Postcards of an Education

Postcards of an Education

            Jean-Luc Goddard’s 1963 agitprop film, Les Carabiniers, was a New Wave shaggy dog story. For most of the somewhat tedious film the two loutish protagonist commit a series of despicable acts in the expectation of receiving marvelous rewards from the ruler of their mythical land. When we at last see them reveling in the prizes they received for their ill deeds, we recognize – as the characters do not — that they have only been given post cards of tourist locations, department stores, animals, factories, and erotic images of women.

            I have often been reminded of this scene, as I read the responses of university administrators to the COVID-19 crisis. They talk about enrollments and class hours and moving students forward towards graduations, as if an education is nothing more than checking items off a list. Such practical focus is understandable in a temporary crisis, but there are those who wish to continue these “wartime” perspectives into the future. In the New York Times, for example Hans Taparia imagines “The Future of College Is Online, and It’s Cheaper.” (May 25, 2020) He points out, quite appropriately, that the cost of a college education in the United States is now so great that it is no longer a means of social mobility. The solution, he argues, is to make the shift to on-line learning, which has occurred during the crisis, the new norm. This strategy can, Taparia insists, help universities “expand their reach by thousands, creating the economies of scale to drop their costs by tens of thousands.”

            The problem with the arguments like those of Taparia is not that on-line learning lacks promise. He is correct that universities are extraordinarily conservative institutions that naturally prefer to continue traditional ways of learning. There are undoubtedly many ways in which moving elements on instruction on-line can be very beneficial, and the experience of the pandemic may lead to important advances.

            Moreover, Taparias’s focus on the cost of higher education, at least in the United State and, increasingly, in the UK, is quite appropriate. But despite his claims that “almost all theory-based content, whether in chemistry, computer science or finance, can be produced in advance and effectively delivered asynchronously,” his article is about business plans, not education. The title of his article does not advocate on-line learning because it is better, but rather because it allows universities to shuffle large numbers of students towards a degree more economically.

            The problem here is that ultimately it is not college degrees that matter, but college educations.  We could cut the cost of a college degree in a moment, by reducing the number of credit hours required for graduation. But within a few years employers would see through the scam and begin demanding post-graduate degrees for entry level positions or turn to educational systems outside academia. Like ancient rulers, who sought to cover their costs by reducing the gold or silver in their currency, college administrators, who sacrifice learning for the bottom line, may find that their efforts have only generated a wave of educational inflation.

            Taparia casts this argument in the language of social justice, and he suggests that institutions like Harvard, Stanford, M.I.T., or Brown might turn to mass lectures on-line by their most effective teachers. But, in all likelihood, when the crisis has passed, those elite institutions will return to traditional means of instruction because they have the means to do so. It is the rest of academia that would be following Taparia’s lead into mass models of teaching that the bursting of the MOOC bubble a few years ago should have discredited, and this can only increase the chasm between elite and non-elite education. Maybe he should have not rushed so quickly past noting that a recent survey indicated that more than 75% of students believed that they did not receive a quality learning experience after their institutions turned to distance education.

            The problem, again, is not on-line learning. It is the assumption that watering down learning can help lower income students succeed better in life. When I talk to students entering my university, I often point out that no one will ever again care what kind of grade point average they had in high school. The only thing about their previous education that will matter is whether they have learned something. Similarly, the value of their college education will depend ultimately upon the extent to which the experience has expanded their understanding of the world and how to function within it. A debased degree may help someone enter the job force – at least until its real value is recognized – but it will not help the graduate to function effectively as a worker, as a citizen, or as a human being.

            We must deal with the economic barriers to higher education. In part, this requires increasing society’s commitment to its own future – a factor that critics like Taparia conveniently ignore. He is correct that we must respond to the problems facing low-income students, but we must focus on changes in how we do education, not how in how we do business. If these changes ignore the necessity of creating true learning environments, most students will only receive postcards of an education, while their elite contemporaries get the real thing.

David Pace, July 2020

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. David Ingledew


    Hope you are well
    An insightful and pertinent post which has many resonances here in the UK. Recently the Government and Secretary of State for Education have made a number of stinging attacks on universities and ‘useless’ degrees, with an emphasis on fewer young people going to university, more focus on worthwhile subjects i.e. STEM, nursing and teaching[!] and a shift towards vocational post-16 education [a chronically underfunded sector in the past 10 years by the very same government]. It seems that the neo-liberal assault on education continues on both sides of the Atlantic even though if purpose becomes increasingly hollow and meaningless.
    Best wishes

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