the many other young Kiwis I know who study overseas is that time away from home in these formative years heightens our sense of our own national identities. At home, being a New Zealander is not something to be considered daily. Yet abroad, our national identity is always a sense of our own personal identity, and this can manifest as a strong desire to return home and to contribute to the life of this country.

One laudable government effort is the Prime Minister’s Scholarships for Asia, awarded twice annually to encourage young Kiwis to study in Asia. However, a sizeable portion of these scholarships is spent on brief study tours of just a few weeks, where there is little time for deep connections and understandings to be formed. The length and depth of the connections we form are vitally important.

If we are to gain from the Asia Pacific century we cannot simply expect the rewards to come to us. Just as international students from around Asia make long journeys to come here to understand us, we must think carefully about the decisions we can make, both personally and nationally, to participate actively in this region, to come to understand properly its diversity and its opportunities. We should think about the individual life experiences and opportunities that will come to young New Zealanders from choosing to study overseas, as well as the longer-term benefits to New Zealand from those individual decisions to do so. The higher cost of studying overseas is an important consideration, but it can be thought about as an investment—an intelligent one at that, with critical and long-standing value to New Zealand.

You Are What You Read

Over longer periods of time we come to subconsciously take on the qualities and attitudes of the information we consume.

It pays, therefore, to give some thought to the incentives facing the producers of that information.

News sources funded by advertising face very different incentives to those that directly charge their consumers. The former are incentivised to maximise clicks, as their bottom lines come directly from what advertisers pay per CPM—the cost per thousand impressions of an advert. More thousands of views, more dollars.

We know what that incentivises. Rumourmongering, since making up something fantastical is sure to drive traffic. Listicles, since of course everyone does want to know 29 ways to get cheap airfares that airlines don’t want you to know about. And, more generally, shoddy content, since incisive writing wins only Pulitzers rather than page views.

By paying for news, you are aligning your interests with those of the news source. You want quality journalism that cares about the world and cares about what you consume. The news organisation only makes a profit by providing that.

If you are one of those people who complain about the quality of journalism but consume it for free online, you are part of the problem. Your actions drive producers’ decisions about what to produce—yes, even that click on your trackpad.

 


Note: The print news business is capital intensive (printing presses, delivery vans etc) so it is not a competitive market. It doesn’t therefore fully fit what I’m describing above—you can pay for your daily newspaper and still get shoddy writing.