Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Amor Mundi Newsletter 3/9/14


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Why the Jews?

antiAnthony Grafton calls David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism “one of the saddest stories, and one of the most learned, I have ever read.” Grafton knows that Anti-Judaism “is certainly not the first effort to survey the long grim history of the charges that have been brought against the Jews by their long gray line of self-appointed prosecutors.” What makes this account of the long history of Jewish hatred so compelling is that Nirenberg asks the big question: Why the Jews? “[Nirenberg] wants to know why: why have so many cultures and so many intellectuals had so much to say about the Jews? More particularly, he wants to know why so many of them generated their descriptions and explanations of Jewishness not out of personal knowledge or scholarly research, but out of thin air—and from assumptions, some inherited and others newly minted, that the Jews could be wholly known even to those who knew no Jews.” The question recalls the famous joke told during the Holocaust, especially amongst Jews in concentration camps. Here is one formulation of the joke from Antisemitism, the first book in the trilogy that comprises Hannah Arendt’s magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “An antisemite claimed that the Jews had caused the war; the reply was: Yes, the Jews and the bicyclists. Why the bicyclists? Asks the one? Why the Jews? asks the other.” Read more on the Arendt Center blog.

The SAT is Part Hoax, Part Fraud

satNews that the SAT is about to undergo a makeover leaves Bard College President Leon Botstein unimpressed: “The changes recently announced by the College Board to its SAT college entrance exam bring to mind the familiar phrase “too little, too late.” The alleged improvements are motivated not by any serious soul searching about the SAT but by the competition the College Board has experienced from its arch rival, the ACT, the other major purveyor of standardized college entrance exams. But the problems that plague the SAT also plague the ACT. The SAT needs to be abandoned and replaced. The SAT has a status as a reliable measure of college readiness it does not deserve. The College Board has successfully marketed its exams to parents, students, colleges and universities as arbiters of educational standards. The nation actually needs fewer such exam schemes; they damage the high school curriculum and terrify both students and parents. The blunt fact is that the SAT has never been a good predictor of academic achievement in college. High school grades adjusted to account for the curriculum and academic programs in the high school from which a student graduates are. The essential mechanism of the SAT, the multiple choice test question, is a bizarre relic of long outdated twentieth century social scientific assumptions and strategies. As every adult recognizes, knowing something or how to do something in real life is never defined by being able to choose a “right” answer from a set of possible answers (some of them intentionally misleading) put forward by faceless test designers who are rarely eminent experts. No scientist, engineer, writer, psychologist, artist, or physician— and certainly no scholar, and therefore no serious university faculty member—pursues his or her vocation by getting right answers from a set of prescribed alternatives that trivialize complexity and ambiguity.”

What Does the West Have to Prove?

ukForeign policy types are up in arms—not over Russia’s pending annexation of Crimea, but over the response in the West. By yelling loudly but doing nothing in Syria and now in the Ukraine, America and Europe are losing all credibility. The insinuation is clear. If we don’t draw the line at Crimea, we will embolden Putin in Poland. Much as in the 1930s, the current NATO alliance seems unwilling to stand up for anything on principle if the costs are more than a few photo opportunities and some angry tweets. According to The American Interest, “Putin believes the West is decadent, weak, and divided. The West needs to prove him wrong.” And in Politico, Ben Judah writes: “Russia’s rulers have been buying up Europe for years. They have mansions and luxury flats from London’s West End to France’s Cote d’Azure. Their children are safe at British boarding and Swiss finishing schools. And their money is squirrelled away in Austrian banks and British tax havens.Putin’s inner circle no longer fear the European establishment. They once imagined them all in MI6. Now they know better. They have seen firsthand how obsequious Western aristocrats and corporate tycoons suddenly turn when their billions come into play. They now view them as hypocrites—the same European elites who help them hide their fortunes.”

Fiction is Not a Means

royIn The New York Times Magazine, Siddhartha Deb profiles Arundhati Roy, the Indian writer best known in the West for her 1997 novel The God of Small Things. Though the book made Roy into a national icon, her political essays – in which she has addressed, among other issues, India’s occupation of Kashmir, the “lunacy” of India’s nuclear programme, and the paramilitary operations in central India against the ultraleft guerillas and indigenous populations – have angered many nationalist and upper-class Indians for their fierce critiques. Roy’s most recent work, The Doctor and the Saint, is an introduction to Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s famous 1936 essay “The Annihilation of Caste” that is likely to spark controversy over her rebuke of Ghandi, who wanted to abolish untouchability but not caste. How does Roy see her fiction in relation to her politics? “I’m not a person who likes to use fiction as a means,” she says. “I think it’s an irreducible thing, fiction. It’s itself. It’s not a movie, it’s not a political tract, it’s not a slogan. The ways in which I have thought politically, the proteins of that have to be broken down and forgotten about, until it comes out as the sweat on your skin.” You can read Deb’s profile of Roy here, and an excerpt from The Doctor and the Saint here.

Whither the MOOC Participant

moocComparing the MOOC and the GED, Michael Guerreiro wonders whether participants approach both programs with the same sense of purpose. The answer, he suspects, is no: "The data tells us that very few of the students who enroll in a MOOC will ever reach its end. In the ivy, brick, and mortar world from which MOOCs were spun, that would be damning enough. Sticking around is important there; credentials and connections reign, starting with the high-school transcript and continuing through graduate degrees. But students may go into an online course knowing that a completion certificate, even offered under the imprimatur of Harvard or UPenn, doesn’t have the same worth. A recent study by a team of researchers from Coursera found that, for many MOOC students, the credential isn’t the goal at all. Students may treat the MOOC as a resource or a text rather than as a course, jumping in to learn new code or view an enticing lecture and back out whenever they want, just as they would while skimming the wider Web. For many, MOOCs may be just one more Internet tool or diversion; in the Coursera study, the retention rate among committed students for a typical class was shown to be roughly on par with that of a mobile app. And the London Times reported last week that, when given the option to get course credit for their MOOC (for a fee), none of the thousand, or so students who enrolled in a British online class did.” A potent reminder that while MOOCs may indeed succeed and may even replace university education for many people, they are not so much about education as a combination of entertainment, credential, and manual. These are important activities each, but they are not what liberal arts colleges should be about. The hope in the rise of MOOCs, as we’ve written before, is that they help return college to its mission: to teach critical thinking and expose students to the life of the mind.

The Afterlife of the American University

ameNoam Chomsky, speaking to the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers, takes issue with the idea that the American university was once living and is now undead, and seeks a way forward: "First of all, we should put aside any idea that there was once a “golden age.” Things were different and in some ways better in the past, but far from perfect. The traditional universities were, for example, extremely hierarchical, with very little democratic participation in decision-making. One part of the activism of the 1960s was to try to democratize the universities, to bring in, say, student representatives to faculty committees, to bring in staff to participate. These efforts were carried forward under student initiatives, with some degree of success. Most universities now have some degree of student participation in faculty decisions. And I think those are the kinds of things we should be moving towards: a democratic institution, in which the people involved in the institution, whoever they may be (faculty, students, staff), participate in determining the nature of the institution and how it runs; and the same should go for a factory. These are not radical ideas."

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog Anna Metcalfe examines the multi-dimensional idea of action which Arendt discusses in The Human Condition. And in the Weekend Read, entitled 'Why the Jews?', Roger Berkowitz delves into anti-Judaism and its deeply seated roots in Western civilization.

Featured Events


hireshousekeepingcoverBard Big Read

Featuring Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.

Bard College partners with five local libraries for six weeks of activities, performances, and discussions scheduled throughout the Hudson Valley.

Learn more here.




'What Europe? Ideals to Fight for Today'

The HAC co-sponsors the second annual conference with Bard College in Berlin

March 27-28, 2014

ICI Berlin


Learn more here.


Amor Mundi 9/8/13


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Balancing Solitude and Society

Illustration by Dan Williams

Illustration by Dan Williams

It is a new year, not only for Jews celebrating Rosh Hashanah but also for hundreds of thousands of college and university students around the world. Over at Harvard, they invited Nannerl O. Keohane—past President of Wellesley College—to give the new students some advice on how to reflect upon and imagine the years of education that lay before them. Above all, Keohane urges students to take time to think about what they want from their education: “You now have this incredible opportunity to shape who you are as a person, what you are like, and what you seek for the future. You have both the time and the materials to do this. You may think you’ve never been busier in your life, and that’s probably true; but most of you have “time” in the sense of no other duties that require your attention and energy. Shaping your character is what you are supposed to do with your education; it’s not competing with something else. You won’t have many other periods in your life that will be this way until you retire when, if you are fortunate, you’ll have another chance; but then you will be more set in your ways, and may find it harder to change.”

The March, Fifty Years On

mlkRobin Kelly, writing on the 1963 March on Washington and the March's recent fiftieth anniversary celebrations, zooms out a little bit on the original event. It has, he says, taken on the characteristics of a big, feel good event focused on Civil Rights and directly responsible for the passage of the Civil Rights Act, when, in fact, all those people also came to Washington in support of economic equality and the gritty work of passing laws was accomplished later, with additional momentum and constraints. It's important to remember, he says, that "big glitzy marches do not make a movement; the organizations and activists who came to Washington, D. C., will continue to do their work, fight their fights, and make connections between disparate struggles, no matter what happens in the limelight."

Famous Last Words

textRobinson Meyer investigates what, exactly, poet Seamus Heaney's last words were. Just before he passed away last week at 74, Heaney, an Irish Nobel Laureate, texted the Latin phrase noli timere, don't be afraid, to his wife. Heaney's son Michael mentioned this in his eulogy for his father, and it was written down and reported as, variously, the correct phrase or the incorrect nolle timore. For Meyer, this mis-recording of the poet's last words is emblematic of some of the transcriptions and translations he did in his work, and the further translations and transcriptions we will now engage in because he is gone. "We die" Meyer writes, "and the language gets away from us, in little ways, like a dropped vowel sound, a change in prepositions, a mistaken transcription. Errors in transfer make a literature."

We're All Billy Pilgrim Now

gearsJay Rosen, who will be speaking at the Hannah Arendt Center’s NYC Lecture Series on Sunday, Oct. 27th at 5pm, has recently suggested that journalism solves the problem of awayness - “Journalism enters the picture when human settlement, daily economy, and political organization grow beyond the scale of the self-informing populace.” C.W. Anderson adds that "awayness" should include alienation from a moment in time as well as from a particular place: "Think about how we get our news today: We dive in and out of Twitter, with its short bursts of immediate information. We click over to a rapidly updating New York Times Lede blog post, with it's rolling updates and on the ground reports, complete with YouTube videos and embedded tweets. Eventually, that blog post becomes a full-fledged article, usually written by someone else. And finally, at another end of the spectrum, we peruse infographics that can sum up decades of data into a single image. All of these are journalism, in some fashion. But the kind of journalisms they are - what they are for - is arguably very different. They each deal with the problem of context in different ways."

...Because I Like it

readingAdam Gopnik makes a case for the study of English, and of the humanities more broadly. His defense is striking because it rejects a recent turn towards their supposed use value, instead emphasizing such study for its own sake: "No sane person proposes or has ever proposed an entirely utilitarian, production-oriented view of human purpose. We cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them to each other as cheaply as possible, and die. Some idea of symbolic purpose, of pleasure seeking rather than rent seeking, of Doing Something Else, is essential to human existence. That’s why we pass out tax breaks to churches, zoning remissions to parks, subsidize new ballparks and point to the density of theatres and galleries as signs of urban life, to be encouraged if at all possible. When a man makes a few billion dollars, he still starts looking around for a museum to build a gallery for or a newspaper to buy. No civilization we think worth studying, or whose relics we think worth visiting, existed without what amounts to an English department—texts that mattered, people who argued about them as if they mattered, and a sense of shame among the wealthy if they couldn’t talk about them, at least a little, too. It’s what we call civilization."

Featured Events

smallfailingOctober 3-4, 2013

The sixth annual fall conference, "Failing Fast:The Crisis of the Educated Citizen"

Olin Hall, Bard College

Learn more here.

A Reflective Education


It is a new year, not only for Jews celebrating Rosh Hashanah but also for hundreds of thousands of college and university students around the world. As with all new things, there are surprises in store, some glorious and others traumatic. Over at Harvard, they invited Nannerl O. Keohane —past President of Wellesley College—to give the new students some advice on how to reflect upon and imagine the years of education that lay before them. Keohane refashioned some words she had given previously to students at Stanford and called them: “Self-Fashioning in Society and Solitude.”


Above all, Keohane urges students to take time to think about what they want from their education:

You now have this incredible opportunity to shape who you are as a person, what you are like, and what you seek for the future. You have both the time and the materials to do this. You may think you’ve never been busier in your life, and that’s probably true; but most of you have “time” in the sense of no other duties that require your attention and energy. Shaping your character is what you are supposed to do with your education; it’s not competing with something else. You won’t have many other periods in your life that will be this way until you retire when, if you are fortunate, you’ll have another chance; but then you will be more set in your ways, and may find it harder to change.

Keohane also turns to Hannah Arendt for advice. She writes:

In the fifth chapter of her powerful work of political philosophy, The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt discusses the connections between individuals and political communities. She notes that each human being is “distinguished from any other who is, was, and ever will be”—which is a vivid way of thinking about selfhood. Yet precisely because each of us is a distinct individual, we need speech and action to communicate; I cannot just sense instinctively what somewhat else is thinking. In speaking and acting, we “disclose ourselves” and thus expose ourselves to possible misunderstanding or exploitation by others, but also to the rich possibilities of communication.

