Network learning from the tower moat

It’s happened: the joyless, workaholic millennial generation has continued its mad spree of metaphoric murder. We have slaughtered diamonds, buying houses, buying cars, and the US birth rate. Soon we may kill listicles about things millennials have killed. With single minded zeal, we’ve largely elected to stop spending money on most every non-survival imperative thing that those gifted with the comforts of time, money, and economic certainty tend to indulge themselves in.

With this in mind, I summarize my reactions and offer counterclaims to Gardner Campbell’s assertions in his 2016 piece, Network Learning as Experiential Learning. Campbell’s article begins with a summary of similar views expressed in George Kuh’s 2008 monograph “High-Impact Educational Practices.” Campbell registers his agreement with the problems expressed therein whilst suggesting alternate solutions thereto, stating the problem thusly:

Education was becoming more about careers and “competencies” (a word Kuh himself used, although in a larger sense than others have) and less about inquiry, meaning-making, and a broadly humane view of human capacity. Kuh’s essay implicitly recognized that one of the great costs of abandoning these more expansive views of the purpose of higher education was that students might become alienated from their own learning experiences. He was right. Even as “student-centered learning” became the mantra, the increased attention to outcomes and objectives served (and still serves) to enable a narrowing, behaviorist focus on easily measured, easily described outcomes linked to detailed prescriptions, policies, and penalties, all contained within the course contracts (i.e., course syllabi). [1]

It feels petty to attack the article solely from this premise, but I would love if such a problem was the greatest that I had to solve. To suggest that current issues are a matter of cynical calculus or co-opted passions rather than a reflection of the larger forces at play smacks of heralding from the ivory tower. Further, there is a delicious irony in citing a piece from 2008 to contend such a point – millennials operate from the moat, ipods and nintendos be damned. The romans were able to indulge themselves with art, philosophy, and maths as they were fattened by the toils of others. This is a lifestyle afforded to relatively few millennials. The vast majority of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, a single unexpected bill portends doom, and the inevitability of becoming ill is a challenge few of us are prepared to face.

For anyone in doubt of the dire economic circumstances facing millennials, I heartily encourage you read huffpo’s brilliant article “FML: Why millennials are facing the scariest financial future of any generation since the Great Depression.” I also strongly encourage you to share said article with any boomers, gen-x’ers , or otherwise fortunate acquaintances still beholden to the just world fallacy with regards to American social mobility. Success is an apparent zero sum game, and like medicine, it is offered at rates the market will bear, not those it needs. The spectre of technological unemployment looms before us all, and rather than sharing the bounty of past generations’ technological achievements in automation we will remain as a nation beholden to the puritanical notion that labor is the requisite exercise of virtue. Due to our knee jerk aversion to all forms of socialized good, this behavior will continue far past the extinction of such labor. When seeking to compete in such an arena, is it any surprise that we meter our efforts with respect to the potential rewards, that we who are burdened with such problems seek to develop our skill in implementation rather than our love of theories?

Returning to the article of discussion, Campbell finds agreement with Kuh and follows traditional boomer tropes in lauding free labor as an opportunity for experiential learning, citing “study abroad, internships, service learning, and community engagement” as well as undergraduate research as opportunities for students to improve their inherent value [1].  Campbell does however thumb his nose at Kuh’s narrow dedication to the more tangible repositories of knowledge and the networks therein, suggesting it be supplanted by the endless bounty of the internet. But of course, students/ millennials are once more accused of naval gazing whilst missing the spirit of the endeavor:

Yet our ideas about digital literacy are steadily becoming more impoverished, to the point that many of my current students, immersed in a “walled garden” world of apps and social media, know almost nothing about the web or the Internet. For the first time since the emergence of the web, this past year I discovered that the majority of my sophomore-level students did not understand the concept of a URL and thus struggled with the effective use and formation of hyperlinks in the networked writing class that VCU’s University College affectionately calls “Thought Vectors in Concept Space“—a phrase attributed by Kay to Engelbart and one that describes the fundamentally experiential aspect of networked learning.

Within my own narrow silo, I contend that millennials in higher education perfectly well understand the value of online networks, albeit not from the same perch that Campbell does. The human world has developed in complexity and competitiveness such that many problems are beyond the grasp of singular minds. Further, good minds are expensive and seldom loaned freely. These social networks and walled gardens Campbell dismisses are a marketplace where friendship is exchanged for the services of strong minds. Our network is our friends and colleagues who understand the theory of our problems well enough to guide us in the implementation of solutions. Nodes in this network may take the form of the veterinary student able to provide a presumptive diagnosis for an ailing pet, the statistician able to explain why our answer is meaningless at present, or the salty field-veteran whom helps us navigate the politics of publication.

If those born of more fortunate circumstance suggest you lack the spirit and gumption to see things as they did, laugh freely. If you’re not angry right now, be angry. It is far better to accept the poverty of your situation and strive forward with cynical pragmatism than to indebt yourself fighting to maintain the appearances of one gifted with a world and circumstance which no longer exists.



  1. Campbell, G. (2016, January 11). Networked Learning as Experiential Learning. Retrieved January 18, 2018, from

*Please feel free to interchange all instances of “student”, “millennial,” and “those darned kids” at your leisure