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).

Reflections on the past 2 years of post-academic life

It had been almost two years since I’d re-read my paper, “Whither Moral Education?,” and what struck me only yesterday was the tone. The style of the piece caught my ear like a thief in the night. I could hear, as I hadn’t been able to before, a tinny shrillness, a crankiness, a forlornness.

What explains that shrill and distant tone was my sense of alienation from the modern university from whence I’d come but to which I didn’t belong. The project, as it is laid out in this paper, was to rethink the curricular shape of the humanities yet without addressing the traditions and histories embedded within the university. Implicit in the claim that the humanities must reclaim the good and meaningful as the starting points of full-blooded rational inquiry was the idea that the institution could be left otherwise intact. (My God: In an institution filled with specialists and experts, who was to ask questions of the soul? And how was the grand research apparatus to be put on hold?) As someone who was then committed to educational reform and who then saw himself working on the outskirts of university life, it must have made sense to think solely in terms of reorientation and to bracket the question of institutional development.

I now see that the assumption is flawed and that, in that social setting, the vision is impossible. If humanist inquiry is ever to get under way, if education is to be self-transformational (ascesis, metanoia, etc.) as opposed to “vocational,” “careerist,” “overly scholastic,” or “research-driven,” then it must begin on fresh ground in new soil with good seeds and warm hands.

Nonetheless, the paper, if shrill and cranky, also intimates a beatific vision.  The language, the argument, the ideas are already cutting diagonally–like a cicatrice but also like an adventure–across the stale discourses of the left and the right. I can already hear questions of good authority and good institutions ululate like a child’s running chant.

On Tuesday evening, I had a delightful, rollicking conversation with Pete Sims of Kaos Pilot. Afterward, a short note:

Very nice talking with you last night. And now the cool New York autumn only matched by the cold Dane evening.

Kaos Pilot, an alternative educational project that’s been alive and well for 20 years, seeks–in Pete’s latest formulation–to “increase agency” or to “increase relative agency.” We intend to work together and see whether we put some conceptual handles and hooks into the curriculum.

Two years ago once more. Then Alasdair MacIntyre seems to be throwing in the towel. Once a card-carrying Marxist, he is arguing, around 1980 (!), that the dual rejection of the state and free markets should re-focus our attention on reinvigorating small communities that are rooted in the moral and intellectual virtues and that aim at the common good. A sign of intellectual maturity: Where I am today, I couldn’t agree with him more.

Here’s an excerpt from MacIntyre’s essay, “Politics, Philosophy, and the Common Good,” MacIntyre Reader that speaks to my second thoughts:

When have then identified two sets of characteristics that must be possessed by any society in which there is a possibility of rational political justification, and with it of rational politics: first, it must have a large degree of shared understanding of goods, virutes, and rules, and secondly, it must be a relatively small-scale society whose relationshisps are not deformed by compartmentalization. But there is also a third set of conditions to be satisfied. The deliberative and other social relationships of such a society are systemically violated by some of the most notable effects of large-scale so-called free market economies…. Such economies are misnamed ‘free markets’. They in fact ruthlessly impose market conditions that forcibly deprive many workers of productive work, that condemn parts of the labor force in metropolitan countries and whole seocieties in less developed areas to irremediable economic deprivation, that enlarge inequalities and divisions of wealth and income, so organizing societies into competing and antagonistic interest. And under such conditions inequality of wealth ensures inequality in access to the sources of both economic and political power.

Genuinely free markets are always local and small-scale markets in whose exchanges producers can choose to participate or not. And societies with genuinely free markets will be societies of small producers–the family farm is very much at home in such socieities–in which no one is denied the possibility of the kind of productive work without which they cannot take their place in those relationships through which the common good is realized. (249-50)

New universities for these unsettled times?

Unsettled Times

We are living through unsettled times. Old ideas of education are no longer working; new ideas have yet to take hold. In the interregnum, we must think seriously in hopes of building new institutions aimed at fulfilling our basic needs and our higher ends.

Weekend Events

Later today, I’m heading to The Mycelium School’s “Growing the Web Event.” Meanwhile, my friends in London are taking part in a 3-day conversation about “Universities: Past and Present.”


Matthew Abrams, founder and CEO of The Mycelium School, speaks about social enterprise and good leadership.

Dougald Hine, co-founder of The University Project, writes about his long odyssey (wonderful, tortuous biography) in life and education. He also explores 5 reasons why the university may now be in transition.