Speech and action, in Arendt’s sense, cannot exist in isolation; they are meaningful only within human relationships. By the same token, “human nature”—as distinct from our more animal qualities—depends precisely on our capacity for speech and action: it is in fact through speech and action that each of us constitutes our self. This is Arendt’s distinctive contribution to our discussion of self-fashioning: the self is created not by each of us as individuals in isolation, but through the activities we share with other human beings—language, creativity, striving, politics. If your goal is to fashion a worthwhile self, you should be mindful of your surroundings and choose companions and activities that will give you opportunities to develop your language, creativity, striving, and politics in more depth.

Keohane is right that Arendt understands the fashioning of our public selves to take place through speech and action with others. The self that is created as a public self—the self that is spoken of in the public sphere—is created through the activities we share with other human beings.

At the same time, Arendt is clear that the emergence into public life of a unique self must be nurtured in the private realm. This is especially true for children, who must be protected against the public world. Children, she writes, “must be protected against the world,” which is why the child’s “traditional place is in the family, whose adult members daily return back from the outside world and withdraw into the security of private life within four walls.” Education, Arendt insists, is not an activity of the public sphere and the world, but requires a “secure place, without which no living being can thrive.” For Arendt, children must develop outside the “merciless glare of the public realm.” Only then can they develop individually and uniquely into plural and independent persons. In order that there be a public world of plurality, we need a private world of solitude and darkness. “Everything that lives,” Arendt writes, “emerges from darkness and, however strong its natural tendency to thrust itself into the light, it nevertheless needs the security of darkness to grow at all.”


Keohane too embraces the importance of solitude in education, arguing that a reflective education must have a double aspect, looking both inwards in solitude and outwards towards society. She enlists Thoreau and Montaigne in the defense of solitude, even as she insists that a liberal arts education has, in the end, “education for citizenship.”

At a time when democracy is passionately sought by people in countries around the world, and countries that have long enjoyed democracy are struggling to sustain it against multiple pressures, education for citizenship is one of the most powerful arguments for a liberal-arts education.

What Arendt argues, however, is that what makes education supportive of citizenship is precisely its inculcation of the virtues of solitude. Only the person who knows himself and thinks for himself and thus is inured to the sway of society and social pressures is, in Emerson’s words, qualified to enter the public forum.

Precisely this question of what does it mean to educate citizens today, and how we are to respond to the crisis of apathetic yet educated citizens, underlies the upcoming Arendt Center Conference: Failing Fast: The Educated Citizen in Crisis. The Conference takes place Oct. 3-4 at Bard College. And is open to the public. For now, take a look at Keohane’s speech. It is your weekend read.



MOOCs, Sufi Devotion, and the Ethics of “Presence”


The recent ascendance of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, has generated considerable enthusiasm among college faculty members and administrators. But it has also created a great deal of anxiety, as Nathan Heller notes in his recent article “Laptop U,” which appeared in the May 20 edition of The New Yorker. Among their other concerns—the elevation of star professors at the expense of other faculty, the difficulty of evaluating student learning, the elimination of large numbers of academic jobs—skeptics fear that MOOCs will diminish if not eliminate in-class discussion. For academics like Harvard professor Peter Burgard,

“College education in general is sitting in a classroom with students, and preferably with few enough students that you can have real interaction, and really digging into and exploring a knotty topic—a difficult image, a fascinating text, whatever. That’s what’s exciting. There’s a chemistry to it that simply cannot be replicated online.”

I sympathize with these sentiments, and I worry about the impact of MOOCs on the teaching and learning that occur in the most stimulating college classrooms. And yet I also feel that MOOC detractors have not stated their objections with the necessary precision. What specific work does in-class discussion do? And what in particular is lost if it is not a central element of education? The critics of large-scale online courses rarely provide cogent answers to these questions.


The current debate would profit, I think, from a wider frame of reference, one that might throw into relief some of the premises that animate the skeptics’ position. One far-flung but potentially illuminating starting point occurred to me as I was reading Brian Silverstein’s book Islam and Modernity in Turkey (2011), which examines one Istanbul-based branch of the Naqshbandi Sufi order. Like other adherents of Sufism, Naqshbandis rely on a series of devotional techniques to cultivate their habits and sensibilities as observant Muslims. Since the emergence of the order in the fourteenth century, these techniques have been grounded in the practice and reasoning of the Islamic tradition. In the past two decades, however, they have also come to be articulated with mass media technologies in telling ways.

One of the most important means of cultivating Islamic devotion for Turkish Naqshbandis is the sohbet, which Silverstein translates as “companionship-in-conversation.” The sohbet is typically structured around the oral reading and explication of hadith (accounts of the words and actions of the Prophet Muhammad) by a sheikh, a mature master who acts as a model and guide for the order’s rank-and-file disciples. The content of the sheikh’s discourse—that is, the hadith he recites and the interpretation he provides—certainly furthers the spiritual knowledge of the devotees who attend him. But this aspect of the sohbet is ultimately less significant than the social relationships that are formed during the skeikh’s address. For many Naqshbandis, the sohbet is first and foremost a means of creating the companionships that help to form the dispositions, emotions, and habits of pious Muslim selves.

In Silverstein’s analysis, the sohbet is embedded in both the Islamic and broadly Aristotelian traditions. On the one hand, Naqshbandis trace the sohbet to the exemplary practices of the Prophet Muhammad, who also sought to impart his teachings through companionship and conversation with his disciples. In the process, Naqshbandis attribute particular authority to the oral—as opposed to written or scriptural—transmission of ethical instruction, a stance that accords with the centrality of spoken revelation and recitation in Islam more generally. For these and other reasons, Naqshbandis do not regard their devotion as opposed to Sunni Muslim orthodoxy, a point that distinguishes them from some other Sufi orders (not to mention romantic Western accounts of Sufi mysticism).

On the other hand, Naqshbandis follow classical Greek thinkers, including Aristotle, in conceiving and pursuing the sohbet as a mode of ethical action. Rather than merely conveying a set of ideas or beliefs, the sohbet is a “spiritual exercise” that forms and molds practitioners’ sensibilities in line with a particular vision of the virtuous life. When viewed in this light, communal conversations with a sheikh provide one key means for disciples to work on themselves, to train their emotions and desires, so that they might become more pious in the eyes of God. Yet individual devotees do not pursue such self-cultivation in isolation. Instead, the sohbet harnesses social relations so that the sheikh and his disciples, in and through their companionship, come to influence one another’s dispositions in edifying ways. The sohbet thereby constitutes, to use Silverstein’s apt phrase, a “discipline of presence.” It is a project of concerted ethical self-formation that relies heavily on oral, face-to-face interaction.

Significantly, this mode of devotion has been transformed as Naqshbandis have engaged more intensively with mass media technologies. In particular, the branch of the order studied by Silverstein launched its own radio station in 1994. In addition to other kinds of programming, it regularly broadcast live and pre-recorded sohbets of several prominent sheikhs. At least in the station’s early years, these sohbets drew sizable audiences. Many of the order’s adherents eventually came to perceive, however, that the radio sohbets lacked the compelling intimacy and force of their face-to-face counterparts. Although listeners appreciated the fact that the sohbets were now more widely accessible, many nevertheless lamented that disciples were no longer in the oral, face-to-face presence of the sheikh or, for that matter, a community of fellow devotees. Moreover, many of them came to regard the radio sohbets less as a spiritual exercise and more as a “service” (hizmet) that injected Islamic informational content into a wider public sphere.

In short, mass media transmission had substantially altered the social relations and contexts that had been central to the sohbet’s status as a discipline of presence. Many Naqshbandis came to question radio sohbets’ ability to mold their sensibilities as Muslims, and they worried about the effects that this transformation of sheiks’ authority, and the order’s sociability, would have on its members’ ethical conduct.

There are, to be sure, several obvious differences we could highlight between Naqshbandi devotion and American higher education. Perhaps above all, Naqshbandis are engaged in practices that we commonly define as “religious,” while American professors and students are participating in a process that we widely regard as “secular” and “liberal.” And yet we can also observe important parallels between the two groups’ activities and the concerns that at least some of their members express about mass mediation. In particular, some members of both groups attribute particular importance to the face-to-face discourse that occurs between a figure of spiritual or intellectual authority and her or his attendees. Some members of both groups also feel that the quality of their devotional or educational practice is lessened when it is channeled into mass media formats that diminish the role of face-to-face discourse.


This comparison has important implications for MOOC skeptics and, perhaps, for all of us who participate in American higher education. In particular, it suggests that college instruction is not only or even primarily a process of conveying information (ideas, concepts, arguments, frameworks, theories, etc.) from teachers to students. Rather, it is a mode of ethical self-formation like the sohbet, one that does not merely form “educated” habits and sensibilities, but one works best through particular modes of oral, face-to-face intercourse. In other words, it too is a discipline of presence.

If that is the case, then there is reason to be concerned about the proliferation of large-scale online education. It threatens to undercut the very social relations and modes of discourse through which educated sensibilities, at least in favorable circumstances, have been cultivated in the past. But this line of argument then makes it incumbent on MOOC skeptics to outline their vision of the virtuous life, to specify the ethical aims that in their estimation guide (or should guide) American higher education. In the end, then, it is not enough for the critics of MOOCs to praise the “chemistry” of in-class discussion. They must also clarify the philosophical, even “spiritual” project for which such chemistry is to be mobilized.

-Jeff Jurgens


Defending the Humanities While Trashing Them


Leon Wieseltier, the longtime cultural editor of the New Republic, dedicated his commencement address at Brandeis last month to a defense of the humanities. He asks, “Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more?” It was a rhetorical question, and Wieseltier offers a full-throttled defense of teaching and studying the humanities. The culprit, he writes, is technology.

For decades now in America we have been witnessing a steady and sickening denigration of humanistic understanding and humanistic method. We live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily, even giddily governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience. The technological mentality that has become the American worldview instructs us to prefer practical questions to questions of meaning – to ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work. Our reason has become an instrumental reason, and is no longer the reason of the philosophers, with its ancient magnitude of intellectual ambition, its belief that the proper subjects of human thought are the largest subjects, and that the mind, in one way or another, can penetrate to the very principles of natural life and human life. Philosophy itself has shrunk under the influence of our weakness for instrumentality – modern American philosophy was in fact one of the causes of that weakness -- and generally it, too, prefers to tinker and to tweak.

The machines to which we have become enslaved, all of them quite astonishing, represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised: they are engines of mental and spiritual dispersal, which make us wider only by making us less deep. There are thinkers, reputable ones if you can believe it, who proclaim that the exponential growth in computational ability will soon take us beyond the finitude of our bodies and our minds so that, as one of them puts it, there will no longer be any difference between human and machine. La Mettrie lives in Silicon Valley. This, of course, is not an apotheosis of the human but an abolition of the human; but Google is very excited by it.

I too value the humanities and have dedicated my life to them. I agree with Wieseltier about the distracting influence of technology and also the danger of scientism.


But I do wonder why it is that Wieseltier did not ask also what the humanities might have contributed to the fact that nationally now only 7% of students choose to study the humanities. Even at Harvard, only 20% of students are majoring in the humanities. Are all these students eschewing the humanities out of evil or ignorance? Or is there something wrong with the way we are teaching the humanities? 

The truth is that too much of what our humanities faculties teach is neither interesting nor wanted by our students and even by our colleagues. It is an amazing truth that much of what academics write and publish is rarely, if ever, read. Even by other academics. 

The standard response to such whispered confessions is that scholarship is timeless. Its value may not be discovered for centuries. Or that it is like basic research, useful in itself. The problem with these arguments is that such really original scholarship is rare and getting ever more rare. The increasing specialization of academic life leads to professors knowing more and more about less and less. This is the source of the irrelevance of much of humanities scholarship today.

As Hannah Arendt wrote 50 years ago in her essay On Violence, humanities scholars today are better served by being learned and erudite than by seeking to do original research by uncovering some new or forgotten scrap. While such finds can be interesting, they are exceedingly rare and largely insignificant.

To say that excessively specialized humanities scholarship today is irrelevant is not to say that the humanities are irrelevant. As I have written elsewhere,

The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us whom we are today. The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities.

One might think that given his concern with technology changing and threatening our humanity, Wieseltier might find an ally in Hannah Arendt.  Hannah Arendt is one of the most articulate defenders of the connection between humanities learning and political and an engaged political life. For her, politics depends upon the stories and actions that preserve the traditions and the institutions that give meaning and sense to our common lives. The crisis in the humanities is, Arendt understood, deeply connected to our political crisis.


Wieseltier has never been a fan of Arendt’s writing, which of course is fine. But with the opening of the new movie “Hannah Arendt” by Margarethe von Trotta, he seems to have decided to establish the new New Republic as ground zero of irresponsible Arendt bashing. Under his guidance, the New Republic has published not one but two scathingly critical reviews of the film, each riddled with errors. I wrote already about the glaring factual mistakes plaguing Stanley Kaufmann’s review last week, in a post on the Febrile Imagination of Arendt Haters. I only recently became aware of a second attack by Saul Austerlitz.

The Austerlitz review is given the subtle title “A New Movie Perpetuates the Pernicious Myth of Hannah Arendt.” Austerlitz calls Arendt a “threadbare hero,” and complains that the movie eschews “serious consideration of the sustained critical response to Eichmann in Jerusalem.” That is strange given the prominence in the film given to Arendt’s critics, including Kurt Blumenfeld (who also utters damning words written by Gershom Scholem), Charlotte Beradt, Norman Podhoretz, and, most forcefully, Hans Jonas. Undoubtedly the film comes down on Arendt’s side. But when Jonas turns away from Arendt after her lecture, the moral clarity of his accusation of arrogance weighs on through till the credits.

