In a typically smart column about online education, my friend Reihan Salam quotes Anya Kamenetz:
The only way to restore the concept of higher education as a public good is to reinvent it as a truly public good: not subject to antiquated notions of scarcity and hierarchical expertise, but adapted to the current reality of free, open, and immediate sharing of knowledge.
Reihan says, “That sounds right to me,” but I can’t say that because I have no idea what it means. I see the same problem here that I saw in Kamenetz’s book: enthusiasm misted over by terminal vagueness. To wit:
1) We restore something as a public good by reinventing it as a public good? Seems close to tautological, but beyond that: who is “we”? Who is going to go about the task of reinvention? College presidents working at the institutional level? Faculty reconfiguring their classes and intellectual activities whether they have administrative support or not? Congress passing new laws?
2) About “the current reality of free, open, and immediate sharing of knowledge”: certainly a great deal of knowledge is free, open, and easily shared. On the other hand, a great deal of knowledge is proprietary and controlled by patents, trademarks, copyrights, and various forms of institutional secrecy. Is the proportion of information that is free greater than it used to be? (I have no idea. Free information is more easily accessed than it used to be, but that’s not the same thing.) In any case, how will “reinventing the concept of higher education as a public good” change the current regime of knowledge control and regulation? How could it do so?
3) What does Kamenetz mean by “hierarchical expertise”? Obviously, expertise itself can’t be hierarchical, so she probably (?) means something like, “a system in which people receive official rewards — jobs, promotions, accreditations, certifications, etc. — for demonstrated expertise.” But there’s a lot to be said for such a system. I like being able to choose a doctor by learning, among other things, where she got her medical degree and what board certifications she has earned. Even in Kamenetz’s book the people whom she celebrates for spreading their knowledge are people connected to, drawing funding from, and accredited by elite institutions. Is that a bad thing? Whether it is or not, it ain’t DIY education.
Frankly, I’d love to see a system — or rather (this is the point) a non-system — in which the circulation of knowledge through informal and fluid networks plays a much greater role than it does now. A non-system which circumvents much of the bureaucratic sclerosis of the modern university, perhaps with the help of universities that are willing to reconfigure themselves. (“Reinvention” is too Utopian a term for me.) It all sounds very cool, in the abstract. I’d just like someone to tell me how we’re going to get there.