Democratizing Education


By: Nancy Salvato

I’ve always wondered about going to an Ivy League school. My brother, who attended Cornell, told me that up to the first day of Law School, fellow students were packing and leaving for Harvard upon receiving late acceptance notices to that school. Apparently, the name Harvard is just that important. For those of us who choose (or are accepted into) less prestigious institutions of learning, there are other factors to consider. Extensive networking activities may avail themselves upon graduation, depending on college of choice, extra curricular affiliation, city and state you will eventually reside, degree, and myriad additional reasons. Who knew? Back then, I thought higher learning was mainly about quality and degree of education.

Today, if I wanted, I could listen to undergraduate lectures at Yale. This academic institution has decided to post them on-line for anyone who wants to pursue the Yale experience –at no cost. This is possible because of funding they received from a grant awarded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. I must admit I’m curious. I wonder if a course of study at an Ivy League school is really more rigorous than what I experienced at a reputable Midwestern University or is it that once you
are accepted, you simply attend classes among higher caliber students. If I acquired a syllabus and did all the work expected of an undergraduate student, would anyone take me seriously if I said I attended Yale? The question that begs to be asked is whether a person can achieve an acceptable level of education and prove academic ability without being awarded a degree from any particular institution of learning? When that is the case, then we are truly democratizing education.

I must admit I’m intrigued and pleased that there is a foundation seeking to, “Use information technology to help equalize access to knowledge and educational opportunities across the world. The initiative targets educators, students and self-learners worldwide.”1 While there are breakthroughs such as this, there are others who want badly to hoard quality education and prevent access to such learning. For example, State Rep. Monique Davis of Chicago has introduced House Bill 232 that, “Prohibits the State Board of Education and school boards from establishing, maintaining, or in any way supporting any virtual schools or virtual classes for elementary or secondary students in Illinois. Why can’t some people fathom the idea of allowing our tax dollars to pay for anything but the public school system?

Why are so many people afraid of equalizing educational opportunity? Personally, I’m all for allowing access to curricula –especially to that which is non ideological, which meets rigorous academic standards, and allows a student to pursue learning in a different venue than the traditional classroom. The likelihood is that a self motivated individual can accomplish more –and in less time than it takes at school. Perhaps some students can avoid gangs or an unsafe environment. Maybe others can avoid being bullied. Our schools do not do enough to protect some kids. Could it be that others are experiencing proselytizing? As a parent of two teenagers, I can tell you that I don’t always agree what they are exposed to in their classrooms. Certainly, I’m not seeing a balance of ideological perspectives presented. Maybe some parents disagree with the academic curriculum offered at the local school or are they uncomfortable with a strictly secular environment. Recently, a court of law told some parents that they could not object to the school offering lessons on gay marriage. I am against anything other than core academic subjects being taught in school. But I suppose some people will want to debate me about what is considered a core subject and “more important” than other areas of learning. For countless reasons, students should be allowed to choose the form and delivery of their education –as long as it prepares them for their chosen career. It would be in our best interest to allow people to take tests or prove in other ways their qualifications in areas of study.

Abraham Lincoln did not attend a formal law school, yet he practiced law. While I am not advocating going backwards and allowing just anyone to put up a shingle (Try watching “The Road to Wellville” if you can’t wrap your mind around what life was like before there were standards for practicing medicine), I am suggesting that people might be able to meet certain academic goals and objectives through non traditional means, at less cost, and be able to prove their level of education without having to receive a degree from a traditional institution of learning. It is an idea worth exploring.

If we are truly going to democratize learning opportunities, then we need to stop telling people where and how they are to receive their education. Instead, we should be developing standards that must be met to prove a certain “degree” of learning has taken place. Many of us are lifelong learners. Isn’t that really the goal?

1Open Educational Resources (OER) – Making High Quality Educational Content and Tools Freely Available on the Web)



Copyright © Nancy Salvato 2007

Nancy Salvato is the President of The Basics Project, (www.Basicsproject.org) a non-profit, non-partisan 501 (C) (3) research and educational project whose mission is to promote the education of the American public on the basic elements of relevant political, legal and social issues important to our country. She is also a Staff Writer, for the New Media Alliance, Inc., a non-profit (501c3) coalition of writers and grass-roots media outlets, where she contributes on matters of education policy.

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