Some of Austerlitz’s criticisms hit home. For example, he worries, as I have, that the encounter between Siegfried Moses and Arendt is too one-sided, even if he does not know that the actual encounter was much different.

But mostly Austerlitz just follows the herd by attacking Arendt not by engaging her work (he never once cites Arendt), but by quoting from others. Mostly Austerlitz chooses to cite Deborah Lipstadt, author of a revisionist account of the Eichmann trial in which suggests without any reason or supporting evidence that Arendt defended Eichmann (something she certainly did not do) in order to excuse or please her former lover Martin Heidegger. Such contentions would be laughable if they weren’t then adopted uncritically by others as fact. In any case, here is what Austerlitz writes about Eichmann in Jerusalem (giving no indication whatsoever whether he has read it):

The book makes for good philosophy, but shoddy history, as many have asserted in the decades since its publication. As historian Deborah Lipstadt observes of Arendt in The Eichmann Trial (2011), “The only way she could have concluded that Eichmann was unaware was to give more credence to his demeanor and testimony at the trial than to what he actually did during the war.” 

One wonders, upon reading such a paragraph, what Lipstadt was saying Arendt was unaware of? Since Austerlitz’s preceding sentence accuses Arendt of believing that Eichmann, “bore the Jews no special animus, intent merely on carrying out his duties to the utmost,” it suggests that Lipstadt is arguing that Arendt is unaware of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism. But if one goes back to Lipstadt’s book itself, she is in fact arguing that Arendt said that Eichmann was unaware that he had committed crimes.


Whether or not Eichmann was aware that he committed crimes is an important question. It certainly cannot be decided as Lipstadt does by appealing to but never citing the memoir Eichmann wrote while in Argentina. Over and over in that memoir, Eichmann asserts his belief that he was justified in doing what he did and that he violated no laws in doing so. Indeed, Arendt herself argued that Eichmann’s pleas of having a “clear conscience” were made questionable by “the fact that the Nazis, and especially the criminal organizations to which Eichmann belonged, had been so very busy destroying evidence of their crimes during the last months of the war.” And yet Arendt, trying to take Eichmann’s statements in Argentina seriously, recognized also that the destruction of evidence 

proved no more than recognition that the law of mass murder, because of its novelty, was not yet accepted by other nations; or, in the language of the Nazis, that they had lost their fight to “liberate” mankind from the “rule of subhumans,” especially from the dominion of the Elders of Zion; or, in ordinary language, it proved no more than the admission of defeat. Would any one of them have suffered from a guilty conscience if they had won? 

Whether or not Eichmann was or was not possessed of a guilty conscience may be open for debate, but the claim that Arendt was unaware of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism is folly.  As is Austerlitz’s also unsupported claim that “Eichmann bore the Jews no special animus.”  I realize others have pedaled such trash before, but repeating falsities does not make them true.

There is irony in Wieseltier’s condemning the decline of the humanities even as he oversees publication of two irresponsible reviews about a movie that, whatever its failings, is the most significant attempt to bring a major humanist to the screen in a thoughtful and respectful way. I am not asking for cheerleading, but serious engagement would be welcomed.   

Ignore the reviews and instead read Wieseltier’s commencement speech celebrating the humanities. It is your weekend read.  And then review my own defense of the humanities here.



On MOOCs; and Some Possible Futures for Higher Ed


Barely more than a year old, MITx and edX now dominate discussion about the future of higher education like nothing else I have seen in my time in Cambridge, MA. I have been teaching at MIT for more than 10 years now, and can’t remember any subject touching directly on university life that came even remotely close to absorbing the attention of higher ed professionals in the region the way that edX has. From initial investments of $30 million each by the founding institutions Harvard and MIT, and each month it seems bringing announcement of new partnerships with the world’s colleges & universities (27 institutions currently belong to the “X” consortium), the levels of hype and institutional buy-in have been nothing short of extraordinary.

Because of their ubiquity in the popular press, higher ed industry periodicals, and blogosphere, Massively Open Online Courses or MOOCs have become that most dangerous topic of discussion: a subject about which everybody needs to have an opinion. Such topics can unfortunately generate more heat than light, as the requirement to have and to express a point of view often means that the strongest and most extravagant opinions will claim attention and command the terms of debate. This is unfortunate if you favor the nuanced opinion or (as I do) feel genuinely ambivalent about MOOCs and the role(s) that they might play in shaping the future of higher education.


So far much of the discourse about MOOCs has tended to settle around two competing claims -- one for, one against -- that I articulated in a tweet a few months ago. Either MOOC providers are described as delivering free or low-cost quality higher education to those hard-pressed to afford it (and so performing a valuable public service); or MOOCs are understood to be selling a "lite" version of higher education to the poor while consolidating power and prestige with a few wealthy elite schools.  In this dystopian view, the democratizing claims made by Udacity, Coursera and edX (the last formed of these outfits, and the only non-profit among them) are revealed instead to be essentially colonialist ones -- the colonialists, ed-tech profiteers hell-bent on thoroughly remaking the university as a crypto-corporate enterprise.  MOOCs are understood to be an engine in this transformation, and an integral part of an overall design for reshaping higher education as a neoliberal market pursuit.

I can’t doubt that there is truth in both of these sets of claims. It is difficult at the same time to ignore that arguments for and against MOOCs look past each other in crucial respects; and leave precious little ground between them. What the accounts do share is an assumption that MOOCs will transform or “revolutionize” the landscape of higher education (for good or ill). Either MOOCs will be agents for elevating some in the less advantaged and underserved corners of the world; or MOOCs are instruments for extracting bodies from classrooms and tenure-track lines from university departments. The somewhat high-flown claims to educate and elevate underserved populations of the globe, often based on stray anecdote, are offered independently of any more substantive claim about the specific learning communities who benefit (or stand to benefit) from MOOCs. Similarly, claims about the profit motives animating the companies offering MOOCs subordinate all discussion of MOOCs to the ideological positions that they supposedly exist to promote. The designs attributed to MOOCs, and to the instructors who offer MOOCs, are such as foreclose discussion rather than promote it.

While both accounts of MOOCs envision significant future consequences from their implementation, moreover, neither says very much about actually-existing MOOCs. The MOOC has become a repository for utopian and dystopian narratives about the present and future directions of higher ed. As a result, this or that fact about MOOCs is often considered (or not) insofar as it confirms the prevailing theory about them. 150,000 signing up for a class demonstrates a clear hunger on the part of many across the globe for access to a quality education; this fact authorizes enlarged claims for the ability to transform higher education by bringing MOOCs to the masses. Similarly, the replicability of the digital medium -- and the fact that course content such as video lectures, once made, do not necessarily need to be re-made each year -- is conceived as a key to how MOOCs will force everyone in higher ed to make do (not do more) with less: less student-faculty interaction, fewer tenure-track professors, down the road the prospect of fewer instructors (the majority of them adjuncts already) paid to teach in college classrooms.

In addition to fears that MOOCs will reinforce ongoing trends of budget cuts, adjunctification and layoffs of college teaching staff, another legitimate concern is that MOOCs will—by helping some schools with their branding strategies—have the effect of consolidating elite privilege with a few schools and the “superprofessors” (themselves overwhelmingly white and male) who teach MOOCs, leaving other lesser-ranked schools struggling to compete against a lower-priced virtual curriculum. The fear is that MOOCs will facilitate the emergence of two tiers in higher ed offerings: the “real” version, available only to the students whose families can afford the exorbitant tuition, or who survive by taking out massive student loan debts); and the second-rate online version. With proposals on the table such as California’s Senate Bill 520, which would grant college credit for certain approved online courses, and Coursera’s recent announcement that they will sell their MOOCs to 10 public universities in the US, these fears are unfortunately very real. I hope to see more MOOCs spring up to contest that sense of inevitable recentering of authority from within the elite universities that host them. However difficult the task may prove to be, we need to disentangle the genuinely democratizing outreach work done by online education from its re-inscription of elite privilege.


These are important and pressing concerns.  By the same token, they hardly exhaust all that can be said about MOOCs today.  A host of important questions about the creation and implementation of MOOCs -- about course content, mode of learning, assessment, and so on -- should not be lost amidst conversations about the larger tendency (whether benevolist and democratizing, or insidious and corporatizing) to which MOOCs properly belong. The movement of classroom tasks and functions online learning presents opportunities as well as risks; we should understand both. In an essay written late last year I tried to look without blinders at MOOCs, and to reflect both on the risks associated with their format and implementation as well as on their potential as instruments of learning and encounter. I wrote at the time that it wasn’t my intention "to defend the MOOC so much as...to hold open some alternative futures for it." For these alternative futures to emerge there needs to be vision, will, and coordinated effort on the part of many in higher ed. I am still willing at least to entertain the possibility that MOOCs may turn out to be an enabling, positive invention, while I acknowledge indicators that point in the direction of their being a lamentably misguided one. But the rush to condemn and dismiss online courses may be as fundamentally mistaken as the rush to anoint them the future of higher education.

Blended learning modes present opportunities for both pedagogical experimentation and outreach; neither opportunity should I think be dismissed lightly. I have heard many instructors of MOOCs (in both STEM and humanities subjects) remark that the experience of teaching online has transformed their thinking and approach to teaching familiar material in the traditional classroom -- whether in pace and timing, course content, evaluation and assessment, etc. My interest in MOOCs extends to how the format can be imagined to provide access to a university curriculum to populations that may not have had this kind of access, as this is the population that stands to gain most from them. But in addition to the flat, global learning community ritually invoked as the audience for MOOCs, we could benefit from thinking locally too. How can the online course format make possible new relationships not only with the most far-flung remote corners of the earth but with the neighborhoods and communities nearest to campus? Can we make MOOCs that foster meaningful links with the community or create learning communities that cut across both the university and the online platform?

Among other alternative futures for MOOCs, I imagine more opportunities to collaborate with colleagues at other institutions. The single-delivery, “sage on stage” MOOC is no more the only online model available than is the large lecture class at a brick-and-mortar school. While MOOCs are still for the most part free and non credit-bearing, we should try out (and generate metrics to assess) as many different teaching arrangements as possible. I hasten to add that this exploration should include the intellectual freedom along with the technological affordances to create a MOOC of any kind, at any time, with anybody. With instructors and modules selected in advance, some infrastructural support in each site, and a set of shared principles for continuity of curriculum and presentation, anybody could create a MOOC. Universities like Penn have already begun asking faculty to sign non-compete agreements, presumably to curb these kind of collaborations. For as long as such arrangements are permissible, however, I would urge researchers to collaborate on MOOCs themselves. This may be a tall order; but not I think impossible.


From various quarters we have heard recent calls for a slow-down of the MOOC bandwagon. An open letter from Harvard faculty to the Dean of Faculty of Arts & Sciences calls for more oversight and reflective engagement with the question of how MOOCs offered through edX will affect “the higher education system as a whole.” I support these calls as consistent with the seriousness of the proposals to transform higher ed that are currently before us. From my modest position within the ranks of MIT administration I have been glad to see great care on the part of faculty to ensure that a spirit of experimentation and exploration with regard to MOOCs remains compatible with the core principles of the university and with a residential education. Cathy Davidson at Duke will in January 2014 teach a MOOC with Coursera simultaneously combined with a brick-and-mortar course on “The History and Future of Higher Ed,” with participation from classes at other schools and universities as well. These and other movements are to me reassuring signs, indicators of collaborative engagement around a topic of great importance. They indicate a willingness too to eschew rehearsing polarized opinions for or against MOOCs in order to attend at once to their innovative construction and to their effective and responsible implementation. The challenge is to remind ourselves periodically to think small (locally, incrementally) at the same time that we heed calls to think big.

-Noel Jackson


Looking Beyond A Digital Harvard


Graduation is upon us. Saturday I will be in full academic regalia mixing with the motley colors of my colleagues as we send forth yet another class of graduates onto the rest of their lives. I advised three senior projects this year. One student is headed to East Jerusalem, where she will be a fellow at the Bard Honors College at Al Quds University. Another is staying at Bard where he will co-direct Bard’s new Center for the Study of the Drone. The third is returning to the United Kingdom where he will be the fourth person in a new technology driven public relations start up. A former student just completed Bard’s Masters in Teaching and will begin a career as a high school teacher. Another recent grad is returning from Pakistan to New York where she will earn a Masters in interactive technology at the Tisch School for the Arts at NYU.  These are just a few of the extraordinary opportunities that young graduates are finding or making for themselves.


The absolute best part of being a college professor is the immersion in optimism from being around exceptional young people. Students remind us that no matter how badly we screw things up, they keep on dreaming and working to reinvent the world as a better and more meaningful place. I sometimes wonder how people who don’t have children or don’t teach can possibly keep their sanity. I count my lucky stars to be able to live and work around such amazing students.

I write this at a time, however, in which the future of physical colleges where students and professors congregate in small classrooms to read and think together is at a crossroads. In The New Yorker, Nathan Heller has perhaps the most illuminating essay on MOOC’s yet to be written. His focus is on Harvard University, which brings a different perspective than most such articles. Heller asks how MOOCs will change not only our wholesale educational delivery at state and community colleges across the country, but also how the rush to transfer physical courses into online courses will transform elite education as well. He writes: “Elite educators used to be obsessed with “faculty-to-student-ratio”; now schools like Harvard aim to be broadcast networks.”

By focusing on Harvard, Heller shifts the traditional discourse surrounding MOOCs, one that usually concentrates on economics. When San Jose State or the California State University system adopts MOOCs, the rationale is typically said to be savings for an overburdened state budget. While many studies show that students actually do better in electronic online courses than they do in physical lectures, a combination of cynicism and hope leads professors to be suspicious of such claims. The replacement of faculty by machines is thought to be a coldly economic calculation.

