The War on the Humanities has Three Fronts (Part 1: The Right Wing)

OK, maybe more than three. Maybe a lot more.  But these three sola are doing a fantastic job without any help:

  1. The right wing generally (see, for example, its latest obsession with MOOCs)
  2. Higher education (which is basically a quisling for Corporate America)
  3. Artists themselves (this one merits its own blog, let alone a blog post)

So what are MOOCs and why are right wing governors obsessed with them?

MOOC stands for Massive Open On-line Course.  A MOOC is an on-line course that offers no college credit and no individual interaction with the instructor.  Many MOOCs are free.  If you have a burning desire to learn about life sciences, you can go to edX and, in seconds, sign up for “Introduction to Biology” from MIT.  Interested in ways of thinking about the last century?  Check out “Ideas of the 20th Century” from UTAustin and learn how “philosophy, art, literature and history shaped the last century and the world today.” 

MOOCs aren’t going away.  According to a New York Times piece by Laura Pappano that appeared on November 2, 2012, “edX, the nonprofit start-up from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has 370,000 students this fall in its first official courses. That’s nothing. Coursera, founded just last January, has reached more than 1.7 million . . . .” Udacity, another MOOC provider, attracted 150,000 students for a single course, “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence.”

MOOCs are “massive” because each course is designed to reach a massive number of students.  Like mass-produced entertainment or fast food.  If you want to get exposure to a topic but don’t want or need the credential of a university degree, MOOCs provide an affordable, convenient way to do just that.  Some of them are terrific for just that.

So what’s not to like?

Notice I said “exposure to” not “education in.”  MOOCs do not provide the one to one Socratic interaction between student and professor that is so essential to developing the critical mindset necessary for serious humanities study, or the hands-on laboratory experience that is essential for students pursuing serious scientific study.  You can hear all about ideas but you can’t engage in live one on one debate and discussion of those ideas with the scholar teaching the course.  If it is a scholar teaching the course.  Udacity does not choose its instructors based on their academic research.  Oh, and most MOOCs are peer-graded, which has obvious problems.  Cheating is pandemic.

MOOCs have their uses, but like anything else, they have their limits.

In his recent Salon pieces, “The Internet Will Not Ruin College” and “Conservatives Declare War on College,” Andrew Leonard both embraces and warns about MOOCs.  Leonard is excited at the idea of having access to low or no cost education with a mouse click.  He also tips his hat to the backlash: what happens to the demand for university courses when millions of people can access the same course on-line for free?  What quality assurance is there from the venture capitalists who see this as a purely for profit venture?

I would add, what happens to diversity of thought and the marketplace of ideas when millions of people start learning about the Enlightenment and the French Revolution from the same single MOOC instructor, who is hired to generate profit?  That’s not an idle question. Udacity’s founder, Sebastian Thrun, recently told The Economist that “in 50 years there will be only ten universities left in the world.”  Is this a good thing?  What happens to the humanities when students might hear about a topic but no longer participate in critical analysis of that topic with an experienced scholar?  What happens then to the idea of having an educated citizenry? (Quaint, I know.)

Leonard doesn’t seem completely convinced of the doom scenarios, but he takes them seriously enough to say that MOOCs bear watching.  Higher Education is now being disrupted, like music and book publishing, and who knows how things will settle?

The one thing Leonard is wary of, though, is that unlike music and book publishing, this particular technological disruption is occurring in an entirely political context.  A right wing one.

That ought to bother anyone who values humanities studies.  You see, there’s a reason Texas governor Rick Perry, Florida governor Rick Scott, and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker are MOOC boosters.  They really really want public universities to offer MOOCs for credit.  Scott would like on-line degree-granting MOOC-centered universities.  One concern is, as Leonard notes, that MOOCs may be good at teaching basic algebra, but they do not teach critical thinking very well.  MOOCs inform much better than they educate.

Substituting MOOCs for public university courses would help make critical thought more inaccessible to more people, particularly people of modest means.  A cynic might suggest that would help more Republicans get elected.  And that’s why, although I’m intrigued by MOOCs qua MOOCs, and see value in them in some circumstances, I’m highly suspicious of the right’s sudden obsession with them.  When the right wing starts pushing MOOCs as an equivalent for higher education instead of as a sometimes useful adjunct to higher education, we need to pay attention, because the right has always been anti-education.  We humanities types understand that context matters.

I don’t know if right wing leaders like Rick Perry are stupid.  Perhaps they are.  Or perhaps, one should just diplomatically say that, like epic heroes, they embody their supporters’ most cherished values.  On the other hand, maybe they’re just weirdly gifted with the sort of sociopathic cleverness that allows them to collar the stupid vote.  Perry supposedly topped out with an unimpressive 2.5 GPA at college, leaving some to speculate that is the real reason he hates universities.  I’d be horrified if that were true, because that means, at some level, Perry actually does understand what a liberal arts education is, and values what he’s incapable of achieving so much that he wants to destroy it.  Didn’t Shakespeare write a play about that?

