The Masked-panic of Higher Education

Panic Strategy

When exactly is it the appropriate time to panic…and if you’ve deemed it appropriate, what should this panic look like as not to raise suspicion and/or jeopardize reputation? Do  you immediately (and secretly) reeducate yourself as to be marketable in 5 years for a job that doesn’t exist yet? Do you dump your retirement savings into Bitcoin, close your eyes for a decade, and hope that you wake up on a yacht in the Caribbean? Perhaps you deem the appropriate reaction to consist of carrying on whilst writing feverishly about “transformation” and “disruption” in an effort to convince yourself that being “in the know” will somehow upend your imminent and inevitable trajectory towards irrelevance (this is typically my chosen path).

Whether we choose to admit it or not, I know these to exemplify the unsavory considerations crawling through the minds of nearly all competent professionals in higher education today (please note the use of  “competent” here — there are certainly a large number of blissfully ignorant individuals who will carry on parasitically, oblivious or apathetic to the changing tides that surround them — and perhaps better for it). It’s not that we’re unwilling to admit there’s an issue, I just don’t think anyone has the foresight necessary to enact an appropriate remedy. Ken Norton, product manager at Google Ventures uses an ants and aliens analogy that I find particularly applicable to education. Not only do we lack the frame of reference necessary to envision how our darling ivory towers fit into 2050, we’re simultaneously steeped in deep-rooted tradition that further blinds us from discovering the ultimate truth. How could this combination lead towards anything but a sweeping, largely unseen, masked panic within higher ed?

Panic Honesty

I use “masked” because it’s sub-surface. There’s nothing overt and explicit to be noticed (not yet anyway), but rather, an undeniable essence of unease permeating the higher ed ether, and from the inside, it’s fairly difficult to deny. Few seem willing to come to honest terms with this obvious angst, and the higher up the command chain you go, the more roses and fewer thorns you tend to encounter. Now, this isn’t to say you won’t hear conversations about the need to “revolutionize the system” or “rethink the model,” but how often do these tropes truly capture the panic we all know to exist? More often, these phrases, which carry a strange civil rights era ethos, are used to thicken the mask with a false sense of egotistical promise. 

Can we start to be honest about where this is all fucking heading? I’m certainly not saying that I see the final destination, I just know that it’s time to come to terms with the fact that it will be somewhere very new and different, and that getting there isn’t likely to be comfortable unless we get accustomed to embracing change. Google, MOOCs, Amazon, Trump, VR/AR, MissionU, BitDegree, Galvanize, edX, blockchains — the catalysts of the masked-panic are not hiding. They’re making their presence very well known (often much more so than we’d prefer), and yet we carry on with our committees, coffee-breaks, and multiple-choice tests.