But at Harvard, which is wealthier than most oil sheikdoms, the warp speed push into online education is not simply driven by money (although there is a desire to corner a market in the future). For many of the professors Heller interviews in his essay, the attraction of MOOCs is that they will actually improve the elite educational experience.

Take for example Gregory Nagy, professor of classics, and one of the most popular professors at Harvard. Nagy is one of Harvard’s elite professors flinging himself headlong into the world of online education. He is dividing his usual hour-long lectures into short videos of about 6 minutes each—people get distracted watching lectures on their Iphones at home or on the bus. He imagines “each segment as a short film” and says that, “crumbling up the course like this forced him to study his own teaching more than he had at the lectern.” For Nagy, the online experience is actually forcing him to be more clear; it allows for spot-checking the participants comprehension of the lecture through repeated multiple-choice quizzes that must be passed before students can continue on to the next lecture. Dividing the course into digestible bits that can be swallowed whole in small meals throughout the day is, Nagy argues, not cynical, but progress. “Our ambition is actually to make the Harvard experience now closer to the MOOC experience.”


It is worth noting that the Harvard experience of Nagy’s real-world class is not actually very personal or physical. Nagy’s class is called “Concepts of the Hero in Classical Greek Civilization.” Students call it “Heroes for Zeroes” because it has a “soft grading curve” and it typically attracts hundreds of students. When you strip away Nagy’s undeniable brilliance, his physical course is a massive lecture course constrained only by the size of the Harvard’s physical plant. For those of us who have been on both sides of the lectern, we know such lectures can be entertaining and informative. But we also know that students are anonymous, often sleepy, rarely prepared, and none too engaged with their professors. Not much learning goes on in such lectures that can’t be simply replicated on a TV screen. And in this context, Nagy is correct. When one compares a large lecture course with a well-designed online course, it may very well be that the online course is a superior educational venture—even at Harvard.

As I have written here before, the value of MOOCs is to finally put the college lecture course out of its misery. There is no reason to be nostalgic for the lecture course. It was never a very good idea. Aside from a few exceptional lecturers—in my world I can think of the reputations of Hegel, his student Eduard Gans, Martin Heidegger, and, of course, Hannah Arendt—college lectures are largely an economical way to allow masses of students to acquire basic introductory knowledge in a field. If the masses are now more massive and the lectures more accessible, I’ll accept that as progress.

The real problems MOOCs pose is not that they threaten to replace lecture courses, but that they intensify our already considerable confusion regarding what education is. Elite educational institutions, as Heller writes, no longer compete against themselves. He talks with Gary King, University Professor of Quantitative Social Science and Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s President, who see Harvard’s biggest threat not to be Yale or Amherst but “The University of Phoenix,” the for-profit university. The future of online education, King argues, will be driven by understanding education as a “data-gathering resource.” Here is his argument:

Traditionally, it has been hard to assess and compare how well different teaching approaches work. King explained that this could change online through “large-scale measurement and analysis,” often known as big data. He said, “We could do this at Harvard. We could not only innovate in our own classes—which is what we are doing—but we could instrument every student, every classroom, every administrative office, every house, every recreational activity, every security officer, everything. We could basically get the information about everything that goes on here, and we could use it for the students. A giant, detailed data pool of all activities on the campus of a school like Harvard, he said, might help students resolve a lot of ambiguities in college life.

At stake in the battle over MOOCs is not merely a few faculty jobs. It is a question of how we educate our young people. Will they be, as they increasingly are, seen as bits of data to be analyzed, explained, and guided by algorithmic regularities, or are they human beings learning to be at home in a world of ambiguity.

Most of the opposition to MOOCs continues to be economically tinged. But the real danger MOOCs pose is their threat to human dignity. Just imagine that after journalists and professors and teachers, the next industry to be replaced by machines is babysitters. The advantages are obvious. Robotic babysitters are more reliable than 18 year olds, less prone to be distracted by text messages or twitter. They won’t be exhausted and will have access to the highest quality first aid databases. Of course they will eventually also be much cheaper. But do we want our children raised by machines?

That Harvard is so committed to a digital future is a sign of things to come. The behemoths of elite universities have their sights set on educating the masses and then importing that technology back into the ivy quadrangles to study their own students and create the perfectly digitized educational curriculum.

And yet it is unlikely that Harvard will ever abandon personalized education. Professors like Peter J. Burgard, who teaches German at Harvard, will remain, at least for the near future.

Burgard insists that teaching requires “sitting in a classroom with students, and preferably with few enough students that you can have real interaction, and really digging into and exploring a knotty topic—a difficult image, a fascinating text, whatever. That’s what’s exciting. There’s a chemistry to it that simply cannot be replicated online.”


Burgard is right. And at Harvard, with its endowment, professors will continue to teach intimate and passionate seminars. Such personalized and intense education is what small liberal arts colleges such as Bard offer, without the lectures and with a fraction of the administrative overhead that weighs down larger universities. But at less privileged universities around the land, courses like Burgard’s will likely become ever more rare. Students who want such an experience will look elsewhere. And here I return to my optimism around graduation.

Dale Stephens of Uncollege is experimenting with educational alternatives to college that foster learning and thinking in small groups outside the college environment. In Pittsburgh, the Saxifrage School and the Brooklyn Institute of Social Science are offering college courses at a fraction of the usual cost, betting that students will happily use public libraries and local gyms in return for a cheaper and still inspiring educational experience. I tell my students who want to go to graduate school that the teaching jobs of the future may not be at universities and likely won’t involve tenure. I don’t know where the students of tomorrow will go to learn and to think, but I know that they will go somewhere. And I am sure some of my students will be teaching them. And that gives me hope.

As graduates around the country spring forth, take the time to read Nathan Heller’s essay, Laptop U. It is your weekend read.

You can also read our past posts on education and on the challenge of MOOCs here.



MOOCs: The Debate Continues


After months in which university after university signed on to the bandwagon for Massive Open Online Courses called MOOCs, the battle over the future of education has finally begun. This week Duke University pulled out of EdX, the Harvard/MIT led consortium of Massive Open Online Courses called MOOC’s.


The reason: Its faculty rebelled. According to The New York Times,

While [Duke provost Peter] Lange saw the consortium as expanding the courses available to Duke students, some faculty members worried that the long-term effect might be for the university to offer fewer courses — and hire fewer professors. Others said there had been inadequate consultation with the faculty.

The Times also reports that faculty at Amherst College, my alma mater and former employer, voted against joining EdX. Again, the faculty saw danger. My former colleagues worried that the introduction of online courses would detrimentally impact the quality and spirit of education and the small liberal arts college. They also, as our friends over at ViaMeadia report, worried that MOOCs would “take student tuition dollars away from so-called middle-tier and lower-tier” schools, pushing their colleagues at these institutions out of their jobs.

And that brings us to ground zero of the battle between the faculty and the MOOCs: San Jose State University. San Jose State has jumped out as a leader in the use of blended online and offline courses. Mohammad H. Qayoumi, the university's president, has defended his embrace of online curricula on both educational and financial grounds. He points to one course, "Circuits & Electronics," offered by EdX. In a pilot program, students in that course did better than students in similar real-world courses taught by San Jose State professors. Where nearly 40% of San Jose students taking their traditional course received a C or lower, only 9% of students taking the EdX course did. For Qayoumi and others, such studies offer compelling grounds for integrating MOOCs into the curriculum. The buzzword is “blended courses,” in which the MOOCs are used in conjunction with faculty tutors. In this “flipped classroom,” the old model in which students listen to lectures in lecture halls and then do assignments at home, is replaced by online lectures supplemented by discussions and exercises done in class with professors. As I have written, such a model can be pedagogically powerful, if done right.

But as attractive as MOOCs may be, they carry with them real dangers. And these dangers emerge front and center in the hard-hitting Open Letter that the philosophy department at San Jose State University has published addressed to Michael Sandel. Sandel is the Harvard Professor famous for his popular and excellent course “Justice,” that has been wowing and provoking Harvard undergraduates for decades. Sandel not only teaches his course, he has branded it. He sells videos of the course; he published a book called Justice based on the course, and, most recently, created an online video version of the course for EdX.  San Jose State recently became one of the first public universities in the country to sign a contract paying for the use of EdX courses. This is what led to the letter from the philosophers.


The letter begins by laying out the clear issue. The San Jose Philosophy department has professors who can teach courses in justice and ethics of the kind Sandel teaches. From their point of view, “There is no pedagogical problem in our department that JusticeX solves, nor do we have a shortage of faculty capable of teaching our equivalent course.” In short, while some students may prefer a course with a famous Harvard professor, the faculty at San Jose State believe that they are qualified to teach about Justice.

Given their qualifications, the philosophy professors conclude that the real reason for the contract with EdX is not increased educational value, but simply cost. As they write: "We believe that long-term financial considerations motivate the call for massively open online courses (MOOCs) at public universities such as ours.

In short, the faculty sees the writing on the wall. Whatever boilerplate rhetoric about blended courses and educational benefit may be fashionable and necessary, the real issue is simple. Public universities (and many private ones as well) will not keep paying the salaries of professors when those professors are not needed.

While for now professors are kept on to teach courses in a blended classroom, there will soon be need for many fewer professors. As students take Professor Sandel’s class at universities around the country, they will eventually work with teaching assistants—just as students do at Harvard, where Professor Sandel has pitifully little interaction with his hundreds of students in every class. These teaching assistants make little money, significantly less than a tenured or even a non-tenured professor. It is only a matter of time before many university classes are taught virtually by superstar professors assisted by armies of low-paid onsite assistants. State universities will then be able to educate significantly more students at a fraction of the current cost. For many students this will be a great boon—a certified and possibly quality education at a cheap price. For most California voters, this is a good deal. But it is precisely what the faculty at San Jose State fear. As they write:

We believe the purchasing of online and blended courses is not driven by concerns about pedagogy, but by an effort to restructure the U.S. university system in general, and our own California State University system in particular. If the concern were pedagogically motivated, we would expect faculty to be consulted and to monitor quality control. On the other hand, when change is financially driven and involves a compromise of quality it is done quickly, without consulting faculty or curriculum committees, and behind closed doors. This is essentially what happened with SJSU's contract with edX. At a press conference (April 10, 2013 at SJSU) announcing the signing of the contract with edX, California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom acknowledged as much: "The old education financing model, frankly, is no longer sustainable." This is the crux of the problem. It is time to stop masking the real issue of MOOCs and blended courses behind empty rhetoric about a new generation and a new world. The purchasing of MOOCs and blended courses from outside vendors is the first step toward restructuring the CSU.

The San Jose State philosophy professors are undoubtedly correct. We are facing a systematic transformation in higher education in this country and also in secondary education as well. Just as the Internet has revolutionized journalism and just as it is now shaking the foundations of medicine and law, the Internet will not leave education alone. Change seems nigh. Part of this change is being driven by cost. Some of it is also being driven by the failures and perceived failures of our current system. The question for those of us in the world of higher education is whether we can respond intelligently to save the good and change out the bad. It is time that faculties around the country focus on this question and for that we should all be thankful to the philosophy professors at San Jose State.

The Open Letter offers three main points to argue that it is bad pedagogy to replace them with the blended course model of MOOCs and teaching assistants.

First, they argue that good teaching requires professors engaged in research. When professors are engaged in active research programs, they are interested in and motivated by their fields. Students can perceive if a professor is bored with a class and students will always learn more and be driven to study and excel by professors who feel that their work matters. Some may wonder what the use of research is that is read by only a few colleagues around the world, but one answer is that such research is necessary to keep professors fresh and sharp.  We all know the sad fate of professors who have disengaged from research.

Second, the philosophy professors accept the argument of many including myself that large lectures are not the best way to teach. They teach by the Socratic method, interacting with students. Such classes, they write, are much better than having students watch Professor Sandel engage Socratically with faculty at Harvard. Of course, the MOOC model would still allow for Socratic and personal engagement, just by much lower paid purveyors of the craft. The unanswered question is whether low-paid assistants can be trained to teach well. The answer may well be yes.

Third, the philosophy faculty worry about the exact same moral justice course being taught across the country. We can already see the disciplinary barricades being drawn. It may be one thing to teach Math to the whole country from one or two MOOCs, but philosophy needs multiple perspectives. But how many? The philosophy professors suggest that their highly diverse and often lower-middle-class students have different experiences and references than do Professor Sandel’s Harvard students. They can, in the classroom, better connect with these students than Professor Sandel via online lectures.

The points the San Jose State philosophy professors raise are important. In many ways, however, their letter misses the point. Our educational system is now structured on a few questionable premises. First, that everyone who attends college wants a liberal arts education. That is simply not true. Many students simply want a credential to get a job. If these students can be taught well and more cheaply, we should help them. There is a question of whether we need to offer everyone the same kind of highly personalized and expensive education. While such arguments will be lambasted as elitist, it is nevertheless true that not everyone wants or needs to read Kant closely. We should seek to protect the ability of those who do—no matter their economic class—and also allow those who don’t a more efficient path through school.

A second questionable premise is that specialization is necessary to be a good teacher. This also is false. Too much specialization removes one from the world of common sense. As I have argued before, we need professors who are educated more generally. It is important to learn about Shakespeare and Aristotle, but you don’t need to be a specialist in Shakespeare or Aristotle to teach them well and thoughtfully to undergraduates. This is not an argument against the Ph.D.  It is important to study and learn an intellectual tradition if you are going to teach. But it is an argument against the professionalization of the Ph.D. and of graduate education in general. It is also an argument against the dominance of undergraduate curriculum by professionalized scholars.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, is the premise that everyone needs to go to college. If we put a fraction of the resources we currently spend on remedial education for college students back into public high schools in this country, we could begin the process of transforming high school into a serious and meaningful activity. For one thing, we could begin employing Ph.D.s as high school teachers as are many of the emerging early colleges opening around the country.


