New School: How the Web Liberalized Liberal Arts Education New School: How the Web Liberalized Liberal Arts Education
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New School: How the Web Liberalized Liberal Arts Education

by Maria Popova

November 20, 2009

A look at what the internet is doing for learning, curiosity, and creativity outside the traditional classroom.

The average cost of a Bachelor's degree at a public, four-year liberal arts university is $26,340. At a private one, it's $100,520, and the Ivy League commands more than $160,000. And while the value of education is universally indisputable, the emergence of new online tools and platforms has challenged its price tag, empowering us to take charge of our own intellectual development.In recent years, we've seen initiatives like AcademicEarth, MIT's OpenCourseWare, the U.K.'s Open University and iTunesU open up the virtual gates of the world's top universities to the intellectually curious, regardless of their location or financial situation. Today, you can click your way to lectures about Roman architecture from Yale, entrepreneurship from the University of Cambridge, the history of jazz from Arizona State University, microbiology from Berkley, and the morality of murder from Harvard.But besides the opening up of access to education, we've also seen an opening up of its definition-no longer confined to the traditional world of academia, "education" now spans a much broader spectrum of learning, inspiration and curiosity. Smart blogs, online magazines, and publishers like TED and Pop!Tech have made enormous strides toward this evolution by offering content that is both intellectually and emotionally engaging, bringing an element of production value to the traditional lecture format. And, not coincidentally, they've reached a massive audience of self-learning enthusiasts-since TED Talks first became available in 2006, more than 180 million have been watched worldwide.Of course, most would agree the true "value" of higher education isn't merely in the lectures but also in the sociocultural experience of being among open-minded others who have come together to learn, socialize and, let's face it, party. But putting a price tag on such an environment assumes it can only be handed to us rather than self-acquired, and in the era of citizen empowerment, this is a dated and somewhat docile surrender to learned-and learning-helplessness.As web communities continue to garner critical mass, these learning environments are bound not by the brick walls of a college campus but by the broadband cables that wrap the globe. Even in our analog social circles, why not conceive of self-initiated neo-education events and environments for young adults, an intersection of dinner parties and college classes where we watch a Stanford lecture about Darwin's legacy, then discuss it over a glass of wine?TED has had phenomenal success with TEDx-a program of self-organized TED-like events, designed to bring local "ideas worth spreading" to light and spark public debate within the community. While this isn't traditional education, TED has long been a beacon of intellectual empowerment and the TEDx program offers hope for a viable, powerful model for such self-initiated neo-education bolstered by a community of like-minded knowledge- and idea-hungry peers.In my own experience, I can frankly admit that the first month of watching TED gave me more knowledge,  insight, and inspiration than all four years of the glorified status symbol that is Ivy League education. Which says something about traditional academia's continued failure to compel, but mostly about the power of neo-education to do so. This paradigm shift is redefining both our relationship with education and our conception of "free"-tuition-free freedom of access and choice, an empowered self-guided tour of knowledge, validated not by a framed diploma but by something far more meaningful: The gratification of having pursued and explored our deepest intellectual curiosity.This is not to say it's an either-or situation-but the complementary role of personal initiative in the pursuit of insight is increasingly important. When the liberal arts model was first conceived in 5th century A.D., at its heart was an effort to fulfill students' broadest intellectual potential by exposing them to a wide and eclectic array of general knowledge, as opposed to narrow specialization. But over the course of the past century, the liberal arts curriculum has mutated-students are selecting specialties like Premed and Marketing as early as their freshman year, zooming in on a narrowly defined path towards med school or an MBA.Academia seems to have lost its capacity for inspiring the kind of indiscriminate curiosity so fundamental to developing a well-rounded intellectual and creative awareness about the world."Liberal arts education no longer exists in this country. We have professionalized liberal arts to the point where they no longer provide the breadth of education and enhanced capacity for civic engagement that is their signature," says Bennington college president Liz Coleman-ironically, at TED. "The progression of today's college student is to jettison every interest but one, and within that one, to continually narrow the focus, learning more and more about less and less-this, despite all the evidence around us of the interconnectedness of things."This is where neo-education steps in-not necessarily as a substitute for a university degree, at least not at this point, but as a necessary filler for the many gaps in today's higher education, an essential exercise in flexing our inherent human curiosity about the world before it atrophies into the narrow scope of skill and vision that the original liberal arts model aimed to eradicate in the first place. In an age driven by the cross-pollination of ideas, viewpoints, and disciplines, it is only through such indiscriminate curiosity and exploration that we can truly liberalize our collective future.Guest blogger Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings, a curated inventory of miscellaneous interestingness. She writes for Wired U.K. and spends a shameful amount of time on Twitter.Illustration by Will Etling.
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New School: How the Web Liberalized Liberal Arts Education