The Centralization of Higher Ed

Last month, I noted some important innovations in teaching, while striking a cautionary note about massive, open online courses (MOOCs). But for those who prefer MOOC-thusiasm, Tom Friedman’s recent column delivers:

You may think this MOOCs revolution is hyped, but my driver in Boston disagrees. You see, I was picked up at Logan Airport by my old friend Michael Sandel, who teaches the famous Socratic, 1,000-student “Justice” course at Harvard, which is launching March 12 as the first humanities offering on the M.I.T.-Harvard edX online learning platform. When he met me at the airport I saw he was wearing some very colorful sneakers.

“Where did you get those?” I asked. Well, Sandel explained, he had recently been in South Korea, where his Justice course has been translated into Korean and shown on national television. It has made him such a popular figure there that the Koreans asked him to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a professional baseball game — and gave him the colored shoes to boot!

Friedman spends much of the remaining column arguing that universities need to a) get rid of “sage on a stage” lecture courses, while substituting in for them b) sages on YouTube like Sandel. The critical link to Education 2.0: intensive, individualized assessment & problem solving. So in Friedman’s ideal world, philosophers like Sandel would teach all the intro “Ethics” or “Justice” courses for millions, while local adjuncts would apply them to particular dilemmas (such as: should columnists disclose if they are “heirs to a multi-billion-dollar business empire”?).

The irony here is twofold. First, at least with respect to Sandel’s course, the 1.0 version (which I took, in the early 1990s) sounds a lot better than the MOOC version exported to China and Korea. We wrote papers, discussed them in weekly sessions with a TA, and generally formed communities of interest around the material. I don’t think that’s happening on YouTube or Youku, though the top comment on this lecture:

case of beer 17.95$
harvard lecture free
gaining a college education while getting smashed….priceless

indicates something of a grateful and exuberant audience.

Second, there is a deeper tension with this deployment of Sandel’s work. In Democracy’s Discontent, Sandel aspired to articulate a civic republican “public philosophy.” He believed that America needed a new public philosophy because the “liberal” standard for governmental decision-making, which tries to maximize “respect for the rights of freely choosing selves,” is too indeterminate a guide for social action. Echoing Mary Ann Glendon’s Rights Talk, Sandel claimed that America’s most prominent politicians and judges left citizens with no concrete vision of human virtue or common good to aim for.

Civil Society Atomized and Commodified

Thus Sandel argued that the traditional liberal ideal of liberty–protecting individual choice and self-realization in the widest possible range of circumstances–is misconceived. In place of the subjective sovereignty elevated by liberal theorists on both left and right, Sandel suggested that we are only free when we are participating members of self-governing communities. As opposed to the personal autonomy prized by liberals, this collective autonomy is understood by Sandel as a “consequence of self-government;” one is “free insofar as [one is] a member of a political community that controls its own fate.” Civil society, and diverse institutions like churches and universities, are crucial to that goal.

It is sad to see, then, Sandel’s global educational endeavors pressed into the service of a model of higher learning that may well erode civil society and self-governance. David Golumbia has argued that MOOCs, far from democratizing higher ed, end up contributing to centralization and hierarchy. As Golumbia puts it,

The question of the need for faculty at all . . . . once we have digitized lectures on most topics from a few leaders, is one that as with Walmart and Amazon we may not be able to resist in terms of economic efficiency. But where we can argue about the negative and positive effects for the democratic experiment of those concentrated centers of capital, few would argue that actual civil democracy would be better served by a few massive, centralized and largely disembodied education “providers[.]”

Online education is offered as part of an economic analysis of the “business model” of higher education that, as in many familiar instances of computational “revolution,” accomplishes much of its work by initially mischaracterizing the phenomenon in question, in order to take it apart on economic or technological grounds. Higher education does not exist in this country primarily to train students for jobs; it exists primarily to ensure that a significant portion of the public reads and understands the thought on which our political system is founded. That “thought” extends far beyond political science proper [and encompasses the] “liberal arts” or “arts and sciences,” most of which is most effectively understood and made meaningful by personalized, embodied encounters with the material with one’s peers, under the guidance of those who have studied the matters closely.

The most daring and encouraging parts of Sandel’s Democracy’s Discontent were theories of the “multiple sites of citizenship” necessary for the success of the republican project. Drawing on Vaclav Havel’s arguments for a “citizen’s Europe” as opposed to a “businessman’s Europe,” Sandel warned against letting global “economic power…go unchecked by democratically sanctioned political power.” But Friedman’s MOOCiversity subjects civil society to a corporate vision. If one thing’s clear from his op-ed, it’s the primacy of the market: “The world only cares, and will only pay for, what you can do with what you know.”

Friedman’s self-assurance here is jarring, given that an algorithm produces work almost indistinguishable from his usual columns. We can only hope that the Sandel of Justice 2.0 considers the implications of global MOOCiversity for the civic republican vision of Democracy’s Discontent.

Photo Credit: guilia.forsythe.

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