I am sympathetic to the philosophy professors at San Jose State. I too teach a course on Justice called “The Foundation of Law: The Quest for Justice.” It is a course quite similar and yet meaningfully different from Michael Sandel’s course on Justice. I believe it is better, no offense meant. And I would be upset if I were told next year that instead of teaching my course I would be in effect a glorified TA for Professor Sandel. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but I know it might.

The only response for those whose jobs are being replaced by computers or the Internet is to go out and figure out how to do it better. That is what happened to journalists who were fired in droves. Many quit voluntarily and began developing new models of journalism, including blogs that have enriched our public discourse and largely rejuvenated public journalism in this country. Blogs, of course, are not perfect, and there is the question of how to make a living writing one. But enterprising bloggers like Andrew Sullivan and Walter Russell Mead are figuring that out. So too are professors like Michael Sandel and Andrew Ng.

We need educators to become experimental these days, to create small schools and intensive curricula within larger institutions that make the most of the personal interaction that is the core of true pedagogy. If that happens, and if teachers offer meaningful education for which students or our taxpayers will pay, then our jobs will be safe. And our students will be better for it. For this reason, we should welcome the technology as a push to make ourselves better teachers.

The Open Letter to Michael Sandel deserves a response. I hope Professor Sandel offers one. Until then, I recommend that this beautiful Spring weekend you read the letter from the San Jose State Philosophy Department. It is your weekend read.



Making the Grade


I was at dinner with a colleague this week—midterm week. Predictably, talk turned to the scourge of all professors: grading essays. There are few tasks in the life of a college professor less fulfilling than grading student essays. Every once in a while a really good essay jolts me to consciousness. I am elated by such encounters. To be honest, however, reading essays is for the most part stultifying. This is not the fault of the students, many of whom are brilliant and exuberant writers. I find it trying to wade through 25 essays discussing the same book, offering varying opinions and theories, while keeping my attention and interest. How many different ways can one ask for a thesis, talk about the importance of transition sentences, and correct grammar? For some time it is fun, in a way. One learns new things and is captivated by comparing how bright young minds see things. But after years, grading the essay becomes just part of the worst part of a great job.


Flickr, MacVicar

So how might my colleagues and I react to news that EdX—the influential Harvard-MIT led consortium offering online courses—has developed software that will grade college student essays? I imagine it is sort of like how people felt when the dishwasher was invented. You mean we can cook and feast and don’t have to scrub pots and wash dishes? It promises to allow us to focus on teaching well without having to do that part of our job that we truly dread.

The appeal of computer grading is obvious and broad. Not only will many professors and teachers be freed from unwanted tedium, but also it may help our students. One advantage of computer grading is that it is nearly instantaneous. Students can hand in their work and get a grade and feedback seconds later. Too often essays are handed back days or even weeks after they are submitted. By then the students have lost interest in their paper and forgotten the inspiration that breathed life into their writing. To receive immediate feedback will allow students to see what they did wrong and how they could improve while the generative impulse underlying the paper is still fresh. Computer grading might encourage students to turn in numerous drafts of a paper; it may very well help teach students to write better, something that professorial comments delivered after a week rarely accomplish.

Another putative advantage of computer grading is its objectivity and consistency. Every professor knows that it matters when we read essays and in what order. Some essays find us awake and attentive. Others meet my eyes as they struggle to remain open. As much as I try to ignore the names on the top of the page, I can’t deny that my reading and grading is personalized to the students. I teach at a small liberal arts college where I know the students. If I read a particularly difficult sentence by a student I have come to trust, I often make a second effort. My personal attention has advantages but it is of course discriminatory. The computer will not do that, which may be seen by some as more fair. What is more, the computer doesn’t get tired or need caffeine.

Perhaps the most important advantage for administrators considering these programs is the cost savings. If computers relieve professors from the burden of grading, that means professors can teach more. It may also mean that fewer TA’s are necessary in large lecture courses, thus saving money for strapped universities. There may even be a further side benefit to these programs. If universities need fewer TA’s to grade papers, they may admit fewer graduate students to their programs, thus going some way towards alleviating the extraordinary and irresponsible over-production of young professors that is swelling the ranks of unemployable Ph.D.s.


There are, of course, real worries about computer grading of essays. My concern is not that the computers will make mistakes (so do I); or that we lack studies that show that computers can grade as well as human professors—for I doubt professors are on the whole excellent graders. The real issue is elsewhere.

According to the group “Professionals Against Machine Scoring of Student Essays in High-Stakes Assessment,” the problem with computer grading of essays is simple: Machines cannot read.  Here is what the group says in a statement:

Let’s face the realities of automatic essay scoring. Computers cannot ‘read.’ They cannot measure the essentials of effective written communication: accuracy, reasoning, adequacy of evidence, good sense, ethical stance, convincing argument, meaningful organization, clarity, and veracity, among others.

What needs to be taken seriously is not that computers can’t grade as well as humans. In many ways they grade better. More consistently. More honestly. With less grade inflation. And more quickly. But computer grading will be different than human grading. It will be less nuanced and aspire to clearly defined criteria. Are sentences grammatical? Is there a clear statement of the thesis? Are there examples given? Is there a transition between sentences? All of these are important parts of good writing and the computer can be trained to look for these characteristics in an essay. What this means, however, is that computers will demand the kind of clear, precise, and logical writing that computers can understand and that many professors and administrators demand from students. What this also means, however, is that writing will become more mechanical.

There is much to be learned here from an analogy with the rise of computer chess. The great grandmaster Gary Kasparov—who famously lost to Deep Blue— has perceptively argued that machines have changed the ways Chess is played and redefined what a good chess move and a well-played chess game looks like. As I have written before:

The heavy use of computer analysis has pushed the game itself in new directions. The machine doesn’t care about style or patterns or hundreds of years of established theory. It counts up the values of the chess pieces, analyzes a few billion moves, and counts them up again. (A computer translates each piece and each positional factor into a value in order to reduce the game to numbers it can crunch.) It is entirely free of prejudice and doctrine and this has contributed to the development of players who are almost as free of dogma as the machines with which they train. Increasingly, a move isn’t good or bad because it looks that way or because it hasn’t been done that way before. It’s simply good if it works and bad if it doesn’t. Although we still require a strong measure of intuition and logic to play well, humans today are starting to play more like computers. One way to put this is that as we rely on computers and begin to value what computers value and think like computers think, our world becomes more rational, more efficient, and more powerful, but also less beautiful, less unique, and less exotic.

Much the same might be expected from the increasing use of computers to grade (and eventually to write) essays. Students will learn to write in ways expected from computers, just as they today try to learn to write in ways desired by their professors. The difference is that different professors demand and respond to varying styles. Computers will consistently and logically drive writing towards a more mechanical and logical style. Writing, like Chess playing, will likely become more rational, more efficient, and more effective, but also less beautiful, less unique, and less eccentric. In other words, writing will become less human.

It turns out that many secondary school districts already use computers to grade essays. But according to John Markoff in The New York Times, the EdX software promises to bring the technology into college classrooms as well as online courses.


It is quite possible that in the near future, my colleagues and I will no longer have to complain about grading essays. But that is unlikely at Bard. More likely is that such software will be used in large university lecture courses. In such courses with hundreds of students, professors already shorten questions or replace essays with multiple-choice tests. Or they use armies of underpaid graduate students to grade these essays. It is quite likely that software will actually augment the educational value of writing assignments at college in these large lecture halls.

In seminars, however, and in classes at small liberal arts colleges like Bard where I teach, such software will not likely free my colleagues and me from reading essays. The essays I assign are not simple responses to questions in which there are clear criteria for grading. I look for elegance, brevity, insight, and the human spark (please no comments on my writing). Whether or not I am good at evaluating writing or at teaching writing, that is my aspiration. I seek to encourage writing that is thoughtful rather than writing that is simply accurate. When I have time to make meaningful comments on papers, they concern structure, elegance, and depth. It is not only a way to grade an essay, but also a way to connect with my students and help them to see what it means to write and think well.

And yet, I can easily imagine making use of such a computer-grading program. I rarely have time to grade essays as well or as quickly as I would like. I would love to have my students submit drafts of their essays to the EdX computer program.

If they could repeatedly submit their essays and receive such feedback and use the computer to catch not only grammatical errors but also poor sentences, redundancies, repetitions, and whatever other mistakes the computer can be trained to recognize, that would allow them to respond and rework their essays many times before I see them. Used well, I hope, such grading programs might really augment my capacities as a professor and their experiences as students.

I have real fears that grading technology will rarely be used well. Rather, it will too-often replace human grading altogether and in large lectures, high schools and standardized tests will impose a new and inhuman standard on the way we write and thus the way we think. We should greet such new technologies enthusiastically and skeptically. But first, we should try to understand them. Towards that end, it is well worth reading John Markoff’s excellent account of the new EdX computer grading software in The New York Times. It is your weekend read.



The Higher Education Bubble? Not So Fast.

We have a higher education bubble. The combination of unsustainable debt loads on young people and the advent of technological alternatives is clearly set to upend the staid and often sclerotic world of higher education.

In this month’s The American Interest, Nathan Hardin—the author of Sex & God at Yale: Porn, Political Correctness, and a Good Education Gone Bad (St. Martin’s, 2012) and editor of The College Fix—tries to quantify the destructive changes coming to higher education. Here is his opening paragraph:

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.

Step back a second. Beware of all prognostications of this sort. Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow let alone 50 years from now. Even today the NY Times reports that the University of Cincinnati and the University of Arizona are turning to online courses as a way of increasing enrollment at their residential campuses. Whether this will work and how this will transform the very idea of a residential college are not yet clear. But the kinds of predictions Hardin makes can be provocative, thus inducing of thought. But they are rarely accurate and too often are simply irresponsible.

Beyond the hyperbole, here is something true. Colleges will exist so long as they can convince students and their parents that the value of education is worth the cost. One reason some colleges are suffering today is clearly the cost. But another reason is the declining perception of value.  We should also remember that many colleges—especially the best and most expensive ones—are seeing record demand. If and when the college bubble bursts, not all colleges will be hit equally. Some will thrive and others will likely disappear. Still others will adapt. We should be wary of collapsing all colleges into a single narrative or thinking we can see the future.

Part of the problem is that colleges offer education, something inherently difficult to put a value on. For a long time, the “value” of higher education was intangible. It was the marker of elite status to be a Harvard man or some such thing. One learned Latin and Greek and studied poetry and genetics. But what really was being offered was sophistication, character, erudition, culture, and status, not to mention connections and access.

More recently, college is “sold” in a very different way. It promises earning power. This has brought a whole new generation and many new classes into university education as they seek the magic ticket granting access to an upper middle class lifestyle. As the percentage of college graduates increases, the distinction and thus market value of college education decreases. The problem colleges have is that in their rush to open the doors to all paying customers, they have devalued the product they are offering. The real reason colleges are threatened now—if they indeed are threatened—is less financial than it is intellectual and moral. Quite simply, many of our colleges have progressively abandoned their intangible mission to educate students and embraced the market-driven task of credentialing students for employment. When for-profit or internet-based colleges can do this more cheaply and more efficiently, it is only logical that they will succeed.

For many professors and graduate students, the predicted demise of the residential college will be a hard shock. Professors who thought they had earned lifetime security with tenure will be fired as their departments are shuttered or their entire universities closed down. Just as reporters, book sellers, and now lawyers around the country have seen their jobs evaporate by the disruption of the internet, so too will professors be replaced by technological efficiencies. And this may well happen fast.

Gregory Ferenstein, who describes himself as a writer and educator and writes for Techcrunch and the Huffington Post,  has gone so far to offer a proposed timeline of the disappearance of most colleges as we know them. Here is his outline, which begins with the recently announced pilot program that will see basic courses at San Jose State University replaced by online courses administered by the private company Udacity:

  1. [The] Pilot [program in which Udacity is offering online courses for the largest university system in the world, the California State University System] succeeds, expands to more universities and classes
  2. Part-time faculty get laid off, more community colleges are shuttered, extracurricular college services are closed, and humanities and arts departments are dissolved for lack of enrollment (science enrollment increases–yay!?)
  3. Graduate programs dry up, once master’s and PhD students realize there are no teaching jobs. Fewer graduate students means fewer teaching assistants and, therefore, fewer classes
  4. Competency-based measures begin to find the online students perform on par with, if not better than, campus-based students. Major accredited state college systems offer fully online university degrees, then shutter more and more college campuses
  5. A few Ivy League universities begin to control most of the online content, as universities all over the world converge toward the classes that produce the highest success rates
  6. In the near future, learning on a college campus returns to its elite roots, where a much smaller percentage of students are personally mentored by research and expert faculty

I put little faith in things working out exactly as Ferenstein predicts, and yet I can’t imagine he is that far off the mark. As long as colleges see themselves in the knowledge-production business and the earnings-power business, they will be vulnerable to cheaper alternatives. Such quantifiable ends can be done more cheaply and sometimes better using technology and distance learning. Only education—the leading of students into a common world of tradition, values, and common sense—depends on the residential model of one-to-one in-person learning associated with the liberal arts college. The large university lecture course is clearly an endangered species.

Which is why it is so surprising to read a nearly diametrically opposed position suggesting that we are about to enter a golden age for untenured and adjunct faculty. This it the opinion of Michael Bérubé, the President of the Modern Language Association. Bérubé gave the Presidential Address at the 2013 MLA meetings in Boston earlier this month.