Overviews of the Modern University

Robert Anderson, “The ‘Idea of the University’ Today,” History and Policy.

The Philosopher’s Beard, “A Critique of the Modern University – Part 1: Education.”

On the other side of radical education lies wisdom: An exhortation; or, on the question whether really free is really good

As I review the list of alternative higher education schools, I’m struck almost immediately by their shared ethos of anarchism. They begin with a rejection of the status quo and then level their critique at the corporatization of the modern research university. They say that the university is the institution of elitism, the perpetuation of privilege, and they advocate the path of protest in the name of the “really free” as if freedom, individual and collective, economic and political, were the highest good offered by the modern world.

Yet if we were absolutely free to have what we wanted, wouldn’t we still need to learn whether what we wanted was worth wanting? Does access to a university or to whatever entail the possession of a good thing? Or might we be putting the question backwards?

I seem to recall us having been here before, in a time not long before I was born. Before I was born, I asked, “Does the path of anarchic protest do much apart from turn the tools of criticism taught to disaffected university students and newly minted PhD’s against the institutions that fostered these talents? Isn’t there a philosophical naivete exhibited in using the tools of the master against the master?”

“Why criticism,” my preborn self continued. “Why criticism as a way of being in the world? Why criticism? Why now? Why at all?,” it implored.

To review: “free,” “really free,” “really open,” “free school”… The list of freebies could be extended indefinitely.

Does being free entail being good? And with respect to goods, are they ever really free? Or do we fantasize, in our heart of hearts, about having without contributing, about living without working, about taking without receiving, using without providing, possessing without giving?

I don’t want free because I don’t care for free. I want beautiful, true, and good; I want these life-raisers.

And why “radical,” that old, dull, boring 60s discourse of uprooting and deracinating? For how long must we be held in the grips of the discourse of anti-statism and anti-corporatism? Isn’t this discourse–shall I call it “discursive hegemony”–the very product of a university education? Aren’t we tired of the language game of “subversion” and “resistance” and “diversity” and “inclusion” and “power” and “subversion” and “diversity” and “exclusion”?  And aren’t we weary of the long shadow cast by the university over our vocabulary? To be held to the discourse of social injustice for all eternity? Is that to be our fate? Or could we learn to think better, learn to live wiser?

When will we say something in our own words for once? And when will we come to ourselves? When, indeed, will we let go of what ails us and cast our eyes toward what aids us? Can we flourish–and how? Can we redeem ourselves–well, can we try?

Why did we become so infatuated with insurrection? Aren’t you tired of this, my friend? Isn’t this wearying, enervating, inflicting? Doesn’t it end, as do all things repeated, not in chant or farce but in tedium? I’m exhausted by the tedium. I can’t read one more word of Beckett. No, not one.

And when we will start to build institutions based on conceptions of higher goods? When will we start to formulate a curriculum whose aim is not to maximize the field of infinite choice–the marketplace! the marketplace! oh access! supreme access!–but in achieving our ultimate aims? When will education be about guiding, leading forth, bringing out, actualizing the potentialities in the young?

It is not the dissatisfaction of the disaffected that I question; it is neither their displeasure nor their desire. It is the direction in which the radically radically radically free are headed, that directionless direction, that path to fixation. It is the assumption that freedom is the highest good; that learning takes place as a self-guided activity. It is the desire to meet at a coffee shop and not to pay for the lights or the coffee–to love the volunteer workers. It is the loss of true guidance in a world of strangers and madmen. It is the need for tutoring and judgment, for tutoring in judgment. It is the desire to sit with Pindar and to see that human excellence can only be raised up “among men wise and just,” only then raised up “to the liquid sky.”

At dusk, this radicalism may turn out to be bad economics by another name. Yet on the other side of radical education lies wisdom.

And Zarathustra said, “And I myself – do I want therefore to be the accuser of mankind?”


“Oh nausea! Nausea! Nausea!” Zarathustra sighed and shuddered because he remembered his sickness. But his animals did not allow him to continue.

“Speak no more, you convalescent!” – answered his animals. “Rather go outside where the world awaits you like a garden….”

Alasdair MacIntyre on the very idea of the university

Alasdair MacIntyre, “The Very Idea of a University: Aristotle, Newman, and Us,” British Journal of Educational Studies 57.4 (December 2009), 347-362.

The following are notes taken on MacIntyre’s essay. I’ve sought to make my notes intelligible and worth your time. MacIntyre’s essay is worth reading in its own right as it casts an unfavorable light on the modern research university.

