30 Day Question Challenge – Hunting Trophies

For those following this challenge, it is known that part of my goal is to have fun through unbounded intellectual exploration. I have also sought to take what may be considered odd or even silly questions and think through them focused on any substance that may be hidden within. A challenge for the reader, then, is to refrain from mere dismissal and read with the mind to find something of value. Here I go, because today is a difficult one…

We shouldn’t be afraid of questions, and if we are…then we have the opportunity to do some soul searching particularly as it relates to identifying and evaluating our assumptions and beliefs. I’m confident that I can reason through challenging and complex questions despite any discomfort that may materialize.  With that said, today is a controversial topic. It contains links to disturbing images that surface major ethical issues. I have a position on the related topics, but I’m not here to preach. Rather, I’m looking for metaphorical relationships between the topic and teaching and learning. Be warned, but I encourage you to read on.

I watched a video recently on the industry of farm raised and hunted deer. The goal is to provide “hunters” with an opportunity to kill a deer with trophy antlers. The “hunting” takes place on private ranches where deer are pen raised and hunted. On these fenced ranches, deer are attracted to a hunting spot with a feeder or some other type of predictable method so that the big money customer can actually shoot something. We have to get what we pay for right?

You can watch a short video at this link, but be warned that there are graphic images.

The metaphorical relationship I’m about to unpack is flawed. It’s my attempt to work through what I see are some problems in higher education, but it in no way suggests that higher education isn’t an amazing space for intellectual development and innovation. To make that claim would be ignorant. My goal is to look at higher ed from a particular lens; a lens that may help us see something that we didn’t notice before.

Day 18 Question – Is trophy hunting killing education (or at least limiting it)?

Credentials and pedigree are the trophies of education. Students hunt them and businesses hunt students. Skills are implied by mere association with a particular institution. Value is assumed. Safe bets though, generally speaking; but is it the teaching that should get the credit for producing trophy students/thinkers? In some cases, sure. Didacticism abounds though, so there are other things to consider. For example, the top schools target the top students. They select, they feed, they display their trophies. After all, Harvard let’s it be known that five US Presidents graduated their halls, Clinton from Georgetown and Bush (sr. and jr) from Yale and so on.

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There is a sense in which the institution is like the ranch farm. As my colleague Tom Woodward pointed out, the educational system is set up to maximize the opportunity for success – for shooting a trophy (their degree). I can set a whole post on this, but I’m going to go down a slightly different road, but not much different.

There is a different sense where big money employers (hunters) enter these institutional ranches and seek out their trophy. They leave satisfied and have something that can give them fame. This hunting culture does not have the time to enter the wild to find their game. Doing so requires understanding ecological systems. It requires having a clear conception of what “skills” and “dispositions” they want to see. It requires investing the time, tracking, and sweat; all for the hope that they will see their trophy and position oneself to take a fair-chase and humane shot. It’s a lot easier to go to a ranch. Note that one major flaw in the metaphorical tie here is that students are not game, but there is a sense in which they are often seen that way. My mind takes me to the many articles, books and organizations that put business desires at the forefront the of conversation on education. Not to mention, many of the business desires are often very vague (e.g. we want students who can think critically, or are effective communicators). This has been going on for decades: Sputnik, A Nation at Risk, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Academically Adrift to name just a few. It’s part of our culture, but at what cost?

I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with this. After all, I went to a tier 1 institution; but for the sake of intellectual experimentation I want to consider the value a free-range learner can bring to the equation.

I listened to Jeff Nugent teach a class last week on the changing landscape of digitally enhanced education. Here is a link to the March 28, 2014 post-class podcast where the topics are elaborated and unpacked. Nugent proposed that the new digital landscape is having (and will continue to have) a transformative impact both teaching and learning and institutional / organizational structures. For example, online learning is not only expanding, but is evolving dynamically. Multiple methods for interfacing with people and subject material are present and will continue to develop. What does a degree mean now and what will it look like in the future? The MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) has introduced new questions to educational institutions especially as more and more colleges and universities are offering such courses. Another example is open-course material. MIT, Yale, Carnegie Mellon, Oxford and many other top institutions around the world have made the best knowledge public and free. What are the implications for the self-directed learner?

Nuget proposed an illustration that the learner of the future can very well be thought of as a free-range chicken: hunting and pecking from a variety of choices. I want to take it a little further. Chickens tend to be owned (not to confuse the domestic chicken with the wild ptarmigan). I might see the learner of the future as an unaffiliated, free-range deer. There are patterns of behavior that match the ecological conditions. There is movement within contexts. Patterns? Sure, but their behavior is heavily influenced by pressure. There is a level of conditional adaptation. Some fail, a lot succeed; but success is largely dependent on reading and adapting to changing conditions. Apathy or comfort (as is the case with urban deer) reduces the survival senses – there are new assumptions that provide the illusion of safety. Wild deer are incredibly aware: hearing, sight, changes in temperature. They are survivors.

There is a sense in which we commodify education – “we paid our money we deserve our degree.” There is also a sense in which we commodify skills – “you graduated from X, so you must be a critical thinker.” These types of orientations are simplistic and do not show the ecology of thinking and learning. We can call these trophy mentalities. There is also a parallel between the dear ranches and disease and the commodification of education as a mental/intellectual disease. A different way to think of our learning is to value the wild. It’s both dynamic and practical; adaptive and systematic; tough and beautiful.

I want to develop A Sand County Almanac approach to teaching and learning: understand ecology, have reverence for beauty, and explore multiple ways to be part of the world. Now that I think about it, a more fitting metaphor might have been to contrast the factory farmed chicken with the free range chicken. Chalk it up to a blog as a reflective tool.

3 thoughts on “30 Day Question Challenge – Hunting Trophies

    1. Oh yes, the illusive jackalope. This is exactly what I want the blog challenge to do: ideas building off of ideas. What a great post idea: what are the mythical jackalopes of education?
      Thanks Britt.

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