Center for Spiritual Inquiry and Integral Education

R. Michael Fisher
To Drop Out Or Not To Drop Out: Is That The Issue?
by R. Michael Fisher - Tuesday, August 2, 2011, 08:58 AM

As an adult and higher education "alternative" organization, CSIIE and my own leadership venturies in education for the last few decades have a challenge to the status quo forms of education for adults. I think CSIIE is a greater challenge to all "Education" and "Life-long Learning" as well. This introductory posting for our organization to consider revolves around what is an "alternative" organization, and what does that word "alternative" imply, from my viewpoint. I want to cite a recent set of articles about PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, in The Chronicles of Higher Education and NPR's News Blog:

So first to the issue of how CSIIE challenges the status quo in the field of education. I know the tradition of Education well from being a student and professional. I've logged 12 years of public education and 12 years of post-secondary education. I have also studied the radical field of adult education before it was co-opted in the early 1990s to become an industry via neo-liberalism policies. There are many critics who saw the corporatization of schools, colleges, and universities. In other words, the economic capitalist model has taken over education, and that's all part of a much broader strategy of the diminishing of authentic universal education for more technical, practical, and profit-making educational initiatives.

That dissolving of the strengh of the emancipatory spirit in education is a long history and story. I'll not track it out here. I founded CSIIE on another, even an opposing, model and philosophy. I believe education should never be capitalized and commodified to such a degree as it has, especially in the last 20 years as I've watched and critiqued the Western world. In that sense CSIIE is an emancipatory model that argues for free access to knowledge, which is power, which is success and achievement for most people, and likely will continue to be so for a long time. No one, with the faculties able to learn, ought to be excluded from that access to power-knowlege and their emancipation process.

We want our faculty and students to feel the difference in an organization with that emancipatory commitment. Thus, CSIIE is "alternative" to the neo-liberal paradigm of defaulting to an excessive capitalist economic system and its primary values (e.g., profit-making) as the only model for education. In that sense, we are the competitor to the status quo, and we are the challenger offering an implicit and explict critique to the direction education is going in. Our commitment is to live up to this critique and apply it also to ourselves.

Now, we are not saying everyone in education should drop out and go alternative. That may be a good option for a number of faculty, teachers and students, especially on this continent. More so, we are providing a "complementary" offering for students to experience a really different educational life-experience while they are enrolled in a traditional education program. And we offer a resource for those who don't want to enter the traditional programs or that are holding off to "explore" more options before jumping in to traditional programs.

In several discussions with various people in the past three years as CSIIE was taking shape, it was agreed that current education is not serving well the interests of the greater world and the challenges of living in that world. It was evident that higher education was so slow to change, bureaucratically heavy and costly, that it was over-charging for what it offered. We saw the distress of faculty, students, and parents increasing, and that's what the university counselors were telling us too. There were just too many young people on too many medications and self-abusive denial 'programs' of addictions, due to the stress of going into unreasonable debt for an undergrad degree, working two jobs on the side and so on. You've heard it all. I've read the studies and stats. And I've read that more and more of these very same stressed out youth are looking for "spiritual" avenues to handle their troubling existence and the a very uncertain future.

So along comes a prime example of an "alternative" that we found fascinating as Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder, and one of the first investors in Facebook, a young Gen-Xer, told the world he was offering 14 people under 20 years of age a $100,000 fellowship to drop out of school for two years to start their own companies. According to Peralta, reporting on the NPR News Blog, "Some of the recipients are leaving first-rate institutions like Harvard and Stanford" for this opportunity. The prestitious status quo professional body with its publication The Chronicles of Higher Education immediately got up in arms about this and had its critique published saying that such a project was only suitable for certain business-minded young people and it's not for everyone and so be cautious of Thiel's fellowship and mis-guidance.

I for one would not trust much coming from The Chronicles of Higher Education with its biased investment to make profits from people learning, at all levels of schooling and adult education. The body attempts to be value-neutral and non-political and non-economic but smells totally of what it has become, like all education establishments for the most part in the past two decades--a servant of the Industrial-Military Complex. Now, universities and colleges have 'bought in' (maybe not completely), and bought in deep. These were the discussions I had with people in and out of the higher education system. I was convinced that there ought to be more alternatives for youth and other adult learners to choose.

