Edu-pay-tion (hah)

Ken Auletta’s recent article on Stanford University should get some kind of Knight Rider Award for fitting as many hot buttons as possible into an indestructible, tech-heavy profile of an indestructible, tech-heavy institution.

Stanford: the David Hasselhoff of universities.

But seriously, check out this list of hot buttons:

  • Humanities versus STEM fields (that’s science/technology/engineering/math for those of you not in the know)
  • Online Education is the Future!!!!!!!!
  • Soaring college costs and their role in increasing income inequality (by way of describing Stanford’s generous financial aid program, and also Online Education is the Future!!!!)
  • The Business-University Alliance of Evil
  • Elite versus democratic models of education (the dual and competing role of the universities as a space for both both career training and personal-growth, and also Online Education is the Future!!!!)
  • Silicon Valley success, and whether or not it makes us hollow
  • (Academic in-joke alert) Interdisciplinarity

That’s a lot of cultural anxiety for one fairly simple, easy-reading article. Fortunately, I’m used to a lot of anxiety.

The thrust of the article is that Stanford’s history of close partnerships with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and general curricular focus on problem-solving, even when it’s not for profit, may be corrupting its mission to inculcate thoughtful, broadly educated philosopher-kings.

And despite Business Week’s take on the article (summary: be more like Stanford! For America!), I pretty much agree with the critics cited in the article. As historian David Kennedy is quoted,

The entire Bay Area is enamored with these notions of innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship, mega-success.  It’s in the air we breathe out here. It’s an atmosphere that can be toxic to the mission of the university as a place of refuge, contemplation, and investigation for its own sake.

Old school, sure, but true.

But it’s not just because of the way technology entrepreneurship was build into Stanford’s DNA, as the article explains so well. Public discourse about higher education has been techno-philic for a long time. The expansion of public education during the postwar boom (that fueled the postwar boom, in fact) was part of the Cold War agenda to train the STEMmers that would help us ensure global dominance over the USSRskis.

Then there was the war on higher ed itself–the “culture wars” of the 90s, giving many people the belief that professors are relentless liberal indoctrinators. A belief that persists and that is a big reason for the continued, long-term erosion of public funding of higher education.

So that we get to incidents like this, where “both” kinds of congresspeople can score points by insisting that they don’t want student loan rates to double in July.

Thanks, Boehner, but it wouldn’t be an issue if decades of defunding had not left more and more of the cost of college up to the students. The debate about student loan rates is like putting a band-aid on a shattered vertebra.

And another thing! (My rant engine is REVVING.)

Online education is a symptom of this funding problem, not its solution.

Stanford faculty are quoted in the article as trying to plan for the coming “tsunami” of digital change that will flood higher education. But online education is a terrible solution to the large-scale funding problem higher ed faces. No one learns anything as well online. The research is pretty grim. It doesn’t matter, either, if it’s a STEM or a humanities course. Learning outcomes are BAD online. It is no solution, even if Stanford does it. Even if Apple does it.

Online education seems like the way to save the two sinking ships of higher ed and the middle class. It seems like the only way to make higher education accessible to anyone, cheaply and efficiently.

The article closes with the president of Stanford planning a good, long think about the way Stanford can grow by investment in distance learning.

But distance learning only reinforces the income gap. It only increases the distance between elite colleges and “access” colleges. It only sends us backward, to the pre-war times when only a fortunate son could be a Bachelor of Arts.

Because distance learning is the only way that lots and lots of people can get any college at all. So the people that can afford tuition (or win an amazing scholarship) can attend Stanford or Yale and get a liberal arts education that works: they’ll get face time with professors, heavy interactions with peers immersed in the same ideas and provocations, and meaningful, broad-based assessments of their learning. Online learners can’t get any of that from a chat room and a web-administered final.

Distance learning is the only solution that seems possible to keep college courses accessible to as many people as possible. And when people like Stanford President John L. Hennessy say that distance learning is the future, he says that because we have lost our faith in our ability to make face to face learning accessible to all.

Finally, what’s more costly: humanities or STEM courses? And how is this question important to the future of higher education?

Stanford is exceptional in that its technology investments have funded the campus. In most other universities, popular (and cheap to produce) humanities GE courses fund the more expensive, exclusionary STEM courses.

From the above link, an essay by a UCLA English professor:

But, according to spreadsheet calculations done at my request by Reem Hanna-Harwell, assistant dean of the humanities at the University of California at Los Angeles, based on the latest annual student-credit hours, fee levels, and total general-fund expenditures, the humanities there generate over $59 million in student fees, while spending only $53.5 million (unlike the physical sciences, which came up several million dollars short in that category). The entire teaching staff of Writing Programs, which is absolutely essential to UCLA’s educational mission, has been sent firing notices, even though the spreadsheet shows that program generating $4.3 million dollars in fee revenue, at a cost of only $2.4 million.

By pure number crunching, which is by no means the way to make decisions about higher education, we cannot afford to cut funding to humanities courses. But that’s where universities cut first. Probably because of the widescale cultural devaluing of the humanities. Auletta’s article takes as true the cliché, articulated as such by former Stanford President Gerhard Casper, that the humanities are “stepchildren” on campus.

But if we all knew more about the value of the humanities–in pure economic terms and broader, frankly, human terms–we can change the conversation about how to keep the best aspects of university education accessible.

In summary: Stanford is not the future. STEM is not the future. Online distance education is not the future.

The future comes from more honest conversation about the value of higher education–all of it, from Ancient Greek language and literature to microbiology. The future comes from more knowledge of the history of higher education and clearer understanding of how we got to this crisis point.

The future comes from reviving public support for and willingness to fund higher education.

Unfortunately, this future sounds like science fiction to me. It sounds like David Hasselhoff fighting crime in a robot car.

And there’s only so much David Hasslehoff can do for us.

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