“Why stay in college? Why go to night school? Gonna be different this time?”

19 06 2012

I’m not afraid of snakes. I’m not afraid of heights. I’m afraid of unemployment. Despite all my rantings, I don’t think I’m going to be replaced by a MOOC anytime soon. Barring serious misconduct on my part, tenure makes a direct assault on my job difficult.

An indirect assault on my job, however, is well within the realm of possibility. Unwilling to stop at obscure departments like German and Classics, Peter Cohan at Forbes wants to cut every humanities department everywhere that doesn’t get enough of its graduates employed in their field:

Having said that, for students, lenders, and parents it makes no sense to send a child to college to study humanities if they do not have a chance at getting a job that uses the skills they’ve developed. If colleges cut those humanities departments, their costs would drop because they could stop paying teachers and administrators in those departments and slash the related overhead.

Contrary to Cohan’s later straw man argument, I think employment is a reasonable expected outcome for a college education. As I’ve mentioned before, my daughter starts college in the fall and as much as I love her we as a family would never make such an expensive investment in her education if we weren’t convinced that it would be returned many times over the course of her lifetime. Indeed, why would anyone pay so much for college if it wasn’t a good longterm investment?

Which is exactly where Cohan’s argument falls off the rails in a purely economic (as opposed to the obvious cultural) sense. The Labor Department statistics he uses only consider the employment situation of college graduates under the age of 25. How many people find their dream job by the age of 25? How many people find their dream job by the age of 25 DURING A RECESSION? Cohan’s not trying to help students, otherwise he’d find better statistics. He just likes the idea of firing humanities professors.

Unfortunately, he’s in very good company. If the Cal example or the UVA example in this post weren’t enough to convince you that it’s open season on college professors, then consider this:

At a time when free online courses are enticing students with the opportunity to learn from star professors at prestigious colleges, P2PU, as it’s known, is questioning whether instructors are needed at all.

Read the whole article and you’ll see that this is my first appearance in the regular pages of the Chronicle of Higher Ed. Once again, I’m told to calm down:

“People feel threatened because it feels like they’re being replaced,” [Jan Philipp Schmidt of P2PU] says. “But I think they should be thrilled by this. For me, the role of the professor isn’t to be the guy who stands in front and talks for an hour, but the person who asks interesting questions and helps me discover my interests and passions.”

Ultimately, my problem with any form of online education is that as cool as it might be when done right, the forces that have declared war on professors will inevitably try to use it as a tool to destroy us. In fact, they don’t even have to control the courses in order to use technology as a weapon. For example, what happens if UVA’s Board of Visitors decides that funding the Classics and German departments is unnecessary because interested students can just take them free online elsewhere? I think you know the answer.

I wish things were different, but life during wartime is hard.

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4 responses

19 06 2012
tom abeles

In today’s world, students and parents see college much like the “Cargo Cults” of the natives on the islands in the Pacific. Basically, Americans built runways on these islands and lit them at night for cargo planes bringing supplies for the soldiers. As the lines advanced, the runways were abandoned, but the natives kept lighting the lamps and expecting the transports.

Only history (let’s not eliminate History) shows that, in the US, prior to the founding of the land grant colleges, the job creation aspect of a post secondary education was not the main focus. In fact, much career knowledge came through quasi apprenticeships. According to one essayist, the Bureau of Labor Statistics supposedly notes that “On the Job” training will be required for 7 out of 10 jobs in the future (back to the future?). Globally, many post secondary graduates are now in positions that do not require a college degree (except, perhaps as a “qualifier” over a non-graduate).

What is never considered is that even with highly trained knowledge workers, even in the STEM area, such skills are fungible and transferable across geo-political boundaries or, in the case of health care, there are now surgical vacations.

We are in a transition period where the disruptive technology is meshing with a disruptive social technology. Thus we need to stop thinking about a “university”, a past that never really was, an image, and a future that never will be.

19 06 2012
RAB

I once opened a bank account at the Connecticut National Bank, after some thought as to which bank would best serve my needs. Some years later CNB was bought out by Shawmut, a bank I had originally decided against, and by inertia I became a Shawmut account. Fast-forward a small number of years and I’m a Fleet depositor by the same process. And then, to my horror, Bank of America. Why didn’t they just pick the bank that was going to be The Bank and cut out all the middle men? I feel as though we’re sliding into the age of the One Prof Still Standing in the same way.
That aside, I’m fascinated by Cohan’s statement that “it makes no sense to send a child to college to study humanities if they do not have a chance at getting a job that uses the skills they’ve developed.” Doesn’t he consider that precision of mind and utterance, analytical thought, the ability to reason from multiple perspectives, and arguing from evidence are skills? Doesn’t he know that the way to learn these skills is not to be trained but to be taught, and particularly to be taught in the ways that the humanities are taught, through questioning and supported speculation within the context of others’ thinking and discovery?
I know that ideas like that will never earn me the place of Last Prof Standing in Cohan’s world.

19 06 2012
RAB

P.S. I am no longer a Bank of America depositor. I have found freedom in a small local bank. Is this related to the fact that my undergraduate degree is from a small liberal-arts college? Hmmmm.

22 06 2012
Frankenstein’s monster. « More or Less Bunk

[...] more slowly than they wanted, my first inclination was to start gloating. After all, I had just written that this kind of technology would be used as a weapon against faculty (and by extension then, [...]

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