What is School For? (“Lumping and Splitting” Edition)

This is a question I’ve been living for years. I don’t expect to answer it here, but I do want to take a quick look at how universities practice what Seth Godin calls lumping and splitting. As the names imply, “lumping” combines existing functions or categories, and “splitting” sub-divides them.

From a student’s perspective, universities lump (at least) instruction (both academic and professional), networking, and credentialing. (They also conduct research, of course, but that’s a different process, product, and market.) To this day, universities still act as if they have a monopoly on that particular lumping — and we as a society of parents, students, and employers tend to act as if that’s true.

On one level, this makes sense: teaching and credentialing are not easy tasks, and everyone wants to have something to point to as proof that they did it right. At least in the famous-college model, students get to say that hard work paid off, parents get to display a bumper sticker they’re proud of, and no one gets fired for hiring graduates of famous colleges. And, of course, those graduates all know each other, so their chances of falling through the cracks later in their careers go down somewhat. Besides, given the chance, who wouldn’t choose to spend a few years around other smart people their age, or to complete the nearest equivalent of a rite of passage into adulthood that our society has to offer?

The obvious question is whether this particular lumping is effective or desirable. How much of what we’re doing now really moves us in the right direction, and how much just keeps us moving down the path we’re already on? What would happen if we split the lumped model we’ve inherited?

Online courses made the first move by partially or completely splitting in-person contact from instruction and credentialing. That can drop the cost quite a bit (though the cost of an online degree can approach a traditional one), but it also cuts away one of the most valuable parts of school. Peers help each other learn and grow while on campus, and often remain friends and colleagues for life. Sure enough, not many people finish the online classes they start when they don’t have enough in-person support or accountability.

It seems to me that the really valuable move would be to split instruction and credentialing differently. Some of the most transformative, cost-effective teaching and learning happens outside of school. It just tends not to be credentialed in the ways we’re trained to look for. Meanwhile, a lot of the teaching and learning that happens at tremendous expense in the traditional colleges might not be worthy of the credential at the end of the rainbow.

There’s a clear first-mover problem here: who’s going to be the first parent, teacher, and employer to put a non-traditional credential ahead of an Ivy Leaguer? But I’m confident we can and must do better on this — and that the results will pay enormous dividends to society and business.

Speaking of school, it’s time to get back after it. To be continued …