“Culture is being threatened when all worldly objects and things, produced by the present or the past, are treated as mere functions for the life process of society, as though they are there only to fulfill some need, and for this functionalization it is almost irrelevant whether the needs in question are of a high or a low order.”
--Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis in Culture”
Hannah Arendt defines the cultural as that which gives testimony to the past and in preserving the past helps constitute our common world. A cultural object embodies the human goal of achieving “immortality,” which as Arendt explains in The Human Condition is not the same as eternal life or the biological propagation of the species. Immortality concerns the life of a people and is ultimately political. It refers to the particular type of transcendence afforded by political action. In “The Crisis of Culture,” Arendt shows how culture has a political role insofar as it creates durable and lasting objects that contribute to the immortality of a people.
The danger Arendt confronts in “The Crisis in Culture” is that mass culture makes art disposable and thus threatens the political ability of cultural life to produce lasting and immortal objects. The source of her worry is not an invasion of culture by the low and the base, but a sort of cannibalization of culture by itself. The problem is that mass culture swallows culture and subsumes it under the rubric of need. The immortal is degraded to a biological necessity, to be endlessly consumed and reproduced. Durable cultural objects that constitute a meaningful political world are thereby consumed, eroding the common world that is the place of politics.
Arendt’s point is first that mass culture—like all culture under the sway of society— is too often confused with status, self-fulfillment, or entertainment. In the name of status or entertainment, cultural achievements are stripped down and repackaged as something to be consumed in the life process. She would argue that this happens every time Hamlet is made into a movie or the Iliad is condensed into a children’s edition. By making culture accessible for those who would use it to improve themselves, the mass-culture industry makes it less and less likely that we will ever confront the great works of our past in their most challenging form. Eventually, the watering down of once immortal works can make it difficult or impossible to perceive the importance of culture and cultural education for humanity and our common world.
However, Arendt does not offer simply a banal critique of reality television as fast-food. We might recognize a more insidious form of the risks she describes in the new intellectualism that marks the politics, or anti-politics of the tech milieu. What has been termed Silicon Valley’s anti-intellectualism should instead be understood as a forced colonization of the space potentially inhabited by the public intellectual.
The prophets of the tech world see themselves as fulfilling a social and political duty through enterprise. They unselfconsciously describe their creations as sources of liberation, democracy, and revolution. And yet they eschew politics. Their abnegation of overt political activity is comprehensible in that, for them, ‘politics’ is always already contained in the project of saving the world through technological progress.
We see such exemplars of technological cultural salvation all around us. Scholars and cultural figures are invited to lecture at the “campuses” of Apple and Google, and their ideas get digested into the business model or spit back out in the form of TED talks. Even Burning Man, originally a ‘counter-cultural’ annual desert festival with utopian pretensions, has been sucked into the vortex, such that Stanford Professor Fred Turner could give a powerpoint lecture titled, “Burning Man at Google: A cultural infrastructure for new media production.” The abstract for his article in New Media & Society is even more suggestive: “…this article explores the ways in which Burning Man’s bohemian ethos supports new forms of production emerging in Silicon Valley and especially at Google. It shows how elements of the Burning Man world – including the building of a sociotechnical commons, participation in project-based artistic labor and the fusion of social and professional interaction – help to shape and legitimate the collaborative manufacturing processes driving the growth of Google and other firms.” Turner’s conclusion virtually replicates Arendt’s differentiation between nineteenth century philistinism and the omniphagic nature of mass culture:
In the 19th century, at the height of the industrial era, the celebration of art provided an occasion for the display of wealth. In the 21st century, under conditions of commons-based peer production, it has become an occasion for its [i.e. wealth] creation.
The instrumentalization of culture within polite society has given way to the digestion and reconstitution of culture in the form of gadgets meant to increase convenience. Would-be cultural objects become rungs on the hamster wheel of life’s progress. Progress as the ultimate goal of technological cultural innovation is a vague concept because it is taken for granted due to the self-contained and self-enclosed nature of the industry. Where it is defined, it is demonstrated through examples, such as the implementation of the smart parking meter or the use of cloud networking in order to better administer services to San Francisco’s homeless population.
