The end of the university: Udacity’s mounting case

We’ve been considering the case of Udacity, the larger case that it is mounting. In my mind’s eye, I’ve been imagining a bee hive cracked into, with bees and flowers and unimaginable things fluttering out.

Now, any serious threat to the status quo may do more than show that it presents a novel solution. More importantly, it reveals that the system in place–thought to be given, assumed to be strong, seemingly here forever–is weak, has exploitable weaknesses, and that other solutions may be more workable. In this sense, the challenge is an invitation for others to do their own thing and try things out, a cracking open of unforeseen but now explorable possibilities. If, for instance, the way that we conceive of education is now being brought into question (a claim made a while ago by Ivan Illich but not taken all that seriously–did we then have ears to hear?), then the possibilities for how education might look can be explored with a sense of serious playfulness.

Let’s do some imaginative forecasting. In one possible future, education could be

  • more scalable and global, in the cases where one can reproduce the educational formats we have inherited (the lecture, the test, the problem set, etc.) without a loss of content or quality;
  • more portable, in the cases where skills and competencies can be acquired, adapted, and redeployed;
  • more local and tactile, in the cases where character development and moral education are at issue.

The first two points could lead to the de-legitimization of the vocational aims of the university. (As I said yesterday, the Ivies are selling Prestige, so they should be all right during this period of great transition.) Provided the credentialization process can be worked out, does one need to go to a brick and mortar site and spent $80,000 or more in order to become an accountant or a programmer? A software developer? A statistician? Would it not be strange for an entrepreneur to go to a traditional site of higher learning?

For readers who have followed this blog for a while, it will be immediately clear that my interest lies with the last point. My friend Dougald Hine and I both believe that there is no ‘out- innovating’ or ‘outsourcing’ what I have elsewhere termed the ‘lay monastic’ model of self-examination. The university has made the unsubstantiated claim that it is here to foster character development and to create model citizens but, beholden to the Theoretical Vision in which the pupil learns abstract knowledge about certain certain fields (a set of facts, words about words, theories, principles, etc.), it seems impossible, at a structural level, for the university to make good on this promise. (Certain more monastic, small scale cultures such as St. John’s College in Maryland may prove an exception.) If character formation is about the cultivation of the right habits, of doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason, then there is no way of replicating this phronesis and kairos in a classroom.

I have a niece who is a junior in high school and who is getting ready to take the SAT. My hope is that she will be my last relative for whom going to the university is an “obviousness of everyday practice” (Louis Althusser).

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