This article was first published by Big Questions Online on October 19, 2010. Reprinted with permission on TheNewAtlantis.com.
In his 1998 book Avatars of the Word, James O’Donnell, a classical scholar and academic administrator, could already see the ways that the internet’s firehose of information would change university education. “The real roles of the professor in an information-rich world will be not to provide information but to advise, guide, and encourage students wading through the deep waters of the information flood.”
But would leaders of universities rightly read the signs of the times?
The real strength of the professor has always been as an organizer, an evaluator, and a processor. If our society reads its infoguilt as infoglut, then our value as information organizers and presenters should on principle go up sharply. Will we be clever enough to see that and make the marketing moves necessary to take the advantage? On our track record, I wouldn’t bet the ranch on it.
And indeed, in the intervening twelve years, remarkably little about the organizational and academic structures of the American university has changed (except for a greater and greater reliance on adjunct labor in place of full-time professors). Academics have been unwilling to accept O’Donnell’s outline of a New Order in which their role — our role, for I’m one of them and therefore, caveat lector, have a dog in this fight — undergoes something of a demotion.
But we’ve recently been hearing that O’Donnell’s model doesn’t mark enough of a demotion. For Anya Kamenetz, in DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, “the professor in an information-rich world” may have no role at all. If O’Donnell wants professors to offer advice, guidance, and encouragement to students, along with organization, evaluation, the processing of ideas, Kamenetz replies, No thanks, pops. At least, not at the prices you’re charging.
Even as President Obama pledges that “by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world,” and as nine out of ten American highschoolers say they want to go to college, Kamenetz is trying to turn the ship around. And when explaining why, the issue she emphasize more than any other is cost — high prices that lead, thanks to the easy availability of student loans, to back-breaking debt.
Kamenetz has put her finger on a huge problem: as Erin O’Connor has noted, at most American colleges and universities “bureaucratic bloat, excessive executive pay, unnecessary country-clubbish perks, academically lame boutique programs and majors, and so on have pushed costs up way beyond what’s viable — even as they have failed to do anything meaningful for improving actual education.” (One might add the financially exacting, in many cases catastrophic, pursuit of the brass ring of Sporting Success, as chronicled by Margaret Soltan at University Diaries.) It’s fair to say that if a serious edupunk movement emerges, it will be largely created by the fecklessness and thoughtlessness of traditional educational institutions.
But Kamenetz also wants to argue that for many — most? — people, a university education is simply inferior to what she calls “education beyond classroom walls: free, open-source, vocational, experiential, and self-directed learning.” It’s an exciting idea. Glenn Reynolds likes it, as does James Altucher. Bill Gates is on board — but wait: is he?
The headline reads, “Bill Gates: Forget university, the web is the future for education.” But here’s what Gates actually says: “Five years from now on the web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university.” Far from “forgetting the university,” Gates is celebrating a movement in which universities continue to be the sources of educational value, but make that value available to more and more people, at no charge.
Kamenetz doesn’t exactly forget the university either. At the end of her book she presents a story that she claims represents “the future of the university”: it takes place in a van in Mexico that contains a couple of people who want to create possibilities for Mixtec and Zapotec children to educate themselves. It’s a very cool project, but one of the project participants, Noah — whom Kamenetz calls a “self-taught programmer” — is actually a sophomore at Princeton, which suggests that he isn’t self-taught about everything. I’d bet that at some point along the line he’s gotten some decent math instruction, since we now know that when students have less interaction with teachers they do more poorly at math. When Noah runs into a programming problem he just Googles “to see how someone else solved it before me” — but I wonder how many of the good answers come from people with first-rate university educations.
By the way, Noah’s partner in this project, Ricardo, is a graduate student at Stanford. And the whole project is created and supported by Stanford’s School of Education. So it’s hard to see anything very DIY about this picture of “the future of the university.” If the future of education primarily involves drawing on the resources of universities, then the future of education will be dominated by universities.
And consider this: the freely available lectures Gates refers to are indeed wonderful — my wife and I have used some of them while homeschooling our son — but that so many universities put star lecturers online for free suggests that they don’t think those lectures are central to what they provide. So what iscentral, then? To that question there’s a cynical answer and an idealistic one, and both of them are true.
The cynical answer is: social accreditation by way of a degree. Having a college degree identifies you as belonging to a certain social class, and the more prestigious the university, the higher that class. Value through social coding.
The idealistic answer is: a dynamic and interactive environment in which students have daily real-world encounters with faculty and with one another, encounters which, unlike Google searches, are not limited by what you already know to search for. In many cases, those schools also require you to take classes you would never choose on your own, to read books you’ve never heard of, to articulate thoughts about issues so challenging that left to your own devices you’d just go do something else. Not everyone needs this: if your interest is simply and straightforwardly in owning and running your own business, then you may not need what universities offer at the prices they charge: Ask your parents to take their college savings and bankroll your first business, and learn “experientially” and “vocationally.”
But how many people really have what it takes — the courage, the stamina, the native smarts, the willingness to admit mistakes without blaming others, the sheer and extreme initiative — to learn that way? The entrepreneurial gene is not widely distributed. (Also, there’s a significant subset of the edupunk crowd who dislike any emphasis on DIY education as a path to wealth, and prefer a more countercultural model: as a commenter on this post says, “The revolution will not be monetized.”)
The problem with DIY education is not only that it’s parasitic on existing universities, but more importantly, that very few human beings are good parasites. It’s not how we’re wired, most of us. And even those who are wired that way could stand to be reminded that they don’t know as much as they think they do, and that wiser people than us have walked the earth.
Which leads me to the most important point of all, one that, alas, can’t often be brought cold into these conversations. It has a back story, as it were; a history that by and large we’ve chosen to forget. In the 1960s the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote an essay called “What Is Authority?” that identified the key issue thus:
Authority in the widest sense has always been accepted as a natural necessity, obviously required as much by natural needs, the helplessness of the child, as by political necessity, the continuity of an established civilization which can be assured only if those who are newcomers by birth are guided through a pre-established world into which they are born as strangers.
Formal education depends on the vibrancy of some concept of authority. The professor-as-authority may offer information, or may (as O’Donnell suggests) offer other resources, but in some respect his or her presence bears authority because he or she knows some stuff you don’t. But informal and so-called DIY education depends on authority as well, whether that of a beneficent Stanford Department of Education or on that of Google’s search algorithms.
The edupunk movement rarely acknowledges that elementary fact, instead preferring to sell what is often and at best a fantasy: that I already know what I don’t know, that I can find my way to enlightenment through resources I already have, that nothing I deeply dislike is necessary to my education. All of which would be deeply consoling if it were true.