In a recent New Yorker article on the tech revolutionaries, George Packer writes, “A favorite word in tech circles is ‘frictionless.’ It captures the pleasures of an app so beautifully designed that using it is intuitive, and it evokes a fantasy in which all inefficiencies, annoyances, and grievances have been smoothed out of existence—that is, an apolitical world.” Progress here is the increasingly efficient administration of life.
When tech does leave its insular environment and direct its energies outward, its engagements reflect both its solipsism and focus on utility, which for Arendt go together. The Gates Foundation’s substantial investments in higher education impose the quantitatively verifiable standard of degree completion as the sole or main objective, which seems odd in itself, given Gates’ notoriety as a Harvard drop-out. The efforts of the Foundation aim less at placing Shakespeare in the hands of every fast-food worker, and more towards redirecting all of cultural education toward the development of a cheap version of utilitarian aptitude. Such tech intellectualism will ask, “What is the point of slaving over the so-called classics?” The claim is that the liberal arts vision of university education is inseparable from elitist designs, based on an exclusive definition of what ‘culture’ should be.
“What is the use?” is the wrong question, though, and it is tinged by the solipsistic mentality of a tech elite that dare not speak its name. The tech intellectual presents the culture of Silicon Valley as inherently egalitarian, despite the fact that capital gains in the sector bare a large burden of the blame for this country’s soaring rate of inequality. This false sense of equality fosters a naïve view of political and social issues. It also fuels tech’s hubristic desire to remake the world in its own image: Life is about frictionless success and efficient progress, and these can be realized via the technological fix. “It worked for us, what’s the matter with you?”
For Arendt, culture is not meant to be useful for employment or even the lofty purpose of self-cultivation; our relationship to culture nurtures our ability to make judgments. Kant’s discussion of taste and “common sense” informs her notion of the faculty of judgment in art and politics. In matters of taste, judging rests on the human ability to enlarge one’s mind and think with reference to an “anticipated communication with others” and “potential agreement.” Common sense, as she uses it, “discloses to us the nature of the world insofar as it is a common world.” Culture and politics are linked in that both can only exist in a world that is shared. She writes:
Culture and politics, then, belong together because it is not knowledge or truth which is at stake, but rather judgment and decision, the judicious exchange of opinion about the sphere of public life and the common world, and the decision what manner of action is to be taken, as well as to how it is to look henceforth, what kind of things are to appear in it.
That culture and politics are about enacting judgments, rather than truth or technique for the advancement of biological life, is a point that is clearly missed by the tech intellectuals. The establishment of utility as the sole goal of higher education represents only one section of a general lens through which the world appears only as a series of practical problems to be figured out. In this paradoxical utopia of mass accessibility, insulation, and narrow-mindedness, applied knowledge threatens to occupy and pervert culture at the expense of political action and care for our common world.
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.
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.
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.
The crisis must matter.
The most important divide in political and intellectual life today is between those who see society undergoing a transformative crisis and others who believe that the basic structures the 20th century industrial welfare state will persist.
The divide over how to understand the crisis of our times was front and center at the recent Hannah Arendt Center conference "Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair."
A number of speakers worried about the language of crisis. They rightly see talk about a "crisis" as code for an attack on the institutions of the welfare state. It can be an excuse to not only scale back the unsustainable aspects of our entitlement programs, but also to lower taxes on the wealthiest Americans while doing so.
It is true that many want to misuse the crisis as an attack on the poor and the middle class; that potential abuse, however, is not an excuse to deny the fact of the crisis itself. It is simply no longer possible to responsibly deny that we are living through a transformative crisis that will change the character of America and much of the world. The drivers of that crisis are many and include technology and globalization. The effects are profound and won't be fully understand for decades. At present, the first consequence is a crisis of institutional authority.
