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.

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.

Pre-Distraction Distraction

But of course, when I’m at home, if ever I’m tempted to read a book, a part of me is braced for the phone to ring or the chime of “you’ve got mail” in the next room. So I interrupt myself even if it doesn’t interrupt me. And if ever I’m tempted to look at the stars, I think, oh no, there are a thousand things I have to do around the house or around the town. Or if I’m involved in a deep conversation, I think, oh, the Lakers game is on T.V. I should do that. And so one way or another, I always cut into my own clarity and concentration when I’m at home. And it reminded me why sometimes people like me have to take conscious measures to step into the stillness and silence and be reminded of how it washes us clean, really.

— Pico Iyer in his On Being conversation with Krista Tippett.

Pico puts perfectly and beautifully, as he always does, a phenomenon I’ve thought about as pre-distraction distraction. 

Pre-distraction distraction means that the activities I’m willing to put my mind to are always small, and are always far down on the list of importance, because we expect the interruption that is to come. And when we expect that interruption, we are never willing to engross ourselves in the Dostoevsky we have always intended to read, or to write that polemic about the state of concentration in the modern world, because we know we will only last five minutes before the distraction comes.

Instead we scroll through Twitter or Instagram, perhaps reply to a few brief emails (ignoring the meaningful ones that require one’s full attention), or we browse through a picture-filled magazine until, inevitably, comes the vibration in the pocket or the chime from the laptop.

Without distraction-free places our minds come to take on the the tasks that we anticipate can be completed before the distraction comes. And who ever learned or accomplished anything great in five minutes?

The Liberal Arts and Two Visions of the Future

There are two separate and entirely incompatible strands of thought about liberal education passing through public discourse at present.

The first argues that liberal education is a solution to increasing mechanisation of the work force, an antidote for the feeling of alienation and a loss of meaning, and the way to produce broad-minded, deep-hearted leaders. As Asia invests in the liberal arts, and as a new public narrative along these lines becomes more common in the United States, the liberal arts appear on the one hand to be experiencing a resurgence.

The second narrative argues that the liberal arts, and more specifically the humanities that make up their centrepiece, are worthless in a world where value is created digitally. This view is summarised succinctly by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, who writes in one of his polemics that “Little of the material taught in Liberal Arts programs today is relevant to the future.” Instead, science and technology are the paths to progressing humanity and improving the world.

The inability of these two strands of thought to connect or engage with one another points to the central issue: they each have incompatible visions of the future.

One imagines a world where morals, character, public service and living well are the purpose of education. The other imagines a world where humanity is advanced by technology, and education must focus on preparing the minds necessary for this advancement.

Recognising which vision for the future we hold dear is the start of knowing what education means to us individually. And by acknowledging that those who disagree with us about the value of liberal education do so not out of ignorance but from a different vision of a noble future, perhaps for the first time these narratives may engage with one another.