Coping with routine disservice

The next economy will serve us in ways that we currently get disserved by markets, institutions and business models. In the meantime, we seem very tolerant, even expectant, of getting disserved because it is so widespread. Here's a few examples from higher ed:
  • Students who suffer from text anxiety get disserved by closed book tests and cramming for multiple choice exams
  • Students seeking proof of their deeper comprehension get disserved by tests of their superficial memorization
  • Students whose minds close when being mistreated get disserved by enforced conformity to academic requirements
  • Students who value mentoring from adults get disserved by the authoritative presence of lecturers addressing hundreds

During the dozen years I taught college courses, I was continually amazed that students were not rebelling against the disservice of their classes that were "only good for a grade". As I came to understand my students better, I realized how they had adapted themselves to getting routinely disserved. They discovered coping strategies to lower their frustrations and focus on passing the class so they did not have to take it over. I came to understand their lack of outrage as deploying two different strategies:
  1. Survivalists: Lots of students give themselves even odds of graduating. The 50% dropout rate is no surprise to them. They are not succeeding in college or their lives. It's amazing to them their problems have not taken control of their ability to stay in school. They are inundated with financial, family, employment, and transportation problems when they are not dealing with school workload, deadlines and scheduling conflicts. Amidst this context, they keep their learning to an absolute minimum. Getting a diploma would be a miracle. They are not invested enough to feel justified in objecting to the disservice.
  2. Show-offs: Most other students want to graduate with honors. They are playing the grade game with a vengeance. They are going for far more than a diploma: they want the stellar GPA, the impressive transcript, sparkling faculty recommendation letters and a dazzling resume of campus activities. They are slavishly creating a credential of their college attendance, because they subconsciously know they will have nothing else to show for it. They are getting a degree, but not an education. They are not learning to do anything or prepare for any responsibilities in the world. They are becoming very knowledgeable in the way academics are, not in the ways pragmatists, problem solvers and leaders must be. They don't dare complain about the disservice because it would expose their self-betrayal in the same moment. They suffer in silence and show off their accomplishments instead.

As I've been writing about the next economy recently, I made the connection between these student coping strategies and the plight of consumers, wage earners, home owners and small investors. Everyone has adapted coping strategies that perpetuates the disservice without suspicion, distaste or withdrawal. While that has keep the current economy going indefinitely, it suggests there could be a mass exodus from the disservice once the next economy comes along.


  1. Towards the end of my brief career training teachers in educational technology - which was mainly undertaken in the vocational education sector - I was provided an opportunity to deliver some guest lectures on using 3D immersive virtual environments in learning to a university e-learning class. I was very excited as this was my first experience at the higher education level and I thought it may even be a pathway into that sector.

    Imagine my disappointment when, with the exception of a couple of mature-age students (who I suspect would have had to make some real sacrifices to be there), they didn't really show much curiosity about what I had to say. There were even some who just giggled and talked their way through my presentations. Most only seemed interested in what would help them get through the course.

    Their teacher told me the attitudes of "what's the minimum I need to do to pass" and "will it be on the test" were very common among her students. It was all an eye-opener for me to experience this phenomenon in practice (I had read about it) and a little dispiriting.

    If we are to thrive in the face of the coming crises it seems to me that our education institutions need to change a lot to ensure that the next generations are much more enthusiastic and engaged in learning than what I've seen.

  2. Like you, Sean, I was initially alarmed at the cynicism, passivity and contempt conveyed by students. But I realized how they are contemporary and classrooms are obsolete. Larry Lessig suggests that print communication is the "new Latin" which is only understood by an elite minority in isolated enclaves. The vernacular has shifted to audio/visual, read/write, remix/mashup communication. As McLuhan suggested, the fragmentation into subjects, jobs and schedules will stop making sense to generations raised on electronic media.

    You're right there need to be significant changes. I suspect those that have already been changed by the culture, technologies and interactivity will create a new genre of education.