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“The End of the University as We Know It,” Or, Calling Nathan Harden

In the American Interest, Ricochet’s own Nathan Harden has published an article, “The End of the University as We Know It,” that’s fascinating, provocative, and quite likely–we’ll know in a few decades–prescient.  Just get a load of the opening graf:

In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it. The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.

Nathan provides a lot to chew on there–why, for example, should it be Harvard that enrolls ten million students?  Doesn’t our experience with new technology suggest that it’s more likely to be an entirely new educational entity?  Something that appears, Google-like, from nowhere?–but I’d like to spend a little with the underlying thesis.

images-3.jpg“Access to college-level education,” Nathan writes, “will be free for everyone.”  But access to college-level education is already free–and has been for centuries:  in public libraries.  Everything you need to know to acquire a doctorate in physics or to write a thesis on the early Hemingway or to become conversant in the most recent findings in cell biology–all of it resides on the shelves of the great Carrere and Hastings edifice at Forty-Second and Fifth, that is, in the New York Public Library, as on the shelves of public libraries throughout the country.

To what extent, and why, will the Internet prove more successful at providing education than have libraries?  Can the Internet foster the sense of community–of shared effort–as the classroom?  Will listening to a professor provide a lecture over the Internet prove more compelling than cracking open his textbook in a public reading room?

I don’t doubt that there are answers to these questions–the Khan Academy proves that Something Big is Going On, just as Nathan says–but I’m unsure how thoroughly anyone has thought them through.

images.jpgIn sum:

Attending college for four years will march large numbers of students through educational material in a way that simply giving them a card at the local Carnegie Library won’t.  We know that.  Here’s what we don’t know–or at least what I don’t know:  In what ways and to what extent should the Internet prove reliably more compelling than libraries?

Nathan?  Good people of Ricochet?

  1. Peter Robinson
    C
    Pseudodionysius

     recall many years ago now a friend who had recently graduated Harvard saying how very sad many at Harvard were.  They were desperate for success without having any meaning in their lives. 

    I just wish he’d leave the White House, smoke some pot, and hitch hike around the world with Cheech and Chong until he finds himself. · 2 hours ago

    Pseud does it again.

    And as for everyone else, thanks–and I’ll catch up on the comments tomorrow.  (Although even on a very quick perusal I can see this represents a richer, more knowledgeable discussion than I’d have dared to imagine possible.  God bless Ricochet.)  I put up this post, then wandered off to spend the day watching the one product of American universities that is unambiguously successful:  college football.

    G’night.  And happy New Year.

  2. Brian Watt

    Why this is ridiculous. I’ve never heard of such an outlandish idea. Then again.

  3. Masked Man

    Peter, there is an important four-letter word that is missing from your discussion: “Shhh!”. What you can get from a classroom or the Internet that you cannot get from a library reading room is vibrant discussion, which, at least in my experience, was the big pay-off in college. That, as well as getting to know and, if really serious about the subject, being mentored by, one’s prof, which is also possible over the Internet. In sum, the distinction here is between dispensing knowledge, at which libraries have always excelled, and stimulating interest and cultivating expertise, at which the classroom, and perhaps the Internet, have natural advantages.

  4. Peter Robinson
    C

    Mea culpa, Brian–how I missed your post this past spring I cannot say.  But it’s marvelous–and, of course, precisely to the point.  If, like me, you missed it, take a look at Brian’s “Are Traditional Universities Facing Extinction?

  5. Brian Watt
    Peter Robinson: Mea culpa, Brian–how I missed your post this past spring I cannot say.  But it’s marvelous–and, of course, precisely to the point.  If, like me, you missed it, take a look at Brian’s “Are Traditional Universities Facing Extinction?” · 0 minutes ago

    No mea culpas necessary. You’re busy. We’re all busy. Life is hectic. All the best. :-)

  6. Estwald

    You put me in mind of this Isaac Asimov interview from 25 years ago. He saw it coming!

  7. twvolck

    The economist George Stigler, in his Memoirs of an Unregulated Economist said that as a graduate student, he learned more from his fellow students (one of whom was Milton Friedman) than from his professors (whom he nevertheless learned plenty from). But he didn’t think undergraduate education was all that important; it didn’t much matter where you went to college, he thought, but it did matter how good the graduate department in your field was when you did graduate work.

    So maybe we need to keep graduate schools the way they are.

  8. tabula rasa

    When I think of frailties of the modern university, my mind usually goes to Churchill.  When he was stationed in India, he used his spare time (there was a lot of it) reading good and great books.  It was in his room, reading alone, that WC became educated.

    Prior to that he was an indifferent student and received a military education at Sandhurst (by our standards, it was a second-rate education, even though he did well at Sandhurst).  

    There aren’t many Churchills around, so most of us must rely on a national or local university.  It’s been a long time since I’ve been there (1970s), but I seem to remember a pretty demanding curriculum and teachers who mostly kept their politics to themselves.

    What do we have now?  I’m speaking (probably overgeneralizing) about the liberal part of the liberal education (I don’t include business, medicine, or the hard sciences):

    1.  A degraded curriculum.

    2.  A politicized professariat.

    3.  Huge amounts of student debt.

    4.  Tuition that exceeds inflation by large amounts.

    5.  A poor economy to absorb graduates.

    Call me dumb, but that sounds like a business plan that will crash and burn.

  9. Don Tillman

    Iconic musician Frank Zappa agreed wholeheartedly.  This is one of his most famous quotes:

    “If you want to get laid, go to college.  If you want an education, go to the library.”

    Perhaps it’s even more relevant today.   And yes, Zappa was almost entirely self-taught.

