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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.

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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?