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Grandma goes back to college
Grandmother and grandson graduate together from Indiana University: On its own, the story of Rosecedar Byrd and Keith Taylor is a feel-good human-interest story. But their story really shows how much more we need to do to normalize life-long learning.
■ Virtually every American adult should be on some kind of path to learning more. The full spectrum of economic, cultural, scientific, and technological changes arriving year after year isn't going to slow down. Like the Mandelbrot set (or any other fractal), complexity is unbounded -- and the deeper you look, the more complexity there remains to be discovered.
■ "Grandma goes back to college" deserves to be a ho-hum event. We should have many more on-ramps and pathways for adults to pursue further education in structured ways. Lots of people have tried to name our post-industrial economic era, but the name it really deserves is the teach-yourself economy. The natural human desire to satisfy curiosity can be seen everywhere, from the dominance of "how to" as a search term on YouTube to the way many people satisfied their Covid-19 lockdown anxieties by learning to make bread.
■ Of course, people should always remain free to teach themselves whatever satisfies their curiosity (within the bounds of not harming others, of course). But it would be sound public policy to recognize that there is an overlap between what is good for individuals and what is good for society overall. There is an undeniable inverse relationship between unemployment and educational attainment. And it is clear that the needs for retraining and upskilling are growing -- probably at an accelerating pace. Even useful skills become obsolete -- one study says skills go bad at an average rate of 2.6% a year.
■ We shouldn't just leave people to try to figure out how to backfill that skills obsolescence all on their own. One proposal floated among the Nordic countries would make adult education compulsory, and there's at least a little bit of sense to that, especially if the public sector has to provide support when people are unemployed or need to lean on the social safety net.
■ Ultimately, you can tell what a people value by where the commit their resources -- especially of time and money. Similarly, you can tell where vested interests are protecting themselves by how hard they work to keep others out. Together, those observations suggest that we need to broaden access to formal systems for higher education and reform occupational licensing so that individuals have the greatest possible freedom to adapt to circumstances as times change, jobs evolve, and old skills fade away.
■ We remain in the early stages of seeing affordable and accessible college programs emerge so that adults with work and family responsibilities can obtain further education without having to drop everything. One would think that, after the Covid-19 shutdowns sent all colleges into virtual mode at once, perhaps we would come to rethink the processes of higher education with some urgency. Alas, the academy is slow to reform itself -- professional associations resist accrediting online programs and most colleges insist on teaching mainly with bricks and mortar. There will always be a place for four-year residential degrees as a personally-formative life experience -- but we need a whole lot more ongoing options to provide economically-transformative ones.
■ Ongoing education should be coincidental with other life obligations -- existing alongside the other things ordinary people do, not displacing them. So for now, three cheers for Keith and Rosecedar. But we ought to work hard to make today's very special story into tomorrow's very unremarkable one. The sooner we get there, the better.