Kleos Aphthiton

From the New Yorker‘s reportage on the MOOCs that people (well, the stockholders of Coursera and the like, anyway) claim will make the brick-and-mortar university obsolete:

“I could easily see a great institution like Harvard having a dynamic archive where, even after I’m gone—not just retired but let’s say really gone, I mean  dead—aspects of the course could interlock with later generations of teachers and researchers,” Nagy told me. “Achilles himself says it in [Iliad,] Rhapsody 9, Line 413: ‘I’m going to die, but this story will be like a beautiful flower that will never wilt.’ ”

The speaker is Gregory Nagy, a scholar I’ve been reading for at least thirty-five years and who’s been personally encouraging to me; and I can’t help feeling there’s something sad about the quotation. Greg Nagy has been covered with every honor the world of American learning can dream up. He was tenured and promoted to full professor at Harvard at a young age, he has been the director of the Center for Hellenic Studies, been lauded, fêted, cited, and nonetheless has time to go out for coffee with random visitors and talk about ideas for books that may never be written. Among his many students are some of the most lively minds in Classics; they have generally done pretty well on the perilous career path of that always menaced field. He doesn’t believe that there is such a thing as a dead language. For what it’s worth, I like him immensely. And yet when he thinks about the shortness of life, about the recompense that Achilles received for his early death in battle– undying fame through Homer’s songs– he envisions his own berth in the Elysian Fields as a set of computer videos, chunked into twelve-minute segments, each followed by a quiz: his MOOC on the Greek hero.

In some ways, this is nothing different from the hope expressed by everybody who has ever put pen to paper, or reed to clay, or fingers to keyboard: non omnis moriar, as Horace put it, “I shall not completely die,” as long as someone is still reading the words I conceived in my mind and set down for the people to come. Greg has been no slouch in that department, publishing astonishing books like The Best of the Achaeans and Pindar’s Homer, just to name my two favorites. For most of us, this would be enough. But for him the idea of participating in this innovation– massively subscribed digital courses that can be played from any computer terminal, for as long as there is RAM and electricity– trumps all of that. He will be standing in front of the blackboard, speaking with characteristic warmth and lucidity, for eternity.

It’s sad, to my mind, because a MOOC has the potential of intervening in the world of scholarship in a way different from a book. Write a book, no matter how brilliant; do it so well that the reviews proclaim it “the definitive work on the subject”; it will still serve mainly to inspire future scholars to disagree with it, to use it as background for their own writing, to seek to put it in a context you couldn’t have anticipated. Books are food for future books. But the way MOOCs are likely to be deployed has a far greater likelihood of snuffing out the future candles of scholarship.

Here’s how it goes. If the backers of Coursera have their way, and the California legislature passes legislation requiring all California public colleges to grant equal credit to online courses as to those taken in their classrooms with their own faculty, the economic incentive to keep departments, faculty, and graduate students alive will be kicked away. Everybody will be able to take a course (or quasi-course) from a recognized authority on a subject, for free or for a fee that will inevitably come in below the current costs of tuition. Boards of regents will see here a resolution of the budget woes affecting under-funded public institutions. Parents and students will be attracted to the low price tag and the flexibility of online universities. A BA at $10,000? No problem. Of course, thousands of teachers will lose their jobs, but that’s what it means to live in interesting times.

It’s an awkward thing to be defending an object that is priced out of many people’s reach (or that involves, for most buyers, going into debt) on the grounds of superior quality. Who needs the superior quality? Well, I think everyone deserves the quality of education that involves human interlocutors and attentive reading of student work, and it wouldn’t be all that expensive to provide it if that were once again the main activity of universities. (The Socratic method is cheap. Socrates himself went around educating Athenians for free. But his teaching evaluations were bad, bad, bad!)

A figure I’ve seen bandied about in these sometimes heated discussions is $26,000: the average debt level of the college graduate today. People ask, why should they take on such levels of debt to obtain a degree that may not help them get a job? To put things into perspective, the average buyer of a new car pays $30,500, much of it in the form of medium-term financing, for an object that starts to lose value the moment it’s driven off the lot and needs periodic repair. But I don’t hear anyone screaming for car dealerships to be replaced with driving RPGs. Clearly the anxiety about the price of education, and the value thereof, is being manipulated by somebody or is just in resonance with the other anxieties of our times.

Let’s look at what will happen when that $10,000, MOOC-driven BA becomes a reality. The licensing of MOOCs and their use as substitutes for human teachers will set in motion a dynamic of price differentiation. Race to the bottom on one side, as the market is vast; flight to quality on the other side, as the knowledgeable consumers shy away from the stuff that just anybody can afford. This is not, to my mind, a healthy divergence. The kind of teaching where a human being with a Ph.D sits at a table with a dozen younger scholars and moves through a text, using analysis, summary and back-and-forth discussion, will become the sort of thing reserved for people who can afford handbuilt roadsters or sailboats. Everyone else will have videos followed by multiple-choice exams, possibly graded by a computer. The effect of the cheap online BA will be to push the price of the old-fashioned kind way up high as it becomes a marker of extra-special class distinction; and I suspect that the nice jobs in the world post-graduation will still be reserved to the people who’ve had personal interaction with accredited faculty members capable of writing them intelligent-sounding letters of recommendation.

