What the ‘Educational Underground’ Says About the Future of Learning and Work
The typical way to think of higher education is as a straight line—one that leads from high school, to a college then to a job. But for so many college students, what actually happens is far messier and sporadic.
Life happens. Studies get interrupted by important life events, like the birth of a child or a parent falling ill. Other workers might not go directly to college but might receive some training on the job, or maybe through a short program somewhere along the line. And maybe people get back to a campus or online program, or maybe they find some other way to get the learning they need.
Our podcast guest this week has been exploring what he calls the “educational underground”—the experimental programs and “hidden credentials” people get that aren’t on the traditional straight line of college.
That guest is Peter Smith and he has advocated for new models of adult learning for more than 50 years—as founder of an experimental college—the Community College of Vermont. Smith has also held political office, including time as the Lieutenant Governor of Vermont and later a U.S. Congressman from that state.
Though he felt he knew the data around educational policy, he wanted to better understand the lived experiences of adult learners. So over the last two years he conducted extensive interviews with 20 students who didn’t fit in traditional education systems.
And he says the research surprised him, and changed him.
“I knew the data up in my head,” he says, “but I didn't know it in my heart the story of how race, gender, sexual preference, income ... play a disproportionate negative role in determining who gets access to opportunity through the traditional way.”
The result is his latest book, “Stories from the Educational Underground: The New Frontier for Learning and Work.”
The stories in his book show resilient people overcoming obstacles, and it might be tempting to describe them as fulfilling the American myth of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. As regular listeners know we’ve been exploring that on a podcast series we’re producing called Bootstraps. But Smith says he’s actually pushing back against that myth, because a recurring theme is that these hard-working people also had help at key moments, or found experimental programs that made it possible for their hard work to lead to opportunity.
“They are the heroes in a sad saga where millions of other people are unable to navigate the pathway to opportunity,” he writes in the conclusion to his book, describing the students he spoke with. “As a society, we need these stories to become mainstream reality, not exceptions to the rules. And we need these ‘stories from the underground’ to become part of the public consciousness when it comes to respecting and validating personal learning and work experience.”
EdSurge sat down with Smith last week at the ASU GSV conference in San Diego.