I realize that I’m not supposed to admit it, but my favorite author – fiction or non-fiction – is Tom Wolfe. Yes, his writing has far too many exclamation points and the white suit is a ridiculous affectation, but Wolfe has always been focused like a laser on the absurdity of America’s class divide. So imagine my joy when I saw that he’s written the cover story in the first all-online edition of Newsweek and, as Nick Carr explains, a major sub-theme in the piece is technological obsolescence:
In 1942, Joseph Schumpeter wrote that stocks and bonds are “evaporated property.” Everybody thought of that as such a witty aphorism, but Schumpeter meant it as a lament. “Substituting a mere parcel of shares for the walls and the machines in a factory,” he said, “takes the life out of the idea of property.” The new owners, i.e., the stockholders, lose the entrepreneur’s, the founder’s, will “to fight, economically, physically, politically, for, ‘his’ factory and his control over it and to die if necessary on its steps.” Instead, at the first whiff of a problem the shareholders bail out and sell their share of the ownership to whoever will buy it on the stock market… and couldn’t care less who it is.
Now I haven’t read Schumpeter since grad school, but this sounds right to me. Schumpeter was also the guy who popularized the term “creative destruction,” but I don’t remember him having the same joy over that process that I sense when I read anything by or about Clayton Christensen. Sometimes, evaporation or destructive is simply destruction.
This is certainly true when you apply the same principles that ruined the American manufacturing sector to higher education. As the Worst Professor Ever once explained it:
I know it seems cool to ”disrupt” education if you’ve never had to stand up there and teach. But if you have, I think you can appreciate the irony of computer use being “disruptive” not in the newfangled positive sense of the word but in the old-fashioned sense, as in, not enabling good teaching to happen at all.
Bob Samuels, who just spent the day at a conference on the future of online education in California – ground zero for the creative destruction of a once-great higher educational system – describes the exact mechanism by which most of us proffies could eventually be displaced from our jobs regardless of the performance of the technology which replaces us:
For me the major underlying theme was that outside parties want to help make higher ed more efficient and cost-effective by taking apart these institutions. In what they call “debundling,” many of the providers discussed how one person would design a course, another person would present the course, another person would market the course, and none of these people would be involved in research, community service, or shared governance.
There’s a famous (at least to people like me) Big Bill Haywood quote in the late David Montgomery’s The Fall of the House of Labor about the manager’s brain being under the workman’s cap. In order to rectify that situation, management searched “for ways in which to cut the taproot of nineteenth century workers’ power by dispossessing the craftsmen of their accumulated skill and knowledge (p. 46).” I think that debundling is the way that university administrators have found to do the same thing to us.
The question remains then whether dispossessing the vast majority of the professoriate of their accumulated knowledge is a side effect of the disruption of higher education or a deliberate strategy. As you might imagine, I vote deliberate strategy. Here’s why: 1) MOOC providers of all stripes are already famous for having no business plan. Only the labor cost cuts of teaching tens of thousands at a time are immediately tangible. 2) The privatization of online higher education of all kinds due to lack of capital makes it possible for those entities that take over this function to collect their revenue whether they can actually teach anyone well or not. Living, breathing professors who are willing to explain exactly why the emperor has no clothes are perhaps the only obstacle left between them and a steady stream black ink.
It’s disruption purely for the sake of financial gain. Any effect that disruption has on the quality of higher education – good or bad – is simply an afterthought. At the first whiff of a problem, the VCs will go find another industry to sack and all of us – faculty and administrators alike – will be left holding the bag. Do you think I’m being overly alarmist? I don’t. Comparing what’s been happening in the world of finance for the last thirty years to what’s happening in higher education now should be a no-brainer because the exact same entities are involved. Like Vanessa says, when Goldman Sachs is organizing higher ed conferences, it’s time for proffies everywhere to hold onto their brains for dear life.