I hate to pick on Kate as she’s so nice. Besides, this post is smart and reasonable in its own way. It’s also so much better than the technological utopian day-dreaming that I often find myself reading. Still, her analogy is really useful for helping me make my point here:
A couple of miles away from the place where I grew up is this beautiful Iron Age hill fort…Within the inner circle are the remaining stone foundations of an original castle, and—critically—the well that stored water for the whole settlement. Soldiers controlled the resources in the middle, and the villagers and clergy lived in the outer circle, in wooden buildings of which nothing remains. In the early 12th century, exasperated by disputes with the castle guard over access to the well, the clergy took off with the community and restablished the city in a new location, where it still is today.
It’s a metaphorical stretch, but for me this decisive, strategic and disruptive move is a caution to those who are guarding the well of traditional higher education. For a long time, we’ve held the inner circle, letting prescribed numbers in across narrow bridges that we also control. We’ve enjoyed the security of higher ground, protected by an impressive moat. But here’s the tricky part: we only get to do this as long as the whole village accepts the way in which we manage their resources.
In other words, we’re not kept in business by market demand for the service we supply, but by taxpayer-voter consensus that a public higher education system is national infrastructure worth funding, even though the majority of the population don’t get to use it.
Perhaps I should have found a Holy Grail clip to respond to this one. Nevertheless, this kind of argument always reminds me of the suicide squad from Life of Brian because no army worth its salt would give up their fort or their village voluntarily. Maybe they’ll fight to the death. Maybe they’ll negotiate a surrender that will guarantee them their lives. Maybe the soldiers will open access to the well, but get some nice land to tend somewhere outside the castle walls in return. Only academics and the Judean People’s Front will up and kill themselves before the battle or even the process of negotiations ever starts.
The American financier Jay Gould once said famously that he could hire half the working class to kill the other half. Something similar might be said of professors. The super-professors work for Gould, but they aren’t going to constitute anywhere near half the professoriate that we have now. In this case though, I at least understand their motives. The rest of us are bringing a knife to a gun fight – or worse yet, no weapon at all.
For so many academics, all you have to do is say “Think of the children!” and rational self interest flies out the window. The founders of Udemy aren’t thinking about the children. The founders of Coursera aren’t thinking of the children. [And if I'm wrong, and students are somewhere down there on their list of concerns, they certainly aren't thinking about what happens to the professors they want to displace.] I, however, am thinking of students, thank you very much, even if I’m also thinking about the fate of myself and others like me too.
American higher education doesn’t have an access problem because the face-to-face relationship between teachers and students has somehow failed. It has an access problem because the number of administrators has exploded, the pay of university presidents has become obscene, football programs at all levels are engaged in an eternal arms race with each other and directors of admissions insist that universities need to have not one but two climbing walls in the gym in order to attract the best students. Most importantly, American higher education has an access problem because state and federal revenues have dried up since the one percent don’t want to help anybody but themselves.
Fully funding public higher education not only benefits the mostly underpaid professors (adjunct and otherwise) who work in the current system. It creates better-educated students than you’d get if you just sit them in front of a computer screen and make them watch tapes of super-professors all day. Direct interaction isn’t just key to the educational process. It’s key to the social dynamics that make real learning possible.
Professors welcoming the advent of MOOCs are therefore, to my mind at least, worse than suicidal. They’re a distraction from fighting the battle that really matters, namely the fight for a quality education for everyone who can directly benefit from it. Offing yourself before that battle is even over isn’t going to help anyone.