  10. The Mugwump

    Sure, education is available in libraries, but autodidacts are a fairly rare species.  I’ve known maybe one such person in my lifetime.  I learned as a classroom teacher that education is an intensely personal experience for both teacher and student.  We are social animals and computers aren’t going to satisfy that need.

    Nevertheless, as per Thad McCotter and Bill Whittle, the next economic wave will be based on the information revolution.  In other words, we’re going to be moving away from a concentrated, centralized, vertically structured, urban template to a dispersed, decentralized model, linked by information technology.  As McCotter explains it, if you can order a ton of steel from China on your cellphone, why build your factory next to a mill?

    The other possibility (a probability imo) is that when Leviathan comes crashing down, urban living will be revealed as a bad idea.  According to McCotter urbanization was a necessary condition for the industrial revolution.  Our current problems stem from the fact that the Founders created a plan for a dispersed, agrarian population that would be unsuitable for an age they were unable to anticipate.  Fascinating stuff.  I could go on at length, but not today.     

  11. iWc

    Education is not found merely by reading. One does not know what one thinks until we read what we write.

    Which means that an education requires debate, both written and oral. It requires considerable and active feedback mechanisms, from people who think very differently from ourselves.

    In short, education requires lectures and precepts and arguments and papers and even exams. Some of these may well work online.  I know many students who are benefiting from Coursera and the Khan Academy.

  12. Kofola

    This prediction is based on the assumption that the reason most college students attend to get an education.  Sadly, it seems that most these days are attending rather as a social exercise. Can they get the same experience if the whole thing goes digital?

  13. John Hanson

    I recently finished a system engineering class in systems thinking, or how to think about systems, that was crowd sourced, in that a body of knowledge was pointed to by a professor, an readings and assignments placed on the Web, but beyond that, no lectures, no quizzes, no final, just the use of crowd sourcing to analyze and critique the thinking of the class participants (~ 15 individuals across the country).  Grade for the class was determined by level of participation in the analysis, and the quality of a final paper on a system topic selected by the student from his/her experience that applied the precepts of systems thinking.  Very different way of learning, that for graduate students, already witn background in system engineering, and a common systems language worked.  BUT, at the undergrad level, I don’t think this would work as well.   Most students need the body of knowledge to learn identified, and then even more need a guide to that knowledge who can show what they are learning and fill in the potholes an mistakes.  This is the task of the professor and lectures, quizzes and tests.   This can be done over internet, but self study alone?

  14. iWc
    ~Paules:We are social animals and computers aren’t going to satisfy that need.

    The other possibility (a probability imo) is that when Leviathan comes crashing down, urban living will be revealed as a bad idea.

    Yes and No.

    I do not like cities. But it is undeniable that people make more money per capita when they live close to one another.

  15. Brian Watt
    ~Paules: …

    The other possibility (a probability imo) is that when Leviathan comes crashing down, urban living will be revealed as a bad idea.  According to McCotter urbanization was a necessary condition for the industrial revolution.  Our current problems stem from the fact that the Founders created a plan for a dispersed, agrarian population that would be unsuitable for an age they were unable to anticipate.  Fascinating stuff.  I could go on at length, but not today.      · 0 minutes ago

    I think to your last point, Alvin Toffler in his book, The Third Wave also envisioned that the personal computer would herald in an age of the electronic cottage where people could be dispersed from their place of employment (telecommuters) and possibly even start their own home-based businesses. And this was articulated before the Internet was a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye. Others have written about the rise of Edge Cities, not full-fledged urban hubs with high-rises crowding downtowns but cities more spread out without a central downtown area. The greater Irvine, California area is an example of such a transformation where pockets of enterprise are interspersed vast residential tracts. But I digress.

  16. Pseudodionysius

    Gentlemen, that if I had to choose between a so-called University, which dispensed with residence and tutorial superintendence, and gave its degrees to any person who passed an examination in a wide range of subjects, and a University which had no professors or examinations at all, but merely brought a number of young men together for three or four years, and then sent them away as the University of Oxford is said to have done some sixty years since, if I were asked which of these two methods was the better discipline of the intellect,—mind, I do not say which is morally the better, for it is plain that compulsory study must be a good and idleness an intolerable mischief,—but if I must determine which of the two courses was the more successful in training, moulding, enlarging the mind, which sent out men the more fitted for their secular duties, which produced better public men, men of the world, men whose names would descend to posterity, I have no hesitation in giving the preference to that University which did nothing, over that which exacted of its members an acquaintance with every science under the sun. 

  17. MJBubba

    The chief thing about the university is that it dispenses degrees which serve as credentials that permit the acquisition of the degree to serve as a screening tool to be applied by employers and graduate schools.   Once degrees conferred on-line are considered the equivalent of traditional degrees, it will then be the beginning of the end of a majority of the universities.   There will still be a demand for a variety of universities, since some young people need the structure in order to keep progressing through their lessons, and because, in a few rare places, the university really does provide a place for intellectual discourse.

    Regarding who will benefit, I think MIT is currently leading the way with on-line classes.

  18. katievs

    I agree that the system we have now is doomed.  

    But put me down with those who think that true education can’t be gotten through the internet.  Or rather, the most valuable part of a university experience (as it is meant to be) comes through the personal influence of a communion of scholars.  See Newman’s Idea of a University.

  19. kennail

    Ricochet can be part of the future by adding university-level lectures as an added service among its growing list of podcasts.  I’d like to hear Victor Davis Hanson for five lectures on military history and Andrew Klavan on writing.

  20. david foster

    People who are doing hiring mostly have degrees from traditional universities. Mostly they will tend..especially if their degrees are from “elite” institutions…to assume that *their* kind of college experience has more value than the on-line version.