And teaching jobs in the academy of the future with its hundred thousand students per course? An expanding industry, right? Forget about it. If you are one of the preternaturally lucky people, you will still vault into a job teaching well-prepared (if privileged) students at one of the ten or twelve surviving institutes of higher education that may be allowed to continue. For the rest, MOOCs have all the biome-destroying capacity of a Walmart (there go the mom-and-pop markets), an Amazon (there go the bookstores, new and used, and the record stores), of kudzu and crabgrass. Why, in the minds of the specialists in efficiency (we do so love efficiency in this country), should there be more than one Edu-Store? Why should there be more than one course on Homer? If it’s different from Professor Nagy’s course, people will reason, it must be either worse, or better. What are the others charging? No one can compete with Nagy on the likely combination of low price and high reputation, and the MOOC companies have enough venture capital to last them the years it will take to eliminate the competition, as Amazon went through years without a profit, all the while steadily grinding down the traditional bookstores with shallower pockets. The idea that it is a good thing for there to be thousands of classrooms in which people approach the texts in their hundreds of thousands of different ways, not passively receiving the prerecorded standard course (no matter how good that is, and I’m willing to believe Greg Nagy’s is as good as they come), seems to have eluded us.

I declare the MOOC a danger to the ecosystem of learning, the research university as it has grown up over the last couple of centuries. In doing some good to some people in the short run, it will do immediate harm to other people and long-range harm to many more people. That is, many people will get a taste of college lectures for free (or nearly so), and some may discover a passion for learning: good. Some people will be thrown out of their careers, because no matter how much ramen you eat, a human being will always be more expensive than a few GBs of server space: bad. Within a generation, with no ongoing investment in research and careers for scholars, academia will have dried up as an ecosystem and nobody will know how to read the books we used to expect third-year undergraduates to master: very bad. By then it will be too late. Imagine trying to restore the manufacturing heartland of this country, thirty years after the jobs have left and the savoir-faire evaporated.

Let’s not forget, in our pursuit of immortal glory, via MOOC, that Achilles deserted his comrades and caused great numbers of them to die on the plains of Troy for no good reason. The sad thing is that although Greg Nagy’s course on Homer may live forever, it will very possibly be the cause of his students, and his students’ students, never having a job like the one he has done so brilliantly in.

5 thoughts on “Kleos Aphthiton

  1. I agree entirely. I’d merely add that the standard of living in the US continues to increase with every passing year. As we get richer, our consumption basket should logically change. In pre-modern agricultural societies, 90% of our income went on food, but since then we have been able to put more of our income into what would have been considered luxuries as we have industrialized. If we were bombed back into the Stone Age tomorrow, I would cry as we spent more of our income on food, but I would understand. Today, as our population ages, we may have to spend more of our income on healthcare (although there is some dispute on this), and again that is reasonable. What bugs me is when we make clearly absurd choices — how many other activities should we consider more valuable than education? If education costs (as Baumol and Bowen argue) inflate faster than other sectors of the economy, so what?

    (One minor criticism of the blog entry: the $26K loan analogy isn’t quite right — when people pay $30K for a car, presumably they put some money down and borrow the rest, and the same is true for education. To compare the loan cost for the degree with the total cost of the car isn’t quite cricket.)

    • According to this website (I admittedly haven’t checked the source), the average amount financed on a car loan is $26,673, so Saussy’s analogy may actually be spot on.

  2. I also see a clear political dimension of MOOCs as an attempt to eradicate the university as a training ground for democracy, which fits the overall attack on democratic rights in the US today. In Europe, the college seminar, as practiced in the US educational system, was a anti-totalitarian, democratic invention of the post-war time. In the nineteenth century, university education in Germany and Russia, for example, was a kind of MOOC without computers: the professor read from his book from the podium, the students took notes. No discussion or questioning of the authority. Geniuses developed their dissenting theories in their solitary study rooms on their own. Discussion-oriented teaching was introduced in the German universities only after the Second World War in the process of democratization of the educational systems. Only 1/3 of college education is about the actual acquisition of knowledge in terms of facts; the rest of it is about learning how to be a part of the intellectual discourse, how to think collectively, how to listen to others, to debate, and even to be responsible– appearing on time in class and submitting work on a due date. This all amounts to training in how to be a citizen of an intellectual community. And this is also the foundation of what we call the democratic political process. This is how the legislative organs, assemblies etc are supposed to work to be functional. The disfunctionality of the American democratic institutions right now, such as the Congress, shows precisely that lack of political good will, responsibility and skills of being with others, which the college education is supposed to provide. The collapse of the university as a public space of intellectual exchange will indeed return this country to the 19th-c. model of education, a necessary corollary of many other steps back in this direction, such as women’s or labor rights.

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