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October 20, 2013

The Downside of MOOCified Disruption

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By Peter Augustine Lawler

The two most potent and ingenious threats to liberal education in our country today are political correctness and techno-libertarian "disruption."  Political correctness has corrupted the humanities and social sciences and politicized higher education by asserting that all inquiry is to be driven by correct opinions about justice. The great books of the past are authoritatively discredited by outing their racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and theocracy. The humanities so understood are characterized by "relativism," which turns out mainly to be a rhetorical tool to discredit various forms of authority. The idea that truth is relative prevents students from being dissatisfied with today's fashionable opinions in search of the truth about who they are and what they're supposed to do.  Relativism is used to convinced students that behind every claim for the truth there's a hidden agenda of oppression. Even science, it turns out, is driven by premises that privilege some forms of knowing over other equally valid--because equally relative--ones. So relativism justifies obsession with identity politics and empowerment; it substitutes "engagement" as self-righteous anger for open-minded wonder. 

Holding on to the Liberal Arts 'Brand'

Political correctness has, in fact, peaked. It still dominates much of the social sciences and humanities, and it certainly animates the various "studies" majors--such as women's studies, black studies, queer studies, and even, to a large extent, environmental studies. But the social sciences and the humanities are themselves in retreat. They suffer one defeat after another in core curriculum or general education reform. They aren't doing well either in attracting students as majors or even as being part of the "brand" of our colleges and universities. Many colleges that hold on to the liberal arts "brand," after all, are busy emptying themselves of liberal arts substance.

The surging theory of higher education now is all about "disruption" through techno-innovation of the fundamental premises and habits that have animated our institutions of higher education. The social sciences and the humanities are a big part of the twin bubbles inhabited by so many of our colleges and universities. The first bubble, of course, is analogous to the housing bubble that disrupted our economy in 2008: Tuitions are rising far more quickly than the rate of inflation. Meanwhile, the largely "politically correct" self-indulgently relativistic quality of the product is increasingly more shoddy. The second bubble is the fantasy world of the campus that insulates both faculty and students from what's required to flourish in the 21st century competitive marketplace. This second bubble is analogous to the artificial environment inhabited by the "bubble boy" on the legendary Seinfeld episode. 

Moving from Bubble to Bubble

So the objection to the humanities, it turns out, is not merely to their political correctness. Even or especially the more traditional majors in philosophy and humanities are driven by obsolete "bubble" premises. The thought was that a liberal arts major could move from the bubble of the prestigious college to the bubble of, say, law school to the bubble of a secure career with a corporation or the government. Careerism in general has been disrupted by the dynamism of the global market. Unions, tenure, pensions, employer and employee loyalty and all that are yesterday's news. The future will be all about independent contractors with flexible skills in either using what libertarian Tyler Cowen calls "genius" machines or in managing and marketing those who have that competence and the outcomes of their highly productive work. The future is all about techno-calculative capabilities, including the measurement and manipulation of personal productivity. All education not oriented toward the imperatives of this future isn't worth the money. 

Disruption theory thinks of a college like any other industry. Colleges that charge an extravagant price to deliver an education that students neither want nor need will be "disrupted"--put out of business--by those who can deliver a "good enough" product at a much lower cost.  The only way not to be disrupted is to disrupt yourself, and so the inventor of disruption theory--Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor--instructs college administrators and especially governing bodies such as Boards of Trustees on how to do what's unpopular in the interest of institutional self-preservation. 

Faculty, the thought is, unreasonably cling to their privileges, privileges based on out-of-touch assumptions about what colleges is for. The "intellectual labor" of the college should be done by those attuned to the truth about needed disruption, and faculty should be thought of as workers disciplined by the imperatives of the market. And the latest technology should be aggressively employed to bring the cost of education down. Nobody really says that a MOOC or some interactive program is more engaging than a small class with a dedicated instructor. But techno-replacements for the personal touch can be good enough, certainly better than the blathering of the politically correct and the impersonality of huge lecture sections. All instruction should be evaluated by the "technology" of the precise measurement of outcomes, and outcomes should be the competencies required to flourish as part of the emerging meritocracy based on productivity. If the study of history or literature remains in the curriculum, it's only because studies show they're effective ways of acquiring the skills of critical thinking or effective communication. That means, of course, that alternative ways of acquiring those skills should also be available to students.

What's Left of Liberal Education

For a taste of the rhetoric of libertarian disruption, I refer you to an article meant to counter those moved by my earlier criticism of the language of disruption as applied to higher education. The author, Thomas Lindsay of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, refers to me as a "distinguished humanist." And it's only right that I pay him the same compliment. I only wonder why such a distinguished humanist is at war with what remains of liberal education in our country.

Here are the key steps of Lindsay's argument in fending off criticism of the MOOCification of higher education:

  1. Of course I'm right that, for example, the serious teaching of, say, Plato's Republic has to be face-to-face. But, he suggests, that kind of education has disappeared from our country. And apparently there's no way to bring it back. So he doesn't suggest any way of giving more of our students such a face-to-face experience. That, to me, would be genuinely disruptive.
  2. The MOOCs will replace the large lecture section. How could they be worse? And they will certainly be cheaper. The implication is that one feature of disruption will be reducing the number of faculty a college actually requires to be effective. (Surely the lack of "face time" will get worse with fewer faculty faces.) Students won't be any worse off learning before a screen than listening to lectures in "cavernous auditoriums" with their laptops open. Lindsay's point: Don't worry about students spending too much time in front of screens. They're going to do it one way or another anyway.
  3. Lindsay then goes into a polemic against political correctness. The humanities have become worthless anyway. They don't teach Americans what they need to be good citizens or to be informed by the wisdom and culture of Western civilization. They are, apparently, beyond reform. So students aren't missing anything these days by being deprived of face-to-face instruction from the humanities professors we actually have.
  4. Education, Lindsay goes on, as a whole has become bizarrely self-indulgent outside of the techno-fields. Consider the evidence of grade inflation and the measurably abysmal learning outcomes. (What Lindsay doesn't say, of course, is that the study guys like him love--Academically Adrift--finds "zero value-added" mainly in the studies majors and techno-lite fields such as communications and marketing. The traditional disciplines such as history and literature--despite the political correctness--are still adding lots of value.)
  5. Due to "systematic corruption," MOOCs are to be embraced as very efficient and better than the nothing most higher education has become. They offer our children good enough, bubble-free degrees at a disruptively low cost.

More Inequality from MOOCs?

I think the libertarians (and Governor Rick Perry) and the Texas Public Policy Foundation have every incentive to exaggerate the corruption. And they also have every incentive not to get us worrying about the effect the dynamics of disruption will have on the niches of educational excellence in our country. They also tell us not to worry about what excessive time in front of screens is doing to the human soul in our techno-time.

But let me close with an observation found in the celebration of our disruptively libertarian future found in Tyler Cowen's new book, Average is Over. The problem with MOOCification is that learning in front of a screen requires intelligence and self-discipline. It will actually work against struggling students who haven't been raised well, and so who are more infected than most of us with the pervasive disorder of attention deficit. So Cowen says we should keep real faculty with faces around as kind of inspirationally motivating coaches for the less gifted and attentive. The message here is that the screen has the downside of exaggerating the growing inequality that is an indisputable downside of the 21st century global competitive marketplace.

_________________________________________

Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College.

(Photo Credit: StudyingLive.)



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