Newman’s 3 Thesis (p. 1-7 notes*)

[*notes correspond to .pdf file numbers]

Thesis 1a.) A university ought to be a place where one acquires a ‘unity of understanding.’

Thesis 1b.) It follows that an educated mind is one that grasps the unity of things. The corollary: a deformed mind is that of a specialist.

Thesis 2.) ‘Theology,’ on Newman’s conception, is the name for the ‘unity of understanding.’

Thesis 3.) Justification for university’s existence: Economic growth (modern university’s) vs. internal goods (Newman’s). (‘Internal goods’ are those ends intrinsic to a practice. The internal good of design is making a well-built chair. On the concept of ‘internal goods,’ see his After Virtue.)

So, an educated mind will have facility with ecology, economics, literature, history, and anthropology, and so forth but to be fully educated it must gather all these under a greater whole. But doing that, for Newman, is the work of theology. (Or in Kant: the work of philosophy.)

External Critique of the Modern University (p. 8 note)

My first quibble: MacIntyre is making an external critique of what the contemporary research university cannot do. It cannot produce educated minds in Newman’s sense. But if it cannot do this (and I agree with you, M.), then in what sense does the critique have any impact apart from revealing the wide gap between what is the case and what ought to be the case?

Isn’t the ‘ought’ conclusion instead: We need to build new institutions that are designed with the aim of ‘educating minds’ in the ‘unity of understanding’?

An Educated Mind Pursues Unity of Understanding (p. 10 notes)

My God, isn’t MacIntyre actually a Hegelian? I’ve been thinking this all the while. Hegel: ‘Philosophy is its time raised to Conception.’ I.e., all parts must be brought underneath the Whole. Until this is complete, philosophy continues…

MacIntyre writes,

Moreover, as our enquiries proceed, we move towards unifying our various explanations, both those which lie wholly within one particular discipline and those which have a bearing on explanations in other disciplines. And this enables us to understand increasingly the place of this or that occurrence or state of affairs in the overall order of things. Yet our explanations are always imperfectly unified, just as they always remain in some respects incomplete, and so our enquiries never terminate, are never final. What they presuppose is twofold: first, that we are indeed directed towards a final, if unattainable end, that we do have a conception of what it would be to have achieved a kind of understanding that is perfected and completed –for it is only by contrast with this conception that we characterise our present explanations as partial, imperfect and incomplete – and secondly, and correspondingly, that the order of things, although indefinitely complex, has an intelligible unity that is gradually and increasingly disclosed by our enquiry and that will continue to be disclosed by those enquiries, no matter how far we carry them.

“has an intelligible unity”: Well, this is complicated, M. Kant would say that we ‘postulate’ that it has an intelligible unity. I.e., we must inquire AS IF the world were intelligible. Only on the postulate that the world can be so arranged would it make sense to get our inquiry under way.

Theology would make an ontological claim: there IS intelligible unity period. For my purposes, I’m not sure that it matters. At least I remain agnostic on whether intelligible unity is an epistemic or an ontological necessity.

Building a New University? Off to One Side! (p. 14 note)

MacIntyre writes,

If we are to take this line of argument further, we must do so in two directions, one of which involves us in rejecting an assumption of Newman’s, an assumption shared with most, if not quite all of his educated contemporaries. It is that the type of university education that he commends is suitable only for a small and privileged minority. Yet, if in fact in the contemporary world this kind of education is needed in order to know what one is doing, then everyone needs it and not only the makers of large-scale social and economic decisions. Indeed it is crucial for plain persons that they should have this type of education, so that they can begin to recognise when those who exercise power over their lives no longer know what they are doing. But the question of how such an education might be made widely available is yet another that I put on one side.

“Put to one side”: Are you kidding, M.? Put to one side? But this is THE question. Until now, you’ve only shown us i) what the modern university fails to do and ii) what a good university ought to be.

iii) How to make this education widely available sounds, you know, kinda relevant, don’t you think?

Final Thoughts (note appended to last page)

A delicate final point if I may, M. It’s one thing to salvage Newman from the wreckage and to say that he has a lot to teach us about what we’re doing poorly. It’s not a bad aim, I don’t think. It’s quite another, though, to illumine how Newman’s conception of a university could be realized. But that, I suppose, would require a ‘very different’ St. Benedict for our time…

Addendum on Building New Institutions

Consider strolling about at The Mycelium School and The University Project.