A rather long analysis follows, with a few distractions, but the heart of it is an analysis of the question, "Why study the humanities?" Brewer proposes three answers: They are actually useful, even if they don't seem to be; they support citizenship in free societies; and they are just good in and of themselves. I think Brewer doesn't treat answer #2 well enough; I continue to associate the study of the humanities directly with burning into the souls of students an appreciation for freedom of thought and action, and Brewer seems to have a rather limited view of what citizens of a democracy can really do with that freedom anyway. But it is a thoughtful analysis, well worth reading.[Board members] Dragas and Kington explained their actions as being the result of “philosophical” differences with Sullivan, yet they declined to say which of the great questions of existence had divided them so irrevocably as to require her dismissal. Enterprising reporters from the student newspaper made use of the Freedom of Information Act to shed some light on this mysterious philosophical disagreement. It turned out that Dragas and Kington had come to believe that the rise of online learning would soon pose an existential threat to the university, and that it had to embrace the trend quickly or risk being left hopelessly behind. Sullivan had been reluctant to move in this direction with the boldness they thought necessary. She was threatened with imminent dismissal, and agreed under duress to step down.At first blush, this does not sound like a philosophical disagreement. It sounds like an ordinary empirical disagreement about whether, and under what conditions, the university would be able to attract enough qualified undergraduates to sustain itself. One party to the conflict, President Sullivan, was less impressed than her adversaries by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s widely discussed prediction that online instruction would prove to be a “disruptive innovation,” one that would pose a threat to the very existence of traditional suppliers—not by providing a better product but by providing an inferior substitute that was either vastly cheaper or more convenient. Christensen had insisted that traditional providers of higher education could survive this disruption only by “changing their DNA”—that is, fundamentally changing their mode of instruction, partly by using online instruction to lower costs and reach more students. Sullivan seems to have thought that this was alarmist and that no program of online instruction would soon convince parents to forgo the rite of passage into adulthood that we call “going to college.”On the surface, then, the conflict between President Sullivan and the leaders of the Board of Visitors seems to have been a difference in market outlook, not a difference that could be termed philosophical, even in the loose and popular deployment of that term. Yet I believe there were important philosophical disagreements in the background. Discussions among members of the Board of Visitors touched not only on the importance of taking bold steps to deliver instruction via the Internet but also on the importance of taking bold steps to trim away departments with relatively few majors. German had been mentioned; so had classics. The guiding idea of the would-be reformers was that the university should be continuously reshaped to meet changes in student demand. Consumer sovereignty should be extended from the problem of determining which products should be displayed on the shelves of which stores, to the problem of determining the contents of the proper education of a young adult.
And relevant to ongoing conversations about educational disruption. When I read this passage in particular, I thought some more about the Faust-Summers dialog at Aspen.
The passage that came to mind is Larry Summers's argument for why the humanities, not just introductory college mathematics, are due for a Christensen-inpsired, MOOC disruption. The same forces that acted on Kodak have to act on higher education, Summers explains.In the concluding section of another of Plato’s dialogues, the Phaedrus, Socrates argues that the written word cannot itself capture and deliver what needs to be understood; at best, it can incite readers to turn toward the phenomena themselves and secure understanding through a more immediate apprehension of them. Further, the written word is not ideally suited to play even this indirect role, since its author is not there to respond to successive attempts, on the part of the reader, to attain a firsthand discernment of the phenomena that inspire it. What Platonic philosophy hopes to deliver to students is no more amenable to summary statement in a treatise or textbook than what Freudian psychotherapy hopes to deliver to patients. The quest for understanding is irreducibly idiosyncratic, because the sources of blindness and delusion are irreducibly idiosyncratic. If the reader cannot speak to the author, the possibility of useful communication is greatly reduced. If this is right, then the spoken word taken in itself—delivered, say, in the form of a lecture rather than in the course of a conversation—is no better a vehicle for philosophical enlightenment than the written word.Philosophy, in short, lives in conversation. The student must be called on to speak, and to do so sincerely rather than strategically—e.g., with an eye to a grade. This is what puts the student himself or herself into play. If this does not happen, then philosophy does not happen. Thus, philosophy does not happen in the passive uptake of lectures—whether they are delivered in a large lecture hall or in a Massive Open Online Course (or MOOC, as such courses are quickly coming to be known). If university-style philosophy is in danger of being replaced by the “disruptive innovation” of online education, perhaps this is because university philosophy classes have assumed a deficient form, one suited to fields whose findings can be mastered in passive uptake.
It is just not right that Hamlet is exposited 15 or 25,000 times in high schools and in colleges. And so just as 100 years ago every professor wrote out their own notes for their students and then we realized that some professors could write the best textbooks and those textbooks came to be used and the role of what a professor did who hadn't write a textbook was changed fundamentally, something of that kind has to happen in higher education.The same conservatism that croaked incumbents like Kodak is happening in higher education today. Two of the signs he sees are "the discussions on every campus about not to elevate too many people as expositors different from ordinary faculty in their teaching," and the tendency of universities "to be very protective of existing areas of excellence." Both of these are jarring examples given Brewer's thoughts about dialog and his fears about UVa closing down low-demand departments. Summers also proposes a figure of merit on how much a university has realigned its priorities as the ratio of dollars spent on libraries to dollars spent on online education. I'll take a pass on commenting further on that.
But the real question here is what, in alumni talks I have been giving, I have been calling the "hydraulic model of education," the theory that what educators do is pour their accumulated knowledge, like a fluid, into the empty vessels of the brains of their students. Of course that is not true, as everyone who has thought about it, from Plato on down, has known, but which, as Brewer observes, is one of the key issues at stake in the current higher education wars. I quote Plutarch on this, in his essay on listening to lectures: "The ind is not a vessel to be filled but a flame to be kindled." Which is pretty much the point Brewer was making.
I suppose the reason I am trying to move from lecturing to active learning, rather than going in the other direction to MOOCs, is that I still hold to an ideal like Plutarch's, and fear those who assert with confidence that mass production is the way to go. We can become more efficient, and MOOCs can help in the same way better textbooks can help. But we won't wind up with anything nearly as good if we think that Hamlet just needs fewer, more skilled expositors for us to improve students' understanding of the human condition.
Bonus link: An interesting story about Ecole 42, which teaches software engineering and nothing else, basically by putting a bunch of bright people together on a desert island with an Internet connection and each other. The journalist suggests that Harvard should be worried; and so we should, if this product is what we think colleges are supposed to be optimized for producing.