Centralization and the ‘Democratization’ of Higher Education

In my previous post, “Computerization, Centralization, and Concentration,” I discussed how the fact that decentralization and distribution are genuine hallmarks of the networked computerization revolution can easily blind us to the fact that centralization and concentration, especially of economic power, are also its hallmarks, in many cases even more strongly than are the former.

One reason for looking at this question again is the current and to me very frightening push toward online education and in particular MOOCs, and specifically the amazing rhetoric uttered by its full-throated promoters like Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun, who tell us with not just straight but very determined and self-assured faces that their goal is the “democratization” of higher education. What Thrun means, and what so many take him to mean, is that more students may get access to a resource that is currently not easy to obtain for everyone: I consider this a real and serious problem and a laudable goal that those of us entrusted with the mission of higher education should be taking very seriously—probably more seriously than we do.

But (1) I don’t think the word “democratization” as Thrun uses it actually is his primary goal (rather, that goal is revenue, and possibly profit); and (2) the laudable goal of educating everyone looks at only one side of a complex social situation. MOOCs come not just with a diagnosis of that problem but also a solution to it, and the solution is disturbing on many levels. In a later post I’ll discuss some of their wider problems; here, I want to focus only on the several critical ways in which MOOCs and more importantly the business model they instance (and those who are insisting upon them) constitute a characteristic centralization and concentration of power-via-computerization story, while being sold as quite the opposite—and worse, that they constitute a force contrary to democracy while telling us they are acting in its name.

From several very important perspectives, the vision of online education Thrun offers makes a cruel joke of “democracy.” First, because it does not make available but in fact actively deprives students of the embodied contact with teachers and with each other that, as an educator, I believe democracy requires; second, because it is being offered as part of a large-scale commercial effort whose main goal is not the provision of education but the creation of consolidated profit-centers. The dotted line between Udacity and the consolidation of most world colleges and universities into a few privileged brands is easy to see (and explicit in the position statements of online education providers and their advocates like Clayton Christensen). The question of the need for faculty at all, other than a few high-tech subjects, 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,” let alone a few providers with much more direct financial interests in promoting their services than colleges and universities currently have, constrained by physical capacity to the number of students they can serve (that is, for most higher education entities there is no particular “profit” to be made by increasing  the number of students served).

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 should not be understood as bounded by traditional political science and philosophy, though there is no doubt at all that Locke, Hobbes, Plato, Aristotle, Schmitt, Jefferson, Madison, and many others must be part of the curriculum we offer. Instead, we must understand that “thought” to mean everything encompassed by “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.

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The system of higher education as it exists today is profoundly democratic, because it does not impose too many general methods, forms, or curricula across the myriad colleges and universities in the US (and across the world). Each student and each teacher approaches the material differently. This diversity of approaches, texts, subjects, and encounters guarantees a diversity of viewpoints in the populace at large. It is essential to its proper functioning, and therefore to the proper functioning of the State itself, that few top-down controls are imposed upon it, and that it not be centralized.

Online education, especially as it’s realized in MOOCs, focuses in particular on what are blithely called “lecture courses,” on subjects in which the conveyance of relatively objective information is paramount. On the surface it is hard to object to such structures, because the kind of study I have mentioned so far typically do not occur in large lecture halls. The problems with this is that MOOCs are being deployed specifically as part of an economic argument whose consequences for liberal arts education are designed to be explosive: they are designed to make liberal arts education emerge as too expensive for us to afford. That’s true regardless of whether MOOCs are “open” or not. “Open” technology does nothing to prevent either centralization or concentration for revenue and profit (to see why, look at what IBM has done with Linux).

This is why I cannot understand the response of any academics, especially those committed to the arts and sciences, to the advent of online education as anything but a wake-up call to the most profound threat to higher education and therefore to the existence of a democratic society that our country has ever faced. Rather than accepting the analysis of Thrun and others, we should be insisting on a very simple hard line: higher education is a public good. It exists to ensure exactly that our democracy continues to function at all. Its elimination on economic grounds would make the founders of our country cringe (or worse). Whether or not we support the provision of education to those beyond the walls of existing colleges and universities, any effort to reduce the number of such institutions, the number of faculty, and the number of students who are able to study the core topics of democratic politics must be rejected absolutely.

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