For Peter Thiel, with his own activism agenda, he argues that "ideas" and innovation-generation are the most important thing in the world for young people to find successful careers, and one's that also make money. University cultures tend to protect and hide ideas, and only let certain elite few have full-access to them. Researchers and faculty in the status quo university are mostly out to build their own careers and use new ideas for their advancement--careerism. I have to say that has been my experience as well workiing in those institutions as a graduate and undergraduate student. It is unethical on every level I can think of, and reproduces a toxic and violent classism that I cannot stand, and thus, I look to envision another way, as does Theil. I have to agree with Theil:

"[higher education is in a bubble] A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed... Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States. To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It's like telling the world there's no Santa Claus." Indeed, my own research and writing is a long chronicle of the "culture of fear" in education systems, and society at large. This has been my biggest disappointment in educators of all kinds, they don't want to critique their own economic enterprise that is doing so well, for them, and the elites who profit from it and control it. Of course, their control is also an illusion, and it will crumble, and we don't have to be only victims to it. Thus, we start other ways. We educate ourselves, and I have seen more and more projects and individuals doing this, saying "To hell with going into debt for $50,000 to get a useless undergrad degree" and they think of how to educate themselves. I think this is the way of the future, and these will be some of the most innovate and ethically important young  leaders of the future. Maybe they'll get a fellowship from Thiel, or someone else who gives them out for similar reasons but without the business component as necessary. I think there will be a good philanthropy coming for young people and no doubt it is already starting.

At CSIIE we started with zero-budget. We built our online learning system with zero-budget. And we're operating it on the same. We all come from non-middleclass backgrounds and live well below the poverty level. That doesn't mean our educational offerings are only for poor people, not at all. We are all self-dedicated life-long learners and have done just as Thiel is calling for, we left the regular institutions of education at some point, and we started our own ventures, and now CSIIE is one of the things we do to make a living and to change the world for the better. It's a challenge indeed. There's no comforting boxes, and no one with big bank accounts to back us up in the world and how we choose to live on-the-edge. Yet, we don't think everyone needs to necessarily live like us, or believe what we do. Our educational philosophy is an invitation, not a dogmatic prescription of "how to" or "be like us to be good." We loathe that kind of ideology anywhere, and especially in the field of research, spiritual inquiry and integral education.

It is not simply there's a dualistic choice: Leave School or Don't Leave School. That's not the problem. It is a much deeper problem. Each individual has to figure out their own way and their own combinations of adult and higher education. We at CSIIE want to support you in making that decision. It is not just students who have this problem, it is also faculty and teachers. Thus, we at CSIIE are dedicated to an open source philosophy of access and an open learning community, beyond a culture of fear, so we can all learn better how to be both alternative and complementary in our services to an emancipatory path. If "emancipatory" is not ringing in your ears well, try "liberation" or if that sounds too much, try "fearlessness." Of course, no word will ever capture the 'right' and the 'deep' true meaning and experiences of what we actually create together in and with CSIIE in the future. I invite you to make up your own language to fit the experience.

So, CSIIE, begins on the notion of "SYSTEM FAILURE" as I recall the image from the first movie of The Wachowski's The Matrix (1999). I like to start there. And, I know that's not everybody's cup of tea for starting an alternative or complementary service. I do this because of 40 years of observing where Western civilization is heading, and it ain't a pretty picture. I think a radical 'call' and challenge is essential to wake-up the conditioned minds that have too long accepted the dreams that our world sells to us wrapped up in a pretty package, which Thiel rightly called a "bubble." All signs as I see it, and a lot of other social and political critics see it, is the bubble is bursting. CSIIE is there to carry the load, and aid those who want to go in another direction as the bursting continues, and will likely get pretty scary.

I look forward to the next year of CSIIE, and learning how to bring forth our modest and yet radical vision into the real world--no more bubbles please.


Carbondale, IL

Aug. 2, 2011