The Hi-Tech Mess of Higher Education by David Bromwich | The New York Review of Books

The Hi-Tech Mess of Higher Education by David Bromwich | The New York Review of Books.


Students at Deep Springs College in the California desert, near the Nevada border, where education involves ranching, farming, and self-governance in addition to academics – Jodi Cobb/National Geographic/Getty Images

The financial crush has come just when colleges are starting to think of Internet learning as a substitute for the classroom. And the coincidence has engendered a new variant of the reflection theory. We are living (the digital entrepreneurs and their handlers like to say) in a technological society, or a society in which new technology is rapidly altering people’s ways of thinking, believing, behaving, and learning. It follows that education itself ought to reflect the change. Mastery of computer technology is the major competence schools should be asked to impart. But what if you can get the skills more cheaply without the help of a school?

A troubled awareness of this possibility has prompted universities, in their brochures, bulletins, and advertisements, to heighten the one clear advantage that they maintain over the Internet. Universities are physical places; and physical existence is still felt to be preferable in some ways to virtual existence. Schools have been driven to present as assets, in a way they never did before, nonacademic programs and facilities that provide students with the “quality of life” that makes a college worth the outlay. Auburn University in Alabama recently spent $72 million on a Recreation and Wellness Center. Stanford built Escondido Village Highrise Apartments. Must a college that wants to compete now have a student union with a food court and plasma screens in every room?


The model seems to be the elite club—in this instance, a club whose leading function is to house in comfort thousands of young people while they complete some serious educational tasks and form connections that may help them in later life.


A hidden danger both of intramural systems and of public forums like “Rate My Professors” is that they discourage eccentricity. Samuel Johnson defined a classic of literature as a work that has pleased many and pleased long. Evaluations may foster courses that please many and please fast.

At the utopian edge of the technocratic faith, a rising digital remedy for higher education goes by the acronym MOOCs (massive open online courses). The MOOC movement is represented in Ivory Tower by the Silicon Valley outfit Udacity. “Does it really make sense,” asks a Udacity adept, “to have five hundred professors in five hundred different universities each teach students in a similar way?” What you really want, he thinks, is the academic equivalent of a “rock star” to project knowledge onto the screens and into the brains of students without the impediment of fellow students or a teacher’s intrusive presence in the room. “Maybe,” he adds, “that rock star could do a little bit better job” than the nameless small-time academics whose fame and luster the video lecturer will rightly displace.

That the academic star will do a better job of teaching than the local pedagogue who exactly resembles 499 others of his kind—this, in itself, is an interesting assumption at Udacity and a revealing one. Why suppose that five hundred teachers of, say, the English novel from Defoe to Joyce will all tend to teach the materials in the same way, while the MOOC lecturer will stand out because he teaches the most advanced version of the same way? Here, as in other aspects of the movement, under all the talk of variety there lurks a passion for uniformity.


The pillars of education at Deep Springs are self-governance, academics, and physical labor. The students number scarcely more than the scholar-hackers on Thiel Fellowships—a total of twenty-six—but they are responsible for all the duties of ranching and farming on the campus in Big Pine, California, along with helping to set the curriculum and keep their quarters. Two minutes of a Deep Springs seminar on citizen and state in the philosophy of Hegel give a more vivid impression of what college education can be than all the comments by college administrators in the rest of Ivory Tower.


Teaching at a university, he says, involves a commitment to the preservation of “cultural memory”; it is therefore in some sense “an effort to cheat death.”