It is helpful and instructive to compare Hardin’s technophilic optimism with Bérubé’s recent remarks . He dedicated much of his speech to a very different optimism, namely that contingent and adjunct faculty would finally get the increased salaries and respect that they deserved. According to Bérubé:

[F]or the first time, MLA recommendations for faculty working conditions [are] being aggressively promoted by way of social media…. After this, I think, it really will be impossible for people to treat contingent faculty as an invisible labor force. What will come of this development I do not know, but I can say that I am ending the year with more optimism for contingent faculty members than I had when I began the year, and that’s certainly not something I thought I would be able to say tonight.

Bérubé’s talk is above all a defense of professionalization in the humanities. He defends graduate training in theory as a way to approach literary texts. He extols the virtues of specialized academic research over and above teaching. He embraces and justifies “careers of study in the humanities” over and against the humanities themselves. Above all, he argues that there are good reasons to “bother with advanced study in the humanities?” In short, Bérubé defends not the humanities, but the specialized study of the humanities by a small group of graduate students and professors.

I understand what Bérubé means. There is a joy in the pursuit of esoteric knowledge even if he eschews the idea of joy wanting instead to identify his pursuit work and professionalized labor. But to think that there is an optimistic future for the thousands of young graduate students and contingent faculty who are currently hoping to make professional careers in the advanced study of the humanities is lunacy. Yes advanced study of the humanities is joyful for some? But why should it be a paying job? There is a real blindness not only to the technological and economic imperatives of the moment in Bérubé’s speech, but also to the idea of the humanities.

As Hannah Arendt wrote 50 years ago in her essay On Violence, humanities scholars today are better served by being learned and erudite than by seeking to do original research by uncovering some new or forgotten scrap. What we need is not professional humanities scholars so much as educated and curious thinkers and readers.

As I have written before:

To say that excessively specialized humanities scholarship today is irrelevant is not to say that the humanities are irrelevant. The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us whom we are today. The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities.

If humanities programs and liberal arts colleges go the way of the duck-billed platypus, it will only partly be because of new technologies and rising debt. It will also be because the over-professionalization of the humanities has led—in some but not all colleges—to a course of study that simply is not seen as valuable by many young people. The changes that Hardin and Ferenstein see coming will certainly shake up the all-too-comfortable world of professional higher education. That is not bad at all. The question is whether educators can adapt and begin to offer courses and learning that is valuable. But that will only happen if we abandon the hyper-professionalized self-image defended by scholars like Michael Bérubé. One model for such a change is, of course, the public intellectual writing and thinking of Hannah Arendt.



The “E” Word, Part Two

This Weekend Read is Part Two in “The “E” Word,”  a continuing series on “elitism” in the United States educational system. Read Part One here.

Peter Thiel has made headlines offering fellowships to college students who drop out to start a business. One of those Thiel fellows is Dale Stephens, founder of Uncollege. Uncollege advertises itself as radical. At the top of their website, Uncollege cites a line from the movie "Good Will Hunting":

You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library.

The Uncollege website is filled with one-liners extolling life without college. It can be and often is sophomoric. And yet, there is something deeply important about what Uncollege is saying. And its message is resonating. Uncollege has been getting quite a bit of attention lately, part of a culture of  obsession with college dropouts that is increasingly skeptical of the value of college.

At its best, Uncollege does not simply dismiss college as an overpriced institution seeking to preserve worthless knowledge. Rather, Uncollege claims that college has become too anti-intellectual. College, as Uncollege sees it, has become conventional, bureaucratic, and not really dedicated to learning. In short, Uncollege criticizes college for not being enough like college should be. Hardly radical, Uncollege trades rather in revolutionary rhetoric in the sense that Hannah Arendt means the word revolution: a return to basic values. In this case, Uncollege is of course right that colleges have lost their way.

Or that is what I find interesting about Uncollege.

To actually read their website and the recent Uncollege Manifesto by Dale Stephens, is to encounter something different. The first proposition Uncollege highlights has little to do with education and everything to do with economics. It is the decreasing value of a college education. 

The argument that college has ever less value will seem counter intuitive to those captivated by all the paeans to the value of college and increased earning potential of college graduates. But Uncollege certainly has a point. Currently about 30% of the U.S. adult population has a degree. But among 20-24 year olds, nearly 40% have a college degree. And The Obama administration aims to raise that number to 60% by 2020. Uncollege calls this Academic Inflation. As more and more people have a college degree, the value of that degree will decrease. It is already the case that many good jobs require a Masters or a Ph.D. In short, the monetary value of the college degree is diminished and diminishing. This gives us a hint of where Uncollege is coming from.

The Uncollege response to the mainstreaming of college goes by a number of names. At times it is called unschooling. Unschooling is actually a movement began by the legendary educator John Holt. I recall reading John Holt’s How Children Learn while I was in High School—a teacher gave it to me. I was captivated by Holt’s claim that school can destroy the innate curiosity of children. I actually wrote my college application essay on Holt’s educational philosophy and announced to my future college that my motto was Mark Twain’s quip, “I never let school interfere with my education”—which is also a quotation prominently featured in the Uncollege Manifesto.

Unschooling—as opposed to Uncollege—calls for students to make the most of their courses, coupling those courses with independent studies, reading groups, and internships. I regularly advise my students to take fewer not more courses. I tell them to pick one course each semester that most interests them and pursue it intently. Ask the professor for extra reading. Do extra writing. Organize discussion groups about the class with other students. Go to the professor’s office hours weekly and talk about the ideas of the course. Learners must become drivers of their education, not passive consumers. Students should take their pursuit of knowledge out of the classroom, into the dining halls, and into their dorms.

Uncollege ads that unschooling or “hacking your education” can be done outside of schools and universities. With Google, public libraries, and free courses from Stanford, MIT and Harvard professors proliferating on the web, an enterprising student of any age can compose an educational path today that is more rigorous than anything offered “off-the-shelf” at a college or university. I have no problem with online courses. I hope to take  a few. But it is a mistake to think that systems of massive information delivery are the same thing as education.

What Uncollege offers is something more and something less wholesome than simply a call for educational seriousness. It packages that call with the message that college has become boring, conventional, expensive, and unnecessary. In the Uncollege world, only suckers pay for college. The Uncollege Manifesto promotes “Standing out from the other 6.7 billion”; it derides traditional paths pointing out that “5,000 janitors in the United States have Ph.Ds.”; and  cautions, “If you are content with life and education you should probably stop reading… You shall fit in just fine with society and no one will ever require you to be different. Conforming to societal standards is the easy and expected path. You are not alone!” 

At the core of the Uncollege message is that dirty and yet all-so-powerful little word again: “elitism.” Later in the Uncollege Manifesto we are told that young people have a choice between “real accomplishments” and the “easy path to mediocrity”:

To succeed without a college degree you will have to build your competency and reputation through real world accomplishments. I am warning now: this is not going to be easy. If you want to take the easy path to mediocrity, I encourage you to go to college and join the masses. If you want to stand out from the crowd and change the world, Uncollege is for you!

At one point, the Uncollege Manifesto lauds NPR’s “This I Believe” series and commends these short 500 word essays on personal credos. But Uncollege adds a twist: instead of writing what one believes, it advises its devotees to write an essay answering the question: “What do you believe about the world that most others reject?” It is not enough simply to believe in something. You must believe in something that sets you apart and makes you different.

Uncollege is at least suggesting that it might be cool to want, as it has not been for 50 years, to aim for excellence and to yearn to be different. In short, Uncollege is calling up students at elite institutions to boldly grab the ring of elitism and actively seek to stand outside and above the norm. And it is saying that education is no longer elite, but conventional.

It is hard not to see this embrace of elitism as refreshing although no doubt many will scream the “e” word. I have often lectured to students at elite institutions and confronted them with their fear of elitism. They or someone spends upwards of $200,000 on an education not to mention four years of their lives, and then they reject the entire premise of elitism: that they are different or special. By refusing to see themselves as members of an elite, these students too often refuse to accept the responsibility of elites, to mold and preserve societal values and to assume leadership roles in society.

Leading takes courage. In Arendtian terms, it requires living a public life where one takes risks, acts in surprising ways, and subjects oneself to public judgment. Leading can be uncomfortable and dangerous, and it is often more comfortable and fun to pursue one’s private economic, familial, and personal dreams. Our elite colleges have become too much about preparing students for private success rather than launching young people into lives of public engagement. And part of that failure is a result of a retreat from elitism and a false humility that includes an easy embrace of equality.

That Uncollege is selling its message of excellence and elitism to students at elite institutions of higher learning is simply one sign of how mainstream and conformist many of these elite institutions have become. But what is it that Uncollege offers these elite students who drop out and join Uncollege?

According to its website, Uncollege is selling “hackademic camps” and a “gap year program” that are designed to teach young people how to create their own learning plans. The programs come with living abroad programs and internships. Interestingly, these are all programs offered by most major universities and colleges. The difference is money and time. For $10,000 in just one year, you get access to mentors and pushed to write op-eds, and the “opportunity to work at hot Silicon Valley startups, some of them paid positions.” In the gap year program, participants will also “build your personal brand.  Speak at a conference, Write an op-ed for a major news outlet.  Build a personal website.”

None of this sounds radical, intellectual, or all-that elitist. On the contrary, it claims that young people have little to learn from educators. Teachers are unimportant, to be replaced by mentors in the world. The claim is that young people lack nothing but information and access in order to compete in the world.

What Uncollege preaches often has little to do with elitism or intellectual growth. It is a deeply practical product being sold as an alternative to the cost of college. In one year and for one-twentieth of what a four-year elite college education costs, a young person can get launched into the practical world of knowledge workers, hooked up with mentors, and set into the world of business, technology, and media. It is a vocational training program for wannabe elites, training people to leap into the creative and technology fields and compete with recent college graduates but without the four years of studying the classics, the debt, and the degree. The elitism that Uncollege is selling is an entrepreneurial elitism measurable by money. By appealing to young students’ sense of superiority, ambition, and risk-taking, Uncollege stands a real chance of attracting ambitious young people more interested in a good job and a hot career than in reading the classics or studying abstract math.

Let’s stipulate this is a good thing. Not everybody should be going to liberal arts colleges. People unmoved by Nietzsche, Einstein, or Titian who are then forced to sit through lectures, cram for exams, and pull all-nighters writing papers cribbed from the internet are wasting their time and money on an elite liberal arts education. What is more, they bring cynicism into an environment that should be fired by idealism and electrified by passion. For those who truly believe that it is important in the world to have people who are enraptured by Sebald and transformed by Arendt, it is deeply important that the liberal arts college remain a bastion apart, a place where youthful exuberance for the beautiful and the true can shine clearly.

We should remember, as well, that reading great books and studying Stravinsky is not an activity limited to the academy. We should welcome a movement like Uncollege that frees people from unwanted courses but nevertheless encourages them to pursue their education on their own. Yes, many of these self-educated strivers will acquire idiosyncratic readings of Heidegger or strange views about patriotism. But even when different, opinions are the essence of a human political system.

One question we desperately need to ask is whether having a self-chosen minority of people trained in the liberal arts is important in modern society. I teach in an avowedly liberal arts institution precisely because I fervently believe that such ideas matter and that having a class of intellectuals whose minds are fired by ideas is essential to any society, especially a democracy.

I sincerely hope that the liberal arts and the humanities persist. As I have written,

The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us whom we are today. The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities.

Our problem, today, is that college is caught between incompatible demands, to spark imaginations and idealism and to prepare young people for employment and success. For a long while now colleges have been doing neither of these things well. Currently, the political pressure on colleges is to cut costs and become more efficient. The unspoken assumption is that colleges must more cheaply and more quickly prepare students for employment. For those of us who care about college as an intellectual endeavor, we should welcome new alternatives to college like internet courses, vocational education, and Uncollege that will pull away young people for whom college would have been the wrong choice. Maybe, under the pressure of Uncollege, colleges will return to their core mission of passionately educating young people and preparing them for lives of civic engagement.

I encourage you this weekend to read the Uncollege Manifesto. Let me know what you think.



The Dorm Wars

The Dorm Wars have not yet caused the numerous bankruptcies amongst minor and maybe even some more established colleges that seem inevitable. What they have done is change the nature of college education. Whether at Harvard or Ramapo, students want luxury dorms with private bathrooms and glitzy campus centers. And since students—fueled with cheap student debt are the all-powerful consumers—campus administrators have followed the money. Unfortunately, they also too often followed their students into debt. As the NY Times reports today,

A decade-long spending binge to build academic buildings, dormitories and recreational facilities — some of them inordinately lavish to attract students — has left colleges and universities saddled with large amounts of debt. Oftentimes, students are stuck picking up the bill.

I recently visited my alma mater for a reunion and was housed in the building where decades ago I labored long into the night as an editor for my beloved Prism magazine. It is the dorm in which I once put my hand through a glass door in the midst of a late-night editing and layout session.  I barely recognized the Pratt Dormitory, which resembled more a Tablet style hotel than a college dormitory.

Such lavish quarters are now seen as necessary to attract the best students—something that is sad if it is true. And this perception, true or false, has unleashed the dorm wars. Some colleges, like the one I attended, don’t need to borrow to build. But many others think that they do.

“If Ramapo College was going to respond to what students wanted, which was larger, more comprehensive programs and residential housing, then we were going to have to go out and borrow,” Peter P. Mercer, President of the public liberal arts college in New Jersey told the Times

How wrong is that. Borrowing can of course be justified. But if you want to build something, there are other options. You can, for example, go out and raise the money. That requires work, convincing people, many of whom have no personal connection to your college, that what you are doing is important and worthy of support. Excessive borrowing is, too often, the resort of those unwilling to take the longer and yet more responsible path of building an institution that people are willing to invest in and support.