We in the US have indeed lost faith in our basic institutions. We don't trust scientists who warn us about global warming; we doubt economists who warn us about debt; we deny doctors who tell us that vaccines are safe. Very few people trust politicians or Ph.D.'s anymore. In fact, according to a 2009 General Social Survey, there are only two institutions in the United States that are said to have "A great deal" of confidence from the American people: the military and the police. This faith in the men with guns is, as Christopher Hayes writes in The Twilight of the Intellectuals, deeply disturbing. But it is not an illusion.
According to John Zogby, who spoke at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference last weekend, the crisis of faith in institutions is widespread and profound. Zogby said:
We call this the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression and it is. But this is much more than that. This is a transformational crisis. Much more than simply the Great Depression, this is equivalent on the global stage to the fall of the Roman Empire. To the demise of Feudalism. What we have at this moment in time is a myriad—if not almost all—of our familiar institutions unprepared to deal with multiple crises all at once. Whether it is the federal Government or the near bankrupt states or the Democratic Party or the Republican Party or the banking institutions or the brick and mortal halls of higher education. Whether it is the Boy Scouts of America or the Roman Catholic Church, a number of our institutions that make up the superstructure of our society are simply unprepared to deal with the force of change, where we find ourselves.
Zogby was not the only speaker at our conference who noted that "our minds as well as our institutions have not caught up with the failure that they represent." Tracy Strong pointed to the outdated capacity of political primaries and Jeffrey Tulis spoke of the ways that Congress has, over the last century, increasingly abdicated its governmental and constitutional responsibilities. Institutions today spend more resources on self-sustenance (like fund raising) than on problem solving. Today our most important institutions are not only unable to solve the problems we face; the institutions have themselves become the problem.
Walter Russell Mead compared our current period to that era of American politics between 1865 and 1905. Mead noted that few people can name the presidents in that period not because of a failure of leadership but, rather, because in that period the U.S. was going through a cultural and societal transformation from, on one level, an agrarian to an urban-industrial society. We today are experiencing something equally if not more disruptive with globalization, technology, and the Internet. It is a mistake, Mead argued, to think that government or any group can understand and plan for such profound changes. There will be dislocations and opportunities, most of which are invisible today. While Mead offered optimism, he made clear that the years before the new institutions of the future emerge will be difficult and at times dark. There is little a president or a leader can do to change that.
Todd Gitlin and Anne Norton spoke of Occupy Wall Street and also the Tea Party as U.S. movements founded upon the loss of political and institutional power. Gitlin began with the widely quoted quip that the system is not broken, its fixed, an expression that feeds upon the disaffection with mainstream institutions. Norton especially noted the difficulties of a movement that at once decries and yet needs governmental power. The one constant, she rightly noted, is that in a time of institutional decay, those with the least to lose will lose the most.
Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, situated his party precisely in the space of institutional distrust that Mead and Zogby described. Falkvinge noted that the primary value held by 17 year-olds today is openness and transparency, which he distinguished from free speech. While free speech respects the rights of government and the media to regulate and curate speech, the radical openness embodied by the new generation is something new. The Pirate parties, for example, follow the rule of three. If three members of the Party agree on a policy, then that policy can be a platform of the party. There is no hierarchy; instead the party members are empowered to act. Like Wikileaks, with which it has strong affinities, the Pirate Party is built upon a profound distrust of all institutional power structures that might claim the authority to edit, curate, or distill what ought to be published or how we should govern ourselves.
Hannah Arendt wrote frequently about crises. "A crisis," she saw, "becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgments, that is, with prejudices." The recent Arendt Center Conference sought to think about one particular crisis, namely the crisis of leadership in responding to the various crises that beset our age. It was born from the sense that we are increasingly confronting problems before which we cower helpless.