You see, Perry doesn’t just support MOOCs for college credit.  He governs the state whose Republican Party Platform seeks to eliminate critical thinking in the public schools:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

Outcome-Based Education (OBE) privileges learning to analyze over learning to memorize.  There’s a handy description here which quotes OBE founder William Spady explaining whether an acceptable OBE outcome would be the ability to list “the five causes of the Civil War.”  Spady responded, “No, sorry; that is not an exit outcome. But, ‘Identify and explain the fundamental causes and consequences of the Civil War’ would be an enabling outcome worth pursuing en route to some larger exit outcome.”

Apparently, learning to analyze fundamental causes and consequences of major American historical events is anathema to the Texas Republican Party, which helps explain why Perry just loves him some MOOCs.  A MOOC may provide a handy lecture on “the five causes of the Civil War,” which can be a starting point for discussion in a live classroom, but it doesn’t provide a way for its thousands of students to have that discussion with the instructor or to make their own attempts at analysis.  Watching somebody else’s presentation of facts or critical thinking is not the same as doing your own analysis and receiving responses in real time.  Watching lectures on the scientific method is not the same as going to a lab and actually doing science.

Some MOOCs provide a social media type platform that encourages users to communicate with each other, but it isn’t clear how much that approximates classroom give and take, and the instructor can’t be available individually to hundreds of thousands of students.  Is peer-to-peer on-line discussion likely to raise anybody’s understanding of a subject more effectively than teacher-student discussion?  At those numbers and at that level of instructor (non)interaction, wouldn’t it be just as effective and far more efficient to skip the MOOC and read a good textbook?  Students have been complaining for years about classes in which they might as well “just read the book” because the professor is inept.  If the value of the classroom is in the quality of interaction between teacher and student, and MOOCs don’t provide this, then what do MOOCs offer that books don’t?

Perry, however, may occupy exactly the sort of market niche that would benefit from a MOOC-saturated “education.”  After all, Perry believes that the American Revolution happened in the 16th century, that the voting age is 21, that creationism is science, and that Juarez is an American city.  There’s probably a MOOC for that.

But Perry isn’t alone in his MOOCs-for-credit obsession.  Florida governor Rick Scott and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker are also MOOC boosters.  Rick Scott, who pretty much hates the humanities, and has gone on record saying that the state of Florida doesn’t need anthropologists, received a proposal last November from a gubernatorial task force that included charging humanities majors higher tuition than STEM majors. (See section 22).

Florida faculty organized a petition against this proposal, which in part reads:

The central idea du jour emerging from the task force is a “differentiated tuition structure to support degree programs in strategic areas of emphasis.” The state, the task force argues, “should move away from uniform tuition rates … among all degree programs within a university.” Programs with no tuition increase would be those deemed “high skill, high demand, and high wage.” Liberal arts and social science topics (English, History, Political Science, Psychology, etc.) would cost students more, on the assumption that no one with such a degree has high skills, would ever be in high demand, and would ever earn a high wage, however “high” is defined. As Proctor [Representative William Proctor (R-St. Augustine), a task force member who also chairs the State Universities Appropriations Committee in Tallahassee] himself put it on October 29, “English is not a strategic discipline.” As tuition for such non-strategic disciplines increases, these programs would be slowly phased out, or at least severely diminished, as more students seek “strategic degrees.” This new thinking will supposedly solve the financial problems of Florida’s universities while somehow improving the economy of the state.

You can read more here.  And here.  

Awesome!  If your major has been vilified as leading to a hopeless life of poverty and emotional wreckage – I mean as “non-strategic” – you should absolutely be penalized by being forced to subsidize those students in majors perceived to lead to high paying jobs and satisfaction.  Particularly those engineering majors about to join firms facing layoffs, and those nursing majors who can’t find jobs.  Makes perfect sense!  That will teach those art history majors for not getting STEM degrees. 

To sweeten the deal, Scott decimated public higher education funding for five years straight, because, presumably as a matter of faith, he “doesn’t believe in tuition increases.” What he does apparently believe in is a society in which the ability to analyze skew ball policy for what it is and call out politicians like him on the profound social and cultural disconnects pervading American life as a result of such policies has been – if not eliminated – at least made more inaccessible to those of modest economic means.  By adding the burden of being economically penalized and psychologically shamed by being encouraged to see yourself as a drain on society for studying Chaucer, he’s fashioned a powerful one-two punch against humanities studies in Florida, the fourth most populous state in the USA. 

