Blog: New School of Thought

By Kevin Kuzma, Online Editor

"I was thinking of the immortal words of Socrates, who said, ‘ … I drank what?’"
Chris Knight, Real Genius

By all accounts — and the most reliable chronicle comes from Plato more than 2,000 years ago — the philosopher Socrates was a street preacher. The old man never wrote down his thoughts. Instead, the man the citizens of Ancient Greece thought was whacked out and the establishment eventually came to consider a threat to leading young minds astray stood in public and spoke what he knew about the nature of humankind and the failures of his government.

His teachings would eventually see him put to death, of course, but long before swallowing hemlock he managed to inspire a few minds. His student Plato, who recorded Socrates’ teachings went on to found the Academy, what was essentially the world’s first university. The school’s list of graduates was impressive. Aristotle studied there for 20 years and eventually founded his own school.

The Academy gave the age’s thinkers a place to share their knowledge. In modern times, the principles of the academy are still the foundation for many of our educational philosophies, and remain a basis for the arrangement of most traditional colleges and universities as we know them.

I find it interesting that at this juncture in higher education with many public colleges and universities struggling to find the funding to continue their operations that online learning is decried by many as not being a legitimate mode of education. We have, to a certain extent, returned to the beginning where education began a firm association with time and place – a physical structure. A place to learn. And maybe this time those factors are less important than ever.

Plato’s Academy created a place for people hungry for knowledge to seek it out, whereas, on the street, Socrates could appeal to those who didn’t know they were hungry for it. While there was probably little distinction between them at the time, Socrates’ method could be said to involve bringing the message to the people. Plato’s involved creating a place for the people to come. In my opinion, a similar and equally natural approach is what has made career education more appealing to today’s students.

On one hand, you have the more esteemed halls of academia, the expansive campuses of traditional colleges and universities, and in many cases the towns that live off them. In America, our universities have been become places that people come to from around the world to study.

They are, quite literally, destinations. The campuses are often places to behold. The atmospheres are conducive to learning. There are other like-minded people walking the paths, sitting in classes, and hitting on the freshmen ladies. The administration has taken on the rigid feel of the campuses themselves. Colleges and universities are slow to change. Introducing new programs requires months, a year or sometimes more, for several approvals to be obtained and the first students to enroll. They are not exactly fleet of foot in responding to technology, either.

On the other hand, you have career colleges or “for-profit” schools. These institutions have set up shop in the suburbs. They can be found in corporate high rises and strip malls, but in all cases the campuses are located among the people. And they were among the first schools to truly buy into distance learning – to give up the walls of academia. They are, to a certain extent, the academic world’s street preachers.

Career colleges put the emphasis on the message. Reach is more important than surroundings, which is why the schools were the first to embrace online education and have paced traditional colleges and universities in the distance education race for more than a decade. More people can hear the message when you set up shop on their street corner. And you can get to them more frequently, more effectively, and on their own terms. Technology has allowed them to eliminate the need for campuses altogether. The campuses (most, anyway) do not necessarily exist to impress.

Implementing new programs is comparatively a breeze at career colleges. The layers of administration are easy to penetrate, because they are thin. Faculty concentrates on the student experience. Flexible course times are what students want, and so that is what they get.

Plato learned from his own teacher, and put his ideas in motion. They may only half-heartedly admit they can do so, but traditional colleges and universities can learn much from the street preacher on the block (career colleges.) Instead, they shout him down by complaining about the share of financial aid funding that is going to competitors – and those same competitors marketing approaches. They do this from their campuses where they encourage critical thinking, open minds, and creative solutions.

We are told by historians that Socrates could have escaped his death. There was plenty of time for his entourage to smuggle him out of town and for the old man to lead a life of seclusion. But he stayed put to suffer the consequences. His punishment was handed down from his society’s leaders, and he felt he should stay to literally drink the poison. Things did not end well for Socrates. Those who perceived him as a threat were able to cast him as one and see him done away with. The establishment almost always finds its own way to win.

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