by Evan Carlson.
As a teacher, I’ve often asked my students, “What are you planning to study in college?” This question is seemingly benign and well intentioned, but I’ve come to discover its dark side. For instance, the assumption that students can afford to attend college at all. Or, as I will explore in this article, the assumption that college is the best and most legitimate way for people to keep learning after high school.
The better question to ask my students – and one I’ve not used nearly enough – is this: “How will you keep learning after you leave high school?” Unlike the former question, this one avoids classist assumptions about students’ financial capabilities and acknowledges learning can happen in more ways than just attending college.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture that paints people who don’t have a college degree as uneducated and ignorant. Think of this as a marketing strategy serving the interests of an increasingly profit-driven university system. The more marketers can convince people that they are lacking without this educational product, the more likely people are to enroll at a college – even if it saddles them with an average debt of over $37,000 and rising, as recently reported in Forbes.
In this sense, college presents a tough situation for working class people. Either don’t enroll at the expense of your intelligence or do enroll at the expense of your already-strained wallet. Popular solutions to this problem include Bernie Sanders’ proposed “College for All” plan, in which the government would cover the cost of all students’ tuition. USA Today reports that this plan would cost an estimated $70 billion annually. Compare that to the $700 billion spent on US military imperialism last year alone, according to NPR – one tenth of the cost and an infinitely better mission! This “College for All” idea is one I can get behind, but it is only a partial solution. What it doesn’t solve is the popular notion that one must go to college in order to be taken seriously as an intellectual.
Learning outside the classroom
As such, it’s vital that we acknowledge and value learning done outside of universities. This learning – whether it takes places at home on a computer, at a public library, in a community center, or within a DIY space – is essential because it is accessible and welcoming to everyone, not just those with money and cultural capital. For instance, DoSpace in Omaha provides the public with free access to computers, software, and technology classes, supporting learning without financial constraints.
Moreover, this learning has some advantages over the learning one does in college: it’s more self-guided, allowing people to explore at their own pace and in their own way; more relevant to the community’s needs, catering learning accordingly without the constraints of institutional bureaucracy; and more egalitarian, making room for people to both learn from others and teach what they already know.
Given how powerful and joyous this kind of learning can be, it’s a shame that so many people see it as less legitimate than a college degree. We must fight back against this mistaken notion that only a university can grant a person valuable knowledge, nuanced perspectives, and critical thinking skills. The more effectively we combat this notion, the more space we can create for everyone to learn and grow with their community.
I’m grateful to see such spaces crop up around Lincoln – at the Commons, the Black Cat House, Common Root, Lincoln Literacy, and the Lincoln Repair Cafe, to name a few. At all of these places, anyone can learn from and teach others without the financial demands of a college environment. Let’s work to preserve and expand these spaces, standing up for learning that is egalitarian, democratic, and community oriented.