Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, February 3, 2014

after the Golden Age

Clay Shirky says that the “Golden Age” of American higher education, when our universities were flush with money, “was a nice time, but it wasn’t stable, and it didn’t last, and it’s not coming back,” and that, therefore, “If we can’t keep raising costs for students (we can’t) and if no one is coming to save us (they aren’t), then the only remaining way to help these students is to make a cheaper version of higher education for the new student majority.”

Golden Age or MOOCs, baby. Those are the options.

Except of course they aren’t. As Freddie deBoer points out, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that super-cheap, internet-based, adjunct-staffed teaching has any chance of achieving either the educational or the economic (poverty-eliminating) goals Shirky says he supports. The idea that education in any form is a magic bullet for poverty is misbegotten; and we already have a good deal of evidence showing that only the already-educated and already-prepared benefit significantly from MOOCs.

Moreover, Shirky seems to think that academics (teachers and administrators) who have not yet been convinced to restructure their priorities — to cut back on climbing walls, redundant administrators, and cushy research-based jobs with low teaching loads — can nevertheless be convinced to tear down the entire system of American higher education. Or maybe not: maybe Shirky is talking over our heads to Davos Man, and telling Him that our universities need to be torn down rather than reformed. So maybe he doesn't care what his fellow academics think — the ones who can’t make a living from consulting gigs, at least.

Chesterton famously said that “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” The same may be said for the structural reform of higher education. This is why I’m still waiting for just one school in financial straits to completely restructure its priorities in favor of a near-total focus on the teaching of undergraduates. Then maybe others will follow. But in any event the idea that MOOCs are preferable to such genuine reform strikes me as nuts.