This Week’s Funniest Headline . . .
. . . comes from the New York Times. “Professors at San Jose State Criticize Online Courses.” Well, they would, wouldn’t they? Someone told me the story that Larry Ellison, genius loci of Oracle Corporation, was slumming recently. He was, the story goes, giving a talk at a big meeting of the American Association of University Professors, the guild organization that invigilates the protectionist rules that keep the professoriate in their tenured luxury. Ellison began with a little flattery. Teachers, he said, are one of the most important assets of our society. Applause and appreciative murmurs. Not only are teachers important, he said they are also drastically underpaid. Even more appreciative applause and scattered “Here, heres.” In fact, quoth this business giant, I think teachers are so important that they ought to be paid at least a $1 million a year. A standing ovation: who knew that someone from corporate America could be so insightful? Unfortunately, Ellison concluded, I’m only going to need about 100 of you. A shocked silence greeted that announcement. Whatever could he mean, wondered the assembled multitude as they looked about at the teeming mass of pseudo-independent thinkers that filled the room. Whatever could could he mean?
We all know what he meant. The technological tsunami that is online education is poised to rip through the educational status quo, performing for that fetid redoubt a service similar to that performed by Hercules for Augeas, he of the largest and untidy stables.
But what’s funny about the Times’s story is not so much the state of denial exhibited by the faculty at that educational backwater in California (San Jose State?), but the reasons given for their criticism. “The philosophy department,” the Times reports, "sent Dr. Sandel [a prominent Harvard prof. whose course is being offered free and for nothing online] an open letter asserting that such courses, designed by elite universities and widely licensed by others, would compromise the quality of education, stifle diverse viewpoints and lead to the dismantling of public universities.” Italics are mine. Online courses are dangerous because they would "compromise the quality of education” and “stifle diverse viewpoints.” Ha, ha, ha. As if “the quality of education” and genuine diversity were features of most colleges and universities these days. No, as the recent report from the National Association of Scholars about Bowdoin College has shown, the American educational establishment, despite its constant talk about diversity, is a stunningly conformist and intellectually un-diverse environment.
I should say, however, that I think the deep thinkers in the philosophy department at San Jose State are probably correct in their last fear: the burgeoning of free, online education will likely lead to the dismantling of many aspects of the current educational dispensation, private as well as public.
The open letter to Prof. Sandel was full of sanctimonious professions of allegiance to high educational goals, the importance of student-teacher interaction, etc. But the mask slipped briefly in this passage: “Professors who care about public education should not produce products that will replace professors, dismantle departments and provide a diminished education for student in public universities.”
“Products that will replace professors.” We can’t have that, surely!
The letter to Prof. Sandel is almost quaint in its fecklessness. There is more than a faint aroma of desperation about it. But it’s too late lads. Like Belshazzar at that famous feast, you must see that the writing is on the wall. Whining open letter or no whining open letter, the news is Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin: in plain English, the higher education bubble is about to burst. Get used to it.