More importantly, the enormous borrowing of colleges reported by the Times is evidence of an educational system that has simply lost its way.  The fastest growing costs at colleges across the country are for administrators and for capital projects. Much of the borrowing is financing new luxury buildings and a bloated services staff. The priorities are wrong and real focus on teaching and learning seems to have been largely ignored. As students and parents confront extraordinary costs that go increasingly to pay interest on debt and support lavish undergraduate living, many are increasingly rebelling.

And for the first time in generations, students have other options. The rise of Internet learning is going to disrupt college education in this country as the Internet has transformed nearly every other area of life. And it will do so at the very moment when the finances of colleges and universities around the country are shakier than they have been in generations. The shake out will be painful.

What needs to be thought here is what is it that allowed debt to become so infectious within and amongst our educational institutions. With $1 trillion in student debt and $200 billion in institutional debt, education more and more resembles the housing and financial sectors of our economy.

Education is supposed to be a conservative enterprise, a bastion of learning and teaching the accumulated history and knowledge of the past. Somewhere along the line, education changed from being an experience of teaching and forming young individuals and citizens and became something very different. Higher education is now a progressive launching pad for careers. It is job security for tenured professors. It is the center of research and the producer of valuable sports franchises. Lost in the mix, I fear, is original mission itself.  Just as banks and financial institutions abandoned their old job of lending and saving money and sought to become investment banks, so too have colleges changed from being educational institutions to being consumer brands selling luxury and success instead of the life of the mind. Some can do both. But many more will go the way of Pan Am and Hostess.



What is a Fact?

What is a fact? Few more thorny questions exist. Consider this, from Hannah Arendt’s essay, “Truth and Politics:”

But do facts, independent of opinion and interpretation, exist at all? Have not generations of historians and philosophers of history demonstrated the impossibility of ascertaining facts without interpretation, since they must first be picked out of a chaos of sheer happenings (and the principles of choice are surely not factual data) and then be fitted into a story that can be told only in certain perspective, which has nothing to do with the original occurrence?

Facts are constructed. They are not objective. And there is no clear test for what is a fact. Thus, when Albert Einstein was asked, how science can separate fact from fiction, brilliant hypotheses from nutty quackery, he answered:  ‘There is no objective test.” Unlike rational truths that are true outside of experience and absolute, all factual truths are contingent. They might have been otherwise. That is one reason it is so hard to pin them down.

Steve Shapin reminds us of these puzzles in an excellent essay in this weeks London Review of Books. Shapin is reviewing a new book on Immanuel Velikovsky by Michael Gordin. Velikovsky, for those born since the 1960s, caused an uproar in the 1960s and 70s with his scientific claims that Venus was the result of a dislodged piece of Jupiter, that comets led to the parting of the Red Sea, that it dislodged the orbit of Mars threatening Earth, and caused the relocation of the North Pole, not to mention the showering of plagues of vermin onto the earth that nourished the Israelites in the desert.

Gordin’s book is about how American scientists went ballistic over Velikovsky. They sought to censor his work and schemed to prevent the publication of his book, Worlds in Collision, at the prestigious Macmillan press. At the center of the controversy was Harvard, where establishment scientists worked assiduously to discredit Velikovsky and stop the circulation of his ideas. [I am sensitive to such issues because I was also the target of such a suppression campaign. When my book The Gift of Science was about to be published by Harvard University Press, I received a call from the editor. It turns out an established scholar had demanded that HUP not publish my book, threatening to no longer review books for the press let alone publish with them. Thankfully, HUP resisted that pressure, for which I will always be grateful.]

For these Harvard scientists, Velikovsky was a charlatan peddling a dangerous pseudo science. The danger in Velikovsky’s claims was more than simple misinformation. It led, above all, to an attack on the very essence of scientific authority. What Velikovsky claimed as science flew in the face of what the scientific community knew to be true. He set himself up as an outsider, a dissident. Which he was. In the wake of totalitarianism, he argued that democratic society must allow for alternative and heretical views. The establishment, Velikovsky insisted, had no monopoly on truth. Let all views out, and let the best one win.

Shapin beautifully sums up the real seduction and danger lurking in Velikovsky’s work.

The Velikovsky affair made clear that there were radically differing conceptions of the political and intellectual constitution of a legitimate scientific community, of what it was to make and evaluate scientific knowledge. One appealing notion was that science is and ought to be a democracy, willing to consider all factual and theoretical claims, regardless of who makes them and of how they stand with respect to canons of existing belief. Challenges to orthodoxy ought to be welcomed: after all, hadn’t science been born historically through such challenges and hadn’t it progressed by means of the continual creative destruction of dogma? This, of course, was Velikovsky’s view, and it was not an easy matter for scientists in the liberal West to deny the legitimacy of that picture of scientific life. (Wasn’t this the lesson that ought to be learned from the experience of science in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia?) Yet living according to such ideals was impossible – nothing could be accomplished if every apparently crazy idea were to be given careful consideration – and in 1962 Thomas Kuhn’s immensely influential Structure of Scientific Revolutions commended a general picture of science in which ‘dogma’ (daringly given that name) had an essential role in science and in which ‘normal science’ rightly proceeded not through its permeability to all sorts of ideas but through a socially enforced ‘narrowing of perception’. Scientists judged new ideas to be beyond the pale not because they didn’t conform to abstract ideas about scientific values or formal notions of scientific method, but because such claims, given what scientists securely knew about the world, were implausible. Planets just didn’t behave the way Velikovsky said they did; his celestial mechanics required electromagnetic forces which just didn’t exist; the tails of comets were just not the sorts of body that could dump oil and manna on Middle Eastern deserts. A Harvard astronomer blandly noted that ‘if Dr Velikovsky is right, the rest of us are crazy.'

Immanuel Velikovsky

It is hard not to read this account and not think about contemporary debates over global warming, Darwinism, and the fall of the World Trade Center. In all three cases, outsiders and even some dissident scientists have made arguments that have been loudly disavowed by mainstream scientists.

No one has done more to explore the claims of modern pseudo science than Naomi Oreskes. In her book Merchants of Doubt written with Erik Conway, Oreskes shows how “a small handful of men” could, for purely ideological reasons, sow doubt about the ‘facts’ regarding global warming and the health effects of cigarettes. In a similar vein, Jonathan Kay has chronicled the efforts of pseudo scientists to argue that there was no possible way that the World Trade Towers could have been brought down by jet fuel fires, thus suggesting and seeking to “prove” that the U.S. government was behind the destruction of 9/11.

Oreskes wants to show, at once, that it is too easy for politically motivated scientists to sow doubt about scientific fact, and also that there is a workable and effective way for the scientific community to patrol the border between science and pseudo science. What governs that boundary is, in Oreskes words, “the scientific consensus.” The argument that global warming is a fact rests on claims about the scientific method: value free studies, evaluated by a system of peer review, moving towards consensus. Peer review is, for Oreskes, “is a crucial part of science.” And yet, for those who engage in it know full well, peer review is also deeply political, subject to petty and also not so petty disputes, jealousies, and vendettas. For this and other reasons, consensus is, as Oreskes herself admits, not always accurate: “The scientific consensus might, of course, be wrong. If the history of science teaches anything, it is humility, and no one can be faulted for failing to act on what is not known.”

Just as Einstein said 50 years ago, in the matters of establishing scientific fact, there is no objective test. This is frustrating. Indeed, it can be dangerous, not only when pseudo scientists sow doubt about global warming thus preventing meaningful and necessary action. But also, the pervasive and persuasive claims of pseudo science sow cynicism that undermines the factual and truthful foundations of human life.

Arendt reminds us, with a clarity rarely equaled, that factual truth is always contingent. “Facts are beyond agreement and consent, and all talk about them—all exchanges of opinion based on correct information—will contribute nothing to their establishment.” Against the pseudo scientific claims of many, science is always a contingent and hypothetical endeavor, one that deals in hypotheses, agreement, and factual proof. Scientific truth is always empirical truth and the truths of science are, in the end, grounded in consensus.

The trouble here is that scientific truths must—as scientific—claim to be true and not simply an opinion. Science makes a claim to authority that is predicated not upon proof but on the value and meaningfulness of impartial inquiry. It is a value that is increasingly in question.

What the challenge of pseudo science shows is how tenuous scientific authority and the value placed on disinterested research really is. Such inquiry has not always been valued and there is no reason to expect it to be valued about partial inquiry in the future. Arendt suggests that the origin of the value in disinterested inquiry was Homer’s decision to praise the Trojans equally as he lauded the Achaeans. Never before, she writes, had one people been able to look “with equal eyes upon friend and foe.” It was this revolutionary Greek objectivity that became the source for modern science. For those who do value science and understand the incredible advantages it has bestowed upon modern civilization, it is important to recall that the Homeric disinterestedness is neither natural nor necessary. In the effort to fight pseudo science, we must be willing and able to defend just such a position and thus what Nietzsche calls the “pathos of distance” must be central to any defense of the modern scientific world.

When science loses its authority, pseudo science thrives. That is the situation we are increasingly in today. There are no objective tests and no clear lines demarcating good and bad science. And that leaves us with the challenge of the modern age: to pursue truth and establish facts without secure or stable foundations. For that, we need reliable guides whom we can trust. And for that reason, you should read Steven Shapin’s latest essay. It is your weekend read.



The “E” Word

The New York Times tells the story of Benjamin Goering. Goering is 22. Until recently he studied computer science and philosophy at the University of Kansas. He felt “frustrated in crowded lecture halls where the professors did not even know his name.” So Goering dropped out of college and went to San Francisco, where he got a job as a software engineer.

I applaud Goering for making a risky decision. College was not for him. This does not mean he wasn’t smart or couldn’t cut it. He clearly has talent and it was being wasted in courses he was not interested in that were costing him and his family many tens of thousands of dollars every year. In leaving, Goering made the right decision for him. Indeed, many more college students should make the same decision he did. There are huge numbers of talented people who are simply not intellectuals and don’t enjoy or get much out of college. This is not destiny. A great or good teacher might perk them up. But largely it is a waste of their time and money for them to struggle through (or sleep through) classes that bore them. If anything, the forced march through Shakespeare and Plato make these students less engaged, cynical, and self-centered as they turn from common sense to the internal pursuit of self interest in partying and life in private.

The story should raise the big question that everyone tiptoes around in this current debate about college: Who should go to college?

The obvious answer is those who want to and those who care about ideas. Those who see that in thinking and reading and talking about justice, democracy, the scientific method, and perspective, we are talking about what it means to live in a large, democratic, bureaucratic country at a time of transition from an industrial to a information-age economy. College, in other words, is for those people who want to think about their world. It is for people who are willing and eager to turn to the great thinkers who came before them and, also, the innovative scientists and artists who have revealed hidden secrets about the natural and the human worlds. It is, in other words, for intellectuals. And this of course raises the “E” question: the question of elitism.

It is folly to think that everyone is or should be interested in such an endeavor. In no society in history have intellectuals been anything but a small minority of the population. This is not a question of privilege. There is no reason to think that those who love ideas are better or more qualified than those who work the earth, build machines, or engineer websites. It may very well be otherwise.

Hannah Arendt was clear that intellectuals had no privileged position in politics. On the contrary, she worried that the rise of intellectuals in politics was specifically dangerous. Intellectuals, insofar as they could get lost in and captivated by ideas, are prone to lose sight of reality in the pursuit of grand schemes. And intellectuals, captivated by the power of reason, are susceptible to rationalizations that excuse wrongs like torture or suicide bombing as means necessary for greater goods. The increasing dominance of intellectuals in politics, Arendt argued, is one of the great dangers facing modern society. She thus welcomed the grand tradition of the American yeoman farmer and affirmed that there is no need to go to college to be an engaged citizen or a profound thinker. The last of our Presidents who did not attend college was Abraham Lincoln. He did just fine. It is simply ridiculous to argue that college is a necessary credential for statesmanship.

While intellectuals have no special claim to leadership or prominence, they are nevertheless important. Intellectuals—those who think— are those people in society who stand apart from the mainstream pressures of economy and influence and outside the political movements of advocacy and propaganda. In the Arendtian tradition, intellectuals are or can be conscious pariahs, those who look at their societies from the outside and thus gain a perspective from distance that allows them to understand and comprehend the society in ways that people deeply embedded within it cannot. Those who stand apart from society and think are important, first because they preserve and deepen the stories and tales we as a society tell about ourselves. In writing poetry, making art, building monuments, writing books, and giving speeches, intellectuals help lend meaning and gravity to the common sense we have of ourselves as a people.

One problem we have in the current debate is that College has morphed into an institution designed to do many (too many) things. On the one hand, college has historically been the place for the education of and formation of intellectuals. But for many decades if not many centuries, that focus has shifted. Today College is still a place for the life of the mind. But it is also a ticket into the middle or upper-middles classes and it is equally a job-training and job-certification program. Of course, it is also a consumer good that brands young people with a certain mystique and identity. For many localities colleges are, themselves, job creation machines, bringing with them all sorts of new businesses and throwing off patents and graduating students that reinvigorate local communities. The university is now a multiversity, to invoke Clark Kerr’s famous term. When we talk about college today, the debate is complicated by these multiple roles.

It is difficult to raise such issues today because they smack of elitism. Since college-educated people think they are superior to those without a fancy diploma, their egalitarianism then insists that everyone should have the same experience. We are not supposed to entertain the idea that some people may not want to go to college. Instead, we are told that if they had a better education, if they knew better, if they just were taught to understand, they would all want to sit in classrooms and read great books or do exciting experiments.

