“If I gave you $100,000 and four years to turn an 18-year-old into a better 22-year-old citizen, scholar, person, and worker, would our current college system be what you’d do with the time and money?”
The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal questions whether digital disruption will devalue conventional college degrees in favor of super-cheap, mass distributed online courses.
Hennessy Youngman, the online persona of artist Jayson Musson, makes a similar point: the claim that university education offers access to “special” or “privileged” information isn’t true in America. Esoteric philosophy and technical information are available in, you guessed it, books. In effect, the esoteric has become exoteric, the property of public consciousness.
The real issue at stake is, of course, whether classroom instruction delivers added value. That is, can you learn exactly the same material from a book as from a tutorial, seminar, or lecture in which that book is read, too? David Karpf refers to this problem as a Good Will Hunting scenario, implying that only a genius can extract the informational equivalent from a book—can enjoy the same benefits from isolated study—as an ordinary student receives from the college learning environment.
“You dropped 150 grand on an education you could have gotten for $1.50 in late charges at the public library.”
“Yeah, but I will have a degree.”
Lest we forget, we have a grad student, pony-tailed to signal his affected intellectualism and liberal sentiments, to remind us of a diploma’s conservative value. A college degree is a passkey through not-so-hidden gates: to social status, to jobs, to intellectual credibility. Thus, the comparative value of a college education might best be described as illusory or entirely externalized. Insofar as a college education is a prerequisite to certain kinds of social, economic, and cultural activity, the disruptive potential of digital technology is irrelevant. As Madrigal notes, until revolutionary social changes neutralize the status associated with a college education, the relative strength of digital learning platforms—democratized education—is severely limited. Only the Will Huntings of the world need not bother. And, in fact, the movie seems intensely concerned with the insufficiency of Will’s education; his lack of formal education is implicated in his inability to engage in supposedly normal social and professional behavior. College is a space of social learning as well as academic, the story goes.
Beyond the mere credential of a college degree, there is a kind of gentrification that occurs within the university, an acclimation to a set of esoteric rules and scripts. That information—the special know-how of a college social network—remains unavailable on the e-book or open source market. Despite dozens of attempts every year to distill that know-how into consumable, mass marketable forms, the extreme complexity and nuance of a social education is almost impossible to translate into an easy beach or boardroom read. The popularity of “social education” self-help books proves, however, that not everyone learns the right social stuff in college—including entrepreneurs and successful businesspeople. The relative dissatisfaction of successful people with their own social faculties demonstrates that there is no bulleted memo for professional fluency handed around at new student orientations. There is no lecture class called “ninja secrets to social media marketing and guru-ism.” Even when one has become a ninja, one does not know it. The sensation of inadequacy, the longing for “improvement,” generates a narrative of meaning: a quest for perfection. One’s current degree of ninja-ness is never enough. I am unconvinced that the “social education” of college is anything other than a priming for future feelings of failure—feelings that are both a consequence and the auto-stimulus of commodity fetish and capitalized desire.
My main issue with this whole “digital disruption of education” argument, though, is that the system disrupted was, for the most part, already exoteric. Library books, etc. gave everyone access to esoteric information, however unexplained. And the lectures themselves, or the “explanations” of the material, aren’t the intrinsically valuable, esoteric kernel of the college education system. Admittedly, making lectures available online is an important step towards democratized knowledge. At least then, underserviced students enter into previously cloistered spaces where university employees proffer explanation and some original thoughts. Yet, the interactivity of the classroom space—which is one rare and valuable asset of premium college environments—is undistributed in video format. When companies do integrate interactivity into the digital learning platform, the university employee, read: professor, will be required to expend time, effort, labor, etc. with a network of offsite students. In short, it will be necessary to charge pseudo-tuition for the interactive functionality of digital lessons. Moreover, innovative reconstructions of peer-to-peer social dynamics will be at best simulations and at worst vague shadows of real, person-to-person contact. Information networks that extend transversally between students and professors are exceptionally difficult to transplant into a digital terroir. In an ideal college setting, ideas and knowledge are transferred spontaneously, orally, and are accompanied by real-time and physical social interaction. The only actual democratized information distributed through digital channels will be the same, already democratized information available in libraries across the country—plus the added value of recorded lectures. Barring rapid advancements in video conferencing technology, the classroom cannot be simply transposed into cyberspace.
If I was given $100,000 and four years to turn an 18-year-old into a better 22-year-old citizen, well, I wouldn’t know what to do, because I’m 21-years-old. My period of personal betterment has yet to expire. Maybe find a guru, or a ninja, and give him or her $99,998.50, live with him for a while, learn meditation or tantric something or assassination skills or whatever ninjas do, play around on Twitter, and go to the library. Yeah, that’s probably what I’d do.
Or go work at Parse.ly, where I’m learning a ton. Especially about Twitter. And how most publishers, including myself, don’t know how to use it at maximum efficiency. Check out our homepage.