David Wiley has an excellent post on what direction we might want to take as institutions of higher education. I read the post today, and then came across a story in a book I'm reading that I think also applies. I'll summarize.
On Christopher Columbus's last voyage, he needed to find gold. Spain wanted to wage war with France, and needed the money. Columbus was sailing around Jamaica but got held over for a time on the north part of the Island. He had been having problems with the natives and feared they might be planning to attack him and his men. One of his men, a man by the name of Diego Mendez, volunteered to go scope out the situation. Here is what happened.
He and his sidekick, a young guy by the name of Diego de Escobar, paddled upriver to do some reconnaissance. They found where the army of natives were gathering but unfortunately were taken captive. Mendez decided he wanted to talk to the head chief, but was not allowed. He attempted to make his way to the tent, but things got ugly. Some of the natives started shouting, and the next thing you know Mendez is surrounded by warriors. He can't plead his case to the chief, he can't make his way back to the boat, and things look very grim. What would you do?
Exactly, that is just what Mendez did. He pulled out a comb and some scissors, and told Escobar to give him a haircut.
No, don't bother reading that again, you read it right the first time. He's surrounded by warriors, he is minutes away from a violent death, and he orders his sidekick to give him a haircut.
The kicker is that his plan worked brilliantly. The natives, never having seen scissors before, became fascinated. He made a gift of the scissors to the lackey who was keeping him from the chief, and within minutes he is eating and drinking at a feast, thrown in his honor.
A few days later, the natives still attacked, and killed some of Columbus's men, but that is another story. Mendez and Excobar left the natives as heroes.
Anyway, how does this relate even remotely to Wiley's post? I'm a fan of trying new things. Sometimes we get locked into doing things as we've always done them, because...well, we've always done them that way. Sometimes that is fine, but if what we are getting in the end is not what we'd like to get, then we have to try something new. And sometimes we even should try things that just don't make any sense. I think that is why I like the idea of podcasting or giving away my book online. On the surface it makes no sense to give away something that you'd much rather sell. But the kicker is that for several authors who have done just this, it works brilliantly. Check out the work of Cory Doctorow as just one example.
So, if we're happy with what we're getting out of public and higher education, let's keep tweaking and fine tuning it. If we're not happy, let's try something completely different. Let's whip out the scissors, trim up the hair, and see how the natives react.