Because everyone knows we totally need lots of engineers and medical specialists who have absolutely no aptitude or interest in STEM fields, but got butt-kicked into that path by hysterical right wing demagogues, clueless parents manipulated by hysterical right wing demagogues, and smug Corporate America cretins who insist that everything in human experience can and must be distorted, “disrupted” and if necessary, destroyed, to fit the business model of the week.   That is absolutely who I want to design the bridges I drive on, the planes I fly on, and the medical technology used to save the lives of people I care about.   Somebody bullied and shamed into studying a STEM field, or who is in a STEM field solely because she can’t afford the tuition for philosophy.

Remember, Scott is also pushing MOOCs for college credit.

Do we want our institutions of higher education to function primarily as vocational schools? Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker does.  Walker would like to tie the funding of technical colleges to whether they grant the kinds of degrees industry wants.  “In higher education, that means not only degrees, but are young people getting degrees in jobs that are open and needed today, not just the jobs that the universities want to give us, or degrees that people want to give us?”

Because no Wisconsin student or university should dare expect funding for studying or doing research in a discipline that industry has no use for.  The state will decide what you can and cannot study based on current economic needs, Comrade!  Shades of the Soviet Union!

Naturally, Walker is also pushing the use of MOOCs for college credit.   They are perfect if you want to create a trained society rather than an educated one.

Anyone else see a pattern here?

The obvious problem is that techno-savvy venture capitalists, who have no idea what a humanities education is and ideally should be, have unwittingly taken on the conservative anti-education crowd as free riders, and now nobody has any incentive to stop the bus.  There’s market demand, there’s money to be made, there’s money to be saved in education budgets – who cares what it costs in education quality or cultural and intellectual capital?  What is that, anyway?  American capitalism isn’t about quality; it’s about getting the populace to confuse quality with whatever product happens to be making money for somebody at the moment.  The right wing agenda has always been anti-intellectual, and would prefer to see fewer people exposed to critical thinking. So dumbing down humanities courses with MOOCs is heady stuff.  Here there’s a match of convenience.

The close analysis of language, the mastery of critical thinking, the ability to clearly convey complex ideas in writing and to understand complex ideas in reading, the knowledge of the past, of languages and cultures, the ability to partake in “the best that has been thought and said” and to preserve culture from anarchy cannot be measured.  In our “pics or it didn’t happen” society, that’s fatal.  This is the stuff of civilization, the currency one needs to be an informed citizen in a participatory democracy.  Would people whose only exposure to higher education is through a series of MOOCs, people who attend public universities because they can’t afford tuition at elite schools, get handed debased currency?  I don’t know yet, it’s too early to tell, because the technology is sure to evolve.  But for now I’m troubled by who’s printing the money.

Next: Part 2: Higher Education



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7 Responses to The War on the Humanities has Three Fronts (Part 1: The Right Wing)

  1. ‘I would add, what happens to diversity of thought and the marketplace of ideas when millions of people start learning about the Enlightenment and the French Revolution from the same single MOOC instructor, who is hired to generate profit?’

    MOOCs have from the outset been an elitist idea. This is disguised by a false rhetoric of democracy: the exciting idea that now everyone can afford to study with an elite institution. Except that everyone can’t. The real benefits of a Harvard or MIT education are still confined to elite students, and always will be.

    Focusing on the fact that some of the world’s most elite institutions are now giving away course content for free enables the experience of established distance learning providers such as the Open University in the UK to be ignored. These institutions have learnt the hard way that if you are going to be of genuine value to more than a minority of students, you must provide them with a great deal of support, including direct tuition by a qualified teacher (at the Open University, tutorial groups are capped at 20, rising to 25 in exceptional circumstances) and access to good quality one-to-one support with writing skills, etc. MOOCs’ abysmal course-completion rates (which are a form of elitism in their own right) could potentially be remedied, but only through investment – especially in the human capital of good teaching staff – that would remove the sole positive feature of current MOOCs (i.e. that they cost nothing, or next to nothing, to study). No-one on the MOOC bandwagon wants to hear this.

    The reason that not even a nonprofit like the Open University can give credit away for free is that a meaningful and genuinely accessible learning experience is actually quite expensive to deliver. Open University teaching is more economical than the standard mode of undergraduate teaching, but still expensive enough to require a substantial fee if we don’t want to go bankrupt immediately. Hence our fees are lower, but not orders of magnitude lower, than those at other UK universities. This means that instead of ‘disrupting’ the higher educational landscape, we add something to it.

    And that’s a good thing, because we need those other universities. All higher education relies on research, and no single institution could do all the research by itself. I suspect that every academic knows this deep down, even megalomaniacs with dreams of super-professorship. But for commercial MOOC providers like Udacity, the aim is not just to disrupt but to decimate the university system: Sebastian Thrun can cheerfully look forward to a world with just ten universities ( because – like any good Google employee – he’s learnt to see the competition only