There are, of course, dangers and pitfalls in leadership. I too worry about calls for a leader to redeem us. That said, the coming seismic shifts in our world will bring great pain amidst what may be even greater opportunity. Without a workable political system that can recognize and respond to the coming changes with honesty and inspiration, chances are that our crises will morph into a disaster. Our President must matter, since men rarely accomplish anything meaningful without it. How a president might matter, was the theme of the two day conference.
If you missed the conference, or if you just want to review a few of your favorite talks, now is your chance. The Conference proceedings are online and can be found here. They are your weekend "read".
Student debt is suddenly spurring the once unthinkable debate: Is college necessary? Of course the answer is no. But who needs it and who should pay for it are complicated questions.
Arendt herself had an ambivalent relationship to academic culture. She never held a tenure-track job in the academy and she remained suspicious of intellectuals and academics. She never forgot how easily professors in Germany embraced the rationality of the Nazi program or the conformity with which Marxist and leftist intellectuals excused Stalinism. In the U.S., Arendt was disappointed with the "cliques and factions" as well as the overwhelming "gentility" of academics, that dulled their insights. It was for that reason that she generally shunned the company of academics, with of course notable exceptions. A free thinker—she valued thinking for oneself above all—she was part of and apart from the university world.
We plan to keep the discussion about college and debt going on the Arendt Center blog. Here are a few thoughts to get the debate going.
First, college is not magic. It will neither make you smart nor make you rich. Some of our best writers and thinkers somehow avoided writing five-page papers on the meaning of Sophocles. (That of course does not mean that they didn't read Sophocles, even in the Ancient Greek.) And many of the most successful Americans never graduated or attended college. On the other hand, many college grads and Ph.D.'s are surviving on food stamps today. Some who attend the University of Phoenix will benefit greatly from it. Many who attend Harvard squander their money and time. Especially today, college is as much a safe path for risk-averse youth as it is a haven for the life of the mind or a tasseled path to the upper classes.
Second, College can be a transformative experience. As I prepare to say goodbye to another cohort of graduates at Bard, I am reminded again how amazing these students are and how much I learn from them every year. I wrote recently about one student who wrote a simply stunning meditation on education. Today I will be meeting with two students about their senior projects. One is a profound, often personal, and yet also deeply mature exploration of loneliness in David Foster Wallace, Hannah Arendt, and Martin Heidegger. The other is a genealogy of whistleblowing from T.E. Lawrence to Bradley Manning, arguing that the rise of whistleblowing in the 20th century is both a symptom of and a contributor to the lost facts in public life. Both are testaments to the fact that college can inspire young adults to wrestle meaningfully and intelligently with the world they must confront.
Third, Most students do not attend college because they want to. Of course some do and I have enormous respect for those who embrace the life of the mind that college can nurture. I also respect those who decide that college is not for them. But the simple fact is that too many college students are here thoughtlessly, going through the motions because they are on a track. College has become a stepping stone to a good job which is a stand in for a good life. Nothing wrong with that, but is it really worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and four years of your time simply to get a credential? College students are young and full of energy. Too often they spend four of their most energetic years studying things they don't care about while they sleep late, drink a lot, and generally have a good time. This cannot be the best use of most young people's time.
Fourth, it is not at all clear that college is a good investment. There is no limit of students who tell me that taking out debt for an education is always a good investment. This is usually around the time they want to apply to law school or graduate school. And I can only repeat to them so many times that they are simply wrong. Finally, the press is catching up to this fact, and we are treated to a daily drumbeat of stories about the dangers of student debt. College debt in the U.S. now exceeds $1 Trillion, more than credit card debt (although far smaller than mortgage debt). The problem is widespread, as 94% percent of those who earn a bachelor’s degree take on debt to pay for higher education — up from 45 percent in 1993. And the problem is deep: The average debt in 2011 was $23,300. For 10% of college graduates, their debt is crippling, as they owe more than $54,000. Three percent owe more than $100,000.
