The Humanities: They’re good for what ails you!

26 09 2011

This is from part of the summary of an interview with Clayton Christensen and Henry J. Eyring about their entrant into the higher-education-is-dying book sweepstakes:

In particular, the book advocates that colleges and universities embrace online education. It argues that online technology makes a college or university vastly more attractive to a wide subset of students. It gives many people a second chance at learning – i.e. those who cannot afford a traditional college education, those who do not have the flexibility to take part in a full plate of coursework, and late bloomers or dropouts who have fallen behind and now have the chance to catch up. But online learning doesn’t just offer cheaper education for the masses. It improves the student learning experience across the spectrum by allowing students to learn at their own pace and on their own timetable.

[Emphasis added.]

That’s not just “MBA thinking,” it’s snake oil salesmanship. I see no studies to back that up, and fully expect if there are any they used multiple choice questions to get to that conclusion. More importantly, letting people learn at their own pace allows them to drop out at their own pace and pay a lot more money for that privilege, as Historiann has repeatedly reminded us.

Of course, the whole point of students learning at their own pace is that they won’t need professors at all then and that saves a lot of money (which can then be diverted to other uses that have nothing to do with education). Our students certainly won’t need tenured professors who will apparently be going the way of the dodo in our online future. These are Christensen and Eyring’s own words:

[T]he activities being performed by the tenured professor must be consistent with the mission of the institution, which for most institutions is likely to be narrower than the mission of a large research university. Most professors will need to spend the majority of their time teaching. A school that generates the bulk of its revenues via tuition will be able to afford some time for faculty research. However, that research will need to have relevance to the student learning experience, and it won’t be the driving factor in tenure decisions; teaching quality will be. Tenure based primarily on publications isn’t a sustainable model for most institutions.

Anybody else find those two points a tad contradictory? Students can learn at their own pace online, but great teaching is the only way that professors can get tenure. Wouldn’t great teaching mean that everyone can keep up with the professor? More importantly, who gets to decide what constitutes great teaching? It’s obvious if Forbes had asked these guys, they would have said the students because that’s the only way that a university’s business model would be “sustainable.” If humanists let the value of our jobs get defined solely in economic terms we are all doomed. It’s already happening to social studies at the secondary school level. It will happen to us too.

To prevent that from happening, I say we in the humanities should sell ourselves the same way Lydia Pinkham sold her snake oil. How about this for a slogan: “The Humanities: They’re good for what ails you!” Record low SAT scores? The Humanities teaches literacy! Literacy is good for that! You say your teachers are terrible? Well, get them out of those touchy-feely education programs and teach them some literacy! And by literacy, I don’t mean any of that civic literacy stuff that justified the soon-to-be-deceased Teaching American History grant program, I mean literacy as in reading and writing literacy. So what if there are more Chinese people learning English than there are people in America. It’s your first language! You can compete against that. Besides, just like Lydia Pinkham, we have real alcohol. Let’s see online education try to beat that!

If only I was entirely joking.




3 responses

27 09 2011


“Getting angry baby?”

This is a tour de force. I have to wipe real alcohol (Fat Bastard Shiraz, as I’m only an Associate Professor) off of my computer screen now because of the spit take!

(Reference to the Associate Professor and “Getting Angry” joke here: Sorry, I must learn how to embed!)

28 09 2011
(Re-)inventing the educratic wheel : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

[…] really, the charlatanism inherent in these hinky schemes should make us cry.  I’m with Jonathan Rees–let’s all take a page out of Lydia Pinkham’s or Madame C.J. Walker’s book […]

6 05 2015
(Re-)inventing the educratic wheel | Historiann

[…] really, the charlatanism inherent in these hinky schemes should make us cry.  I’m with Jonathan Rees–let’s all take a page out of Lydia Pinkham’s or Madame C.J. Walker’s book […]

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