We are stuck today with what Hannah Arendt called, in a related context, the “democratic mentality of an egalitarian society that tends to deny the obvious inability and conspicuous lack of interest of large parts of the population in political matters as such.” In politics, Arendt argued that what was needed were public spaces from which a self-chose “élite could be selected, or rather, where it could select itself.” Similarly, in education today, colleges should be the spaces where those who want to select themselves as an educated élite might lose themselves in books and experiments and amongst paintings and symphonies. There is simply no reason to assume that most people in society need to or should be interested in such an endeavor.

One reason the question of elitism is so present in debates about college is the disgusting and degenerate state of American public high schools. If high schools provided a serious and meaningful civic education, if they taught not simply reading and writing and arithmetic, but history and art—and taught these well—we would not need to send students to remedial education in college where they could be taught these subjects a second time. While many academics wring their hands about making college available to all, they might do much better if they focused on high schools and grammar schools around the country. If we were to redistribute the billions of dollars we spend on remedial college education to serious reform efforts in high schools, that money would be very well spent.

To raise the question of elitism means neither that college should be open only to the rich and connected (on the contrary, it should be open to all who want it), nor that the educated elite is to be segregated from society and kept apart in an ivory tower. When one reads Shakespeare, studies DNA, or dances with Bill T. Jones, one is not simply learning for learning's sake. Few understood this better than John Finley, Greek Professor at Harvard, who wrote General Education in a Free Society in 1945. Finley had this to say about the purposes of a college education:

The heart of the problem of a general education is the continuance of the liberal and humane tradition. Neither the mere acquisition of information nor the development of special skills and talents can give the broad basis of understanding which is essential if our civilization is to be preserved…. Unless the educational process includes at each level of maturity some continuing contact with those fields in which value judgments are of prime importance, it must fall short of the ideal.

What college should offer—as should all education at every level except for the most specialized graduate schools—is the experience of thinking and coming to engage with the world in which one lives. College is, at its best, an eye opening experience, an opportunity for young people to learn the foundational texts and also be exposed to new cultures, new ideas, and new ways of thinking. The ideas of justice, truth, and beauty one learns are not valuable in themselves; they are meaningful only insofar as they impact and inform our daily lives. To read Plato’s Republic is to ask: what are the value of the ideas of good and the just? It is also to meditate on the role of music and art in society. And at the same time, it is to familiarize oneself with characters like Socrates and Plato who, in the world we share, epitomize the qualities of morality, heroism, and the pursuit of the truth wherever it might lead. This can also be done in high schools. And it should be.

It is simply wrong to think such inquiries are unworldly or overly intellectual. Good teachers teach great texts not simply because the books are old, but because they are meaningful. And young students return to these books generation after generation because they find in them stories, examples, and ideas that inspire them to live their lives better and more fully.

As Leon Botstein, President of Bard College where the Hannah Arendt Center is located, writes in his book Jefferson’s Children,

No matter how rigorous the curriculum, no matter how stringent the requirements, if what goes on in the classroom does not leave its mark in the way young adults voluntarily act in private and in public while they are in college, much less in the years after, then the college is not doing what it is supposed to do.

The basic question being asked today is: Is college worthwhile? It is a good question.  Too many colleges have lost their way. They no longer even understand what they are here to offer. Faculty frequently put research above teaching. Administration is the fastest growing segment of university education, which is evidence if anything is that universities simply do not know what their mission is anymore. It is no wonder, then, that many of our brightest young people will begin to shy away from the thoughtless expectation that one must attend college.

All around us, people are opting out of college. The mania for online education is at least in part fueled by the hunger for knowledge from students and others who do not want or need to attend college. The Times highlights Uncollege and other organizations that advocate “hacking” your education. Recall that Lincoln was better schooled in the classics of poetry and politics than most every college educated President who followed him. At a time when many colleges are so confused and trying to do so many things, they often do none well. It may be the case today that we need to evolve new networks and new organizations where intellectualism can flourish. And it may be small liberal arts colleges that are more flexible and more able to make that transition than large, bureaucratic research institutions.

The real question this debate needs to raise, but avoids, is: Who should get a college education? The answer, “not everyone,” is one few want to hear. And yet it might be the beginning of a real conversation about what a college education is for and why we are today so often failing to provide it to our students.




The Flipped Classroom

For those of us who care about education, at either the college or high school level, there is nothing more exciting and terrifying today than the promise of the use of technology in teaching. At this moment, numerous companies around the country are working with high schools and colleges to create online courses, tutorials, and webinars that will be able to provide training and information to millions of people around the world. In fact, I just took a webinar today, required by the New York Council for the Humanities, a mandatory course that was supposed to train me to facilitate a Community Conversation on democracy that will be held next week at the Arendt Center.

Many of these web-based courses are offered free. They will be taught by leading experts who teach at the best universities in the world. And they will be available to anyone in any country of any income with a computer. The possibilities and potential benefits of such courses are extraordinary.  And yet, as with any great new technology, these courses are also dangerous.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education describes Tony Hyun Kim, a MIT graduate who moved to Mongolia and spent three months tutoring and teaching local high school students as they took a course in circuits-and-electronics class, a class that is usually taken by MIT sophomores. The class offered free online by edX, a consortium of MIT and Harvard, uses video and interactive exercises and is available to anyone who signs up. What Mr. Kim did is use this advanced course taught by MIT professors as a basic resource for his high school students in Mongolia. He then helped the young students to take the course. Twelve of his students passed the course and earned a certificate of completion. "One 15-year-old, Battushig, aced the course, one of 320 out of students worldwide to do so." According to the Chronicle:

The adventure made the young MIT graduate one of the first to blend edX's content with face-to-face teaching. His hybrid model is one that many American students may experience as edX presses one of its toughest goals: to reimagine campus learning. EdX ended up hiring Mr. Kim, who hopes to start a related project at the university level in Mongolia.

What is now being called the "flipped classroom"—authoritative professors lecture thousands or hundreds of thousands in their dorm rooms while young facilitators then meet with students physically in classrooms—has enormous consequences for education around the world and also in the United States. 

 Currently, every university hires Ph.D.s as professors to teach courses and high schools hire teachers. These professors and teachers teach their own courses, set their curriculum, and are responsible for creating an educational environment. Often they are large lectures or poor classes in which students learn very little. Sometimes at research universities the professors have graduate students who spend time with the undergrads while professors do their own work. Often these graduate students in turn care less about teaching than their own research, leaving poor undergraduates to fend for themselves. In most instances, large lecture courses provide students with painfully little personal attention, the kind of one on one or small group interaction in which real education happens. What is more, these courses are expensive, since the universities subsidize the research and training of the professors.

Now imagine that community colleges and even large universities embrace the flipped classroom? Why not have students take a course from edX or Coursera, another similar service. The course is free. The college or university could then hire facilitators like Mr. Kim to work one on one with students. These facilitators can be cheap. They may even be free. As the Chronicle reports, Harvard professors E. Francis Cook Jr. and Marcello Pagano are working to mobilize a crowd of volunteers to help teach their courses.

The veteran professors will teach a class on epidemiology and biostatistics this fall, one of Harvard's first on edX. Details are still being worked out, but they hope to entice alumni to participate, possibly by moderating online forums or, for those based abroad, leading discussions for local students. Mr. Cook sees those graduates as an "untapped resource. We draw people into this program who want to improve the health of the world," he says. "I'm hoping we'll get a huge buy-in from our alums."

There will be many young people who will volunteer to facilitate such courses. In return they will learn something. They will meet smart young potential employees and recruit them to work in their business ventures. And they will do a service to their alma maters. This enlistment of free labor to help with online learning is already happening. And it will upend the teaching profession at all levels, just as star doctors at major hospitals will increasingly diagnose hundreds of patients a day from their offices while assistants around the world simply follow their instructions.

Will the new educational regime offer a better education for the students? In some cases yes. There are unmistakable advantages both in cost and maybe even in quality that such flipped courses offer. But there is also a profound loss of what might be called educational space and, more importantly, educational authority.  

If such facilitators are recent college graduates, like Mr. Kim, or if they are Ph.D.s but hired not as professors and thus without the authority of present professors, there is a loss of the very sense of what a university or college is—a space for the transmission of knowledge from scholars and scientists to young citizens. What does it mean to lose the community of professors who currently populate these educational institutions?

And what about when this hollowing out of the professoriate infects elite universities like MIT and Harvard themselves? The Chronicle asks:

One question is how edX might improve elite universities, which are late to the e-learning game. In the spring, MIT tested the edX circuits class with about 20 on-campus students. It was a hit: A majority said they would take another Web class....Another benefit: Students could rewind or fast-forward their professor. Data showed MIT students tended to watch the videos at 1.5 speed, which makes voices sound almost like chipmunks but delivers information more rapidly. "I do want MIT to offer more online education," Ms. LaPenta says.

A hit with students it may be. And they may indeed learn the material and pass the course. But listening to their professor's lectures at 1.5 speed—that is fascinating and frightening. We all are aware of the ways that technology divorces us from the traditional pace of human life. We drive or fly and travel distances in hours that used to take years. We send mail at the speed of the internet. But what will it mean when we speak at 1.5 speed? And speaking is one thing. But teaching and learning?

I have no doubt that studies are being done right now to measure the optimal speeds at which students can listen to lectures and still process the information. Pretty soon students will watch lectures like many of us now watch t.v., on delay so that it can be fast-forwarded, rewound, and sped up. It is one thing to imagine this as useful for individuals who want to learn how to program a computer or fix an engine or publish a book. But to think that our most illustrious liberal arts institutions will adopt the motto of education at the personal speed of the internet is more than simply strange.

Education, writes Hannah Arendt in The Crisis in Education, is predicated on the basic fact that human beings are born into the world. Young people come into the world and, because they are newcomers and uninitiated, need to be educated, which means they must be introduced to the world. Parents do this to some degree in the home, bringing the child from the home into the wider world. But the primary institutions in which children are educated, in which they are led into the world, are schools.

Normally the child is first introduced to the world in school. Now school is by no means the world and must not pretend to be; it is rather the institution we interpose between the private domain of the home and the world in order to make the transition from the family to the world possible at all.

For Arendt, the key element of education is the authority of the parent, teacher or professor. The teacher takes responsibility for bringing the child into the world, which requires authority:

The teacher's qualification consists in knowing the world and being able to instruct others about it, but his authority rests on his assumption of responsibility for that world. Vis-à-vis the child it is as though he were a representative of all adult inhabitants, pointing out the details and saying to the child: This is our world.

The authority of the teacher is, at bottom, a matter of his or her willingness to take responsibility for the world. In other words, the teacher must be conservative in the sense that his or her role is to "cherish and protect something—the child against the world, the world against the child, the new against the old, the old against the new." The teacher conserves both the world as it is—insofar as he teaches the child what is rather than what should be or what will be—and the child in her newness—by refusing to tell the child what will be or should be, and thus allowing the child the experience of freedom to rebel against the world when and if the time is right.

Arendt's point is that education requires that a child be confronted with the world as it is, not how the student wants it to be. This will often be painful and uncomfortable.  It requires authority, and it requires that the student learn to conform to the world. An essential part of education, therefore, is that the student not be in control and that students be led by an external, adult, and respected authority. Which is why, for Arendt, education depends upon the authority of teachers and professors. The idea that our best institutions are imagining an educational present where students spend more and more of their time online where they, and not the professors, control and determine their way of learning does present a threat to education.

Of course, the goal of education is to create independent thinkers. The capstone experience at Bard College, where I teach, and at Amherst College, where I studied, is a senior thesis (at Bard this is mandatory, at Amherst only for honors students). The senior thesis is the transition from education to adulthood and it can be an extraordinary and moving experience. But it is a mistake when students insist—as they often do—on doing too many tutorials or seminars too early in their careers. Students must first learn and such learning requires being led by an authority. Too many students and professors today ignore the importance of authority in education. Technology threatens to feed that already present cultural tendency to free students from their tutelage to professors.

Amongst the myriad of benefits promised by distance learning and the flipped classroom, it is imperative to see where the real dangers and pitfalls lie. The grave danger of the flipped classroom is precisely in the perpetuation of the dominant trend of progressive education that has infiltrated teaching at all levels since Piaget and Dewey. It is the claim that students can and ought to be in charge of their own education.

In freeing students from the classroom, in distancing them further from the authority figure of a professor, in replacing Ph.D.s and professors with lesser trained facilitators, in giving students the power to speed up or slow down the professor's lecture, we are empowering and liberating students and giving them ever more control over their education. This may allow them to learn better or graduate more quickly. It may reduce the cost of college and high school and it may train people better for certain jobs. They may enjoy their education more. But such an education does not teach students what the world is like. It does not insist that they first learn what is before they begin to fashion the world as they want it to be. It comes from a loss of faith in and love for the world as it is, a loss that pervades our society that no longer believes in itself. Such an attitude does not assume responsibility for the world and insist that young people must first learn about the world, at least as the world is now. And it is just such a responsibility that educators must adopt.

The real problem with the rush towards technological education is that is focused interminably on the future. On qualifications for jobs and preparation for what is to come. Education, at least education that might succeed in introducing young people into a common world which they love and treasure, requires a turn towards the past. Just such a turn from the backwards-glancing education of the liberal arts to the forward-thrusting education to prepare students for jobs and careers is the real threat inherent in the present mania for technologically-enhanced pedagogy. Technology is not evil; it can be greatly helpful. But we must first understand why it is we are so desperate for it if we are to integrate it into our world. Otherwise, it will break the world.

On this weekend, I encourage you to take up Hannah Arendt's essay, The Crisis in Education. You can order it here  from Amazon. Or listen to Hannah Arendt read from her essay in animated form here.