The most egregious debt traps are still the for-profit colleges, which serve the working classes who cannot afford more expensive non-profit colleges. These schools prey on the perception, partly true, that career advancement requires a college degree. But now even public universities and private elite colleges are increasingly graduating students with high debt loads. And then there are law schools and culinary schools, which increasingly graduate indebted and trained professionals into a world in which does not need them.
he result is as sad as it is predictable. Nearly 1 in 9 young graduate borrowers who started repayment in 2009 defaulted within two years. This is about double the rate in 2005. The numbers vary: 15% of recent graduates from for-profit schools are in default. Also 7.2% of public university graduations and 4.6% of private university graduates are defaulting. Each of these groups requires a separate analysis and discussion. And yet overall, we are burdening way too many young people with debts that will plague them their entire lives.
Fifth, to defend college education as a good investment is not simply questionable economically. It also is to devalue the idea of education for its own sake and insist that college is an economic rather than an intellectual experience. One unintended consequence of the expansion of college to a wider audience of strivers is that a college education is decidedly an economic and bourgeois experience, less and less an intellectual adventure. Was college ever Arcadia? Surely not. For much of American history college has been a benefit reserved for the upper classes. And yet to turn education into a commodity, to make it part of the life process of making a living, does further delimit the available spaces for the life of the mind in our society.
Sixth, college is not necessary to make us either moral or enlightened citizens. College education does not make us better people. There are plenty of amazing people in the world who have had not studied Aristotle or learned genetics in college. The United States was built on the tradition of the yeoman farmer, that partly mythical but also real person who worked long days, saved, and treated people honorably.
Morality, as Hannah Arendt never tired of pointing out, is not gained by education. Or as Kant once pointed out to a certain Professor Sulzer in a footnote to his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, morality can only be taught by example, not through study. Arendt agreed. She saw that many of those who acted most honorably during WWII were not the intellectuals, but common people who simply understood that killing neighbors or shooting Jews was inhuman. What is more, it was often the intellectuals who provided themselves and others with the complex and quasi-scientific rationalizations for genocide. To think rationally, and even to use a current buzzword, to think critically, is no barrier to doing evil. Critical thinking—the art of making distinctions—is no guarantee of goodness.
Seventh, college cannot and should not replace a failed primary and high school system. Our primary schools are a disgrace and then we spend a fortune on remedial education in community colleges and even in four-year colleges, trying to educate people who have been failed by their public schools. We would do much better to take a large part of the billions and billions of public dollars we spend on higher education and put them towards a radical restoration of our public grammar and high schools. If we actually taught people in grammar schools and pushed them to excel in high schools, they would graduate prepared to hold meaningful jobs and also to be thoughtful citizens. Maybe then a college education could then be both less necessary and more valuable.
Bard College, which houses the Hannah Arendt Center, has been engaged for years in creating public high schools that are also early colleges. The premise is that high school students are ready for college level work, and there is nothing to prevent them from doing that. These Bard High School Early Colleges are public high schools staffed by professors with Ph.D's who teach the same courses we teach at Bard College. In four years, students must complete an entire four-year high school curriculum and a two-year college curriculum. They then receive a Bard Associates Degree at graduation, in addition to their high school diploma. This Associates degree —which is free— can either reduce the cost of graduation from a four-year college or replace it altogether.
Early colleges are not the single answer for our crisis of education. But they do point in one direction. Money spent on really reforming high schools and even primary schools will do so much more to educate a broad, racially diverse, and economically underprivileged cohort of young people than any effort to reform or subsidize colleges and universities. The primary beneficiaries of the directing public money to colleges rather than high schools are Professors and administrators. I benefit from such subsidies and appreciate them. But that does mean I think them right or sensible.
We would be much better off if we redirected our resources and attention to primary and secondary education, which are failing miserably, and stopped obsessing so about college. Most college graduates, wherever they go, will learn something from their four or more years of classes. But the mantra that one only becomes a full human being by going to college is not only false. It also is dangerous.