Education Reformation on the 500th Anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses

October 31, 2017, is the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of his hometown church, as legend has it, he launched innumerable changes to the western world. One of those being a direct challenge to the commonly understood definition of “expert.”

In some ways the Reformation was as much a technological evolution as much as it was cultural and theological. Gutenberg’s printing press allowed for the rapid dissemination of religious materials in the vernacular of the masses. Up until then the Roman Catholics of the day leveraged access to the bible (or lack thereof) to create experts, or rather, priests. By virtue of constricting access to the scripture, Catholic leaders lay claim to the only path to God’s word and thus, His salvation. The printing press eliminated that barrier to expert witness, exposing the masses directly to God’s word.

One wonders whether we’re seeing a 21st century version of the 95 Theses today. Machines are advancing their capability to take on more and more tasks that were once the sole proprietor of the human mind and body. Evolutionary jumps in robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are creating a new automation age. Machines can now not only perform a range of routine physical work activities better and more cheaply than humans, but they are also expanding their capability to accomplish activities that involve cognitive skills once considered too complicated to automate, such as making tacit judgments or even sensing emotion.

The question is, then, how will this technological evolution manifest itself in today’s definition of the idea of an expert (a professional)? How is a profession defined if it can be done by a machine (try checking the chances) that your own profession will be automated. If Gutenberg’s printing press gave the masses scripture which by-passed the need for a trained priest, how will this new form of machine age redefine the professions that give structure to our present education system?

Richard and Daniel Susskind’s book The Future of the Professions characterizes today’s professions as sharing four common features. 1 they have specialists knowledge; 2 their admission depends on credentials; 3 their activities are regulated; and 4 they are bound by a common set of values.

The first two characteristics are the property of education and our overarching practices concerning education have not altered much in centuries. Paulo Freire, in his masterful work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, described this aged tradition as the banking concept of education which views students as containers into which educators must put knowledge. He critiques this by writing, “Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the ‘banking’ concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.”

There are hints of a new education reformation on the near horizon. Flipped classrooms, adaptive learning, and other structural changes recognize that access to information is no longer the primary paradigm of education. The educator’s currency described by Freire, knowledge, is now ubiquitous. The sum total of all human knowledge is now comfortably resting in the palm of your hand. The Susskind’s write, “There is less need for a sage on the stage’ and more of a job for ‘guide on the side’ – those who help students navigate through alternative sources of expertise. In other words, value of education is no longer the facts, but the skills to navigate those facts.

Where does the role for higher education fit in all of this? The fact that specialists’ knowledge is available to everyone will surely alter the notion that credentialed admission is the only entry into professions. How will this new technological age merge with a DYI culture? And what role will higher education serve in it? (There are those who might skillfully claim that college tuition is a new form of Catholic Indulgences.)

Gutenberg’s printing press and Luther’s 95 Theses did not spell the end of the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, the Catholic Church resisted change fairly successfully for 450 years after Luther’s nail in the door. Only relatively recently did it partially reform in its own way in 1965. Perhaps modern higher education, founded from the same DNA that trained those Catholic priests, can too resist change and survive. I’d rather not test that hypothesis.

Despite its stuffy reputation, higher education has proved itself to be rather adept at adaptation over the years. From its ability to scale up with the massification of education brought on by Morrill Act and the GI Bill to its ability to innovate through large scale disinvestment from the states, colleges and universities continue to find themselves at the crux of social need and economic necessity. The world still needs experts (in fact, it needs many many more of them) and the definition of that need may very well change over time. Post-secondary education must continue to adapt to stay relevant. In the end, the question is will higher education be the parchment of 95 Theses or will it be the door that Theses is nailed on to?