Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

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.



Tuning Out, Heroism, and the Power of Example

I received an email from an old friend this weekend. She has been deeply affected by the death of Ki Suck Han, the New York man who was pushed off a subway platform near Times Square—and abandoned by all his fellow passengers, before being run over by an oncoming train. She wrote:

The subway death was on my mind all day long yesterday, I was devastated about it. I once worked for the MTA Arts for Transit, maybe that's why. Nobody stepped forth (the platform wasn't empty before the guy fell on the tracks), at least moved forward, rather than back. In that photo the man is all alone facing that train, everyone has moved back and away to make space for the accident to unfold unhindered, out of the zone of implication. We're all so afraid of danger, and even afraid of the fear itself.

Forty Seven people were killed after being hit by trains in 2011—I know this from the helpful signs in the subways that remind us to be careful.

We all know about Ki Suck Han because in the 22 seconds between when he was pushed on the tracks and when a train pinned him against the platform, a New York Post photographer snapped dozens of pictures of him. One of those pictures was then published on the front page of the NYC tabloid.

There has been near universal condemnation of the Post, with a few exceptions. The photographer too has been harangued, accused of taking pictures rather than running to save the man. But the platform had not been empty and another waiting rider actually filmed the argument Ki Suck Han had been having with the man who later pushed him to the tracks. All these passengers fled the scene, moved to the other end of the platform. No one went to help Ki Suck Han. In 22 seconds, no one acted the hero.

“What,” my friend asked, “might Hannah Arendt say about the fact that no one helped a person in need?”

I hazard to say or think I know what Hannah Arendt would have thought or said. I respond to all such queries simply: Hannah Arendt was nothing if not surprising and provocative and more brilliant than I am. I have no special insight into what she would have thought.

What I can do is try to think about how her thinking, her provocative and insistent determination to think what we are doing, helps us today to make sense of ethical and political events like this tragic death. Along those lines, here are a few thoughts.

First, we should not draw too many conclusions from one event. While no heroes showed themselves in this circumstance, there are unsung heroes every year who risk their lives to save people around the world, and even in New York Subways. In fact, just last weekend Doreen Winkler saved two people from an oncoming train in New York City. You can read about Winkler’s heroic acts here and here. And if you want to be inspired by truly heroic acts of daring subway rescues, watch this video from Korea.

Second, the unwillingness to play the hero in this situation reminds me of what Arendt names the loss of our sense of a common world. It is the common world—a world that used to be imagined and held together by tradition and authority—that provides a public space in which actions are remembered. Pericles could say with confidence that the Athenian polis would remember the deeds of its heroes, just as the American revolutionaries could hope that their heroic deeds would live on in monuments, song, and poetry.

Monuments in Washington and around the nation testify to the common world that shares in the memory of great acts—acts that strike people as both surprising and worthy of glory and support. It is the power and promise of memory in the common world that both holds out examples of the glory of heroism and also promises to bring the hero immortality, something more lasting than life and security. There is little faith today that someone who is a hero will be remembered longer than someone who cuts people to bits or dances naked on TV. Heroism is one of many avenues to 15 minutes of fame. So there is no strong sense of acting courageously getting you anything.

Third, the loss of the common world is part and parcel of the retreat into loneliness. I was having dinner with another friend recently who told me of his new resolution, to listen to more music on his Iphone on the way to and from work. I recall once reading Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s letters and being in awe of his reports to friends of the books he was reading, his continuing education as he put it. My friend saw his headphone-wearing study of music in the same vein. And yet, there is a difference. Walking with headphones, even more than reading in the subway or playing books on tape in the car, is a way of tuning out of the world around you. People get lost in their own world, ignoring the sights, sounds, and faces that pass them by.

My conversation with my music-studying friend also called to mind a recent email sent by the Bard College Rabbi. Rabbi David Nelson worried that more and more our young people, in the spirit of urban dwellers, “walk around campus much of the time avoiding eye contact, which is another way of saying that they avoid looking one another directly in the face.” For the rabbi, the loss of eye contact and real face-time is dangerous and corrupting. He writes:

Those who have spent time living in densely populated urban areas are accustomed to the polite avoidance of eye contact, in crowded elevators, crowded rush-hour subway trains, and similar crowded venues. This is a way to maintain separateness and privacy in an environment where the density of the population threatens our ability ever to feel alone and unobserved. This is exactly the behavior that we see on campus. But we are not an anonymous, densely populated urban tangle. We are--or we ought to be--an intentional, involved, caring community. And our students' assiduous avoidance of one another's faces is at least a sign of, and perhaps a cause of, the widespread sense that this is a place where it's hard to really connect with others.

The proliferation of headphones began decades ago with the Sony Walkman craze and continues unabated with the Ipod and Iphone. People walk around listening to music or books or podcasts. And many are proud of this development, rationalizing their anti-social behavior by arguing to themselves that they are bettering themselves, learning, or expanding their minds. This may be true. But the retreat from personal contact and the eye contact with our fellow travelers must also weaken our connection to others. It is a cold and distant world, one in which we are less and less entangled with and personally related to those around us.

Our actions are ever more calculating and less instinctive. In such instances, calculation will stop you from acting. You need to feel it. It is no accident that nearly every subway hero who jumps on the tracts to rescue someone says that they didn’t think about it but simply acted.

Above all, the un-heroic action in the subway last week reminds us of the increasing rarity of action. Heroism is never normal. It is, by definition, extra-ordinary and surprising, which is why it is glorified and remembered. It thus thrives on a world that rewards and celebrates heroic acts. Hannah Arendt saw, however, that rare deeds would be ever rarer in the modern age. The primary reason for this is that in large societies, rare deeds lose their rarity and distinction. There are at least two reasons for this decline in great deeds.

First, the law of large numbers means that all action is predictable. We know that most people will not act spontaneously to save a passenger in need; but we also know that a certain percentage of people will. Actions of heroism are not mundane, but they are expected. That is why it was so shocking and surprising that no one acted. When someone does act heroically, like Doreen Winkler, few newspapers reported it. Heroism in the subway promises very little acclaim.

Second, heroism requires a common world in which one’s great deed will be remembered. Without the promise or the expectation that heroic acts will be immortalized, the risk of action is rarely balanced by the reward. In a calculating society, heroism rarely seems to justify the risk.

Thankfully, however, there are exceptions to these dispiriting trends. There are moments of unexpected heroism that do break through the standardization of our social expectations and become examples of heroic action. One recent example of this is Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s racing into a burning house to save his neighbor. At a time when we expect so little from our public figures who refuse to risk even bucking opinion polls, Booker’s public heroism was shocking. The power of his example, and of those who act as he does, keeps the ideal of heroism alive at a time when it is ever more rare and unexpected. Because action interrupts the everyday and the normal, it is, Arendt writes, the “one miracle-working faculty of man.” Action introduces greatness and glory into the world, makes us take notice, and calls us then to gather around the beauty of the glorious act; action, heroic action, is what constantly refreshes and re-orients us toward the common world that we share together.