Back to school

This summer, I’ve been gradually shifting my base of operations to Staunton, Virginia.  In a few weeks,  I’ll  be – and trust me, I find this difficult to believe – in grad school again.

Yeah.  At my age.  

It’s strange, going back to school when many of my high school and college classmates are starting to retire.  I mean, it’s not like I need any more letters after my name.
But the fact is, having spent much of the past two decades as an actor, I’d like to direct.  Making a living as an actor is no easy trick, even if you’re young and beautiful.  Since I’m neither, it’s time I looked into a steadier, more financially rewarding part of the business.

The problem is that I stumbled into acting with very little formal training.  You can do that, but, in American theatre, it’s tough getting hired as a director without some serious campus cred.

So it’s back to school.

I don’t mind so much.  Staunton is a great little city, with a bustling downtown, and it’s only five minutes from some of Virginia’s loveliest countryside.  Mary Baldwin College has an excellent reputation, and its specialization in Shakespeare coincides with my theatrical interests.

Perhaps most important, Staunton is only a couple of hours from Chester, which allows me to visit Mom at The Crossings.    

Still, grad school represents a considerable investment of both money and time, neither of which I have in abundance.  I wish there were a quicker, more practical way of qualifying as a director, as there would be in some other countries.

But in America, formal education is the conventional way of qualifying for a job, and that’s a battle I’m not ready to fight at this time.  

That said, I sincerely hope that this is beginning to change.  A little while back, I wrote a piece about the controversy at UVA over the short-lived decision to fire President Sullivan.  In that piece, I referred briefly to a developing trend, for major American universities to offer some of their best courses on-line, for free, or at very moderate cost.

It’s a trend which seems to have developed momentum.  MIT, Stanford, Harvard, and a dozen or so other top-notch universities are already collaborating in this effort. 

Sooner or later, I expect Mr. Jefferson’s university will join.

And we all need to start thinking about what that might mean.  

There are many things to consider.  

For one thing, it seems clear that the participating universities are beginning to develop methods of offering alternative credentials – certificates, rather than formal college credit – to students who fulfill certain requirements.  They’re developing methods of testing massive  numbers of students, even using “peer evaluation” of papers and projects to get beyond mere multiple-choice tests.

It’s all very new, and there are lots of details to work out, but the participating universities have reputations to protect.  It’s a safe bet they won’t be handing out certificates without being sure they don’t “devalue the brand”.

Now, it’s possible that this certification process will simply be regarded by employers as an alternative to college credits.  But I doubt that.  

If our top universities start developing ways to “crowd-source” test-taking and evaluation - i.e., “grading” – those techniques will soon become available to business and government.  And then, we’re into a whole new ballgame.

Because if we can use internet-based methods, not only to deliver information, but to facilitate the equivalent of discussion classes, term papers, essay tests, and grading - in short, if we can actually certify that an individual possesses a certain level of knowledge or expertise, it might be the beginning of the end of the “fanny time” approach to education.

And that could be a real game-changer.

As a teacher, and as a critic of our educational system, I have always believed that our schools, from kindergarten through at least the undergraduate level of college, lack a well-defined mission.  Modern educators worry endlessly about the how of education – which often comes down to political correctness – rather than the product.

When we focus on product at all, we focus on the wrong things.  Our SOL system, for example, tests the short-term acquisition of basic information, not students’ retention of that information over time, or their ability to use it critically or in innovative ways.  

In other words, recent educational “reforms” have been all about increasing the monopoly of formal education, and decreasing the ability of young Americans to make what they learn into something they can use in their own lives.

Suppose, instead, we began to develop methods whereby individuals can choose from a variety of valid sources of information.

And methods for certifying the extent to which an individual has acquired that information, and learned to use it.  

Suppose we focused more on what you know, and less on how you learned it. 

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