This Bill Keller piece at the Times discusses Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun’s plan to eliminate the traditional university through technology, offering a future of higher education for at all at (theoretically) low prices, delivered by a very few highly paid professors with huge cadres of graduate students to grade the thousands of exams.
It seems that technology is the one part of our lives in which we are seen to have no control. Marxists used to talk about Man in History (with a capital H), of people caught up in forces bigger than they were leading humanity to an inevitable, predestined future. Of course, no one thinks that anymore about politics or history or economics, but they sure think very similarly when it comes to technology. The reaction to the discussion on self-checkout machines at grocery stores that I and djw started reeks of this, to some extent in comments, but more specifically in the longer posts people wrote on their own sites. Yglesias weighed in, inspiring Peter Frase’s piece of technological utopianism that djw responded to in length the other day. Frase, and I think to a lesser extent Yglesias, envisions an ideal world where technology frees us from drudgery work like checking out groceries, hoping that a social safety net will protect those that can’t adjust.
Of course, that safety net is going away rapidly. But hey, we can’t resist this technology. After all, technological innovation only helps the working person, right? As djw excoriates Frase for saying, “The decoupling of rising productivity from rising fortunes for workers is, after all, only a phenomenon of the past 30 years.” Oh, is that all? Only the majority of the working career of an adult who came of age in 1980? And it’s not like there’s any sign that this isn’t going to become 50 or 60 years, at the very least.
But then, it’s not like Frase is the only technological utopian out there. My students buy this whole hog. They think they are riding the wave of a paradise of new technological achievements that will make our lives easier and better. They have a very hard time figuring out that technology can sometimes have unexpected bad consequences, not to mention fully intended bad consequences like putting people out of work. I can’t really speak for other countries, though clearly societies like Japan and South Korea share similar love of technological innovation, but this blind faith in technology is deeply embedded in what it means to be an American, going back to the early 19th century and the rise of canals and railroads at the very least.
So evidently, humans have no agency to accept or reject technology. We can either embrace it wholeheartedly and ideologically or we can be called “Luddites,” which several people rightfully pointed out is a term completely disconnected from what actual Luddites stood for, pointlessly resisting an overwhelming force that will grind us under its unstoppable wheels.
While people like Sebastian Thrun are trying to apply this technological futurism to our entire lives, its more of a dream than reality at this point for higher education. Over a decade into its existence and supposed take-over of higher education, the impact of online courses have remained relatively limited. Lower-end schools rely on them as do schools developing courses for non-traditional students. But the big for-profit educational institutions have been a disaster, with students poorly served by them and their educational models. There’s not much evidence that the traditional 18-22 year old college student want this alternative to the traditional college experience, because college is so much more than just taking classes.
Of course, with the rapidly rising price of higher education, one wonders whether people might be forced into online courses, but that doesn’t make it a good thing. The evidence does not suggest that students learn better this way. On top of that, one wonders both why Thrun would want to outsource his own job (though no doubt he sees himself as one of the charismatic professors who would survive) and who these graduate students are who are going to manage courses with thousands of students. In a future of higher education with almost no chance of academic employment, why would people become graduate students? This is obviously an issue today as well, but the employment prospects would fall from slim but real enough that you can delude yourself to literally zero.
Thrun’s model also seems to neglect the skill-building exercises of the college classroom–how to write, how to comport oneself professionally, how to think critically, how to engage in a group discussion. This is not just socialization but skills people need to compete professionally.
But then Thrun’s model isn’t practical at all. It’s the model of a dreamer, someone who hopes that one day, we can offer higher education to all for very cheap in a world where robots will do everything and we will have zero employment. This is the technological future that we are all supposed to embrace or to sacrifice the future of human growth while we spend our days toiling away checking out people’s groceries. Evidently, we have no ability to resist this unstoppable technological force. We might as well start constructing our altars to the robot gods now. At least until we can create robots to do it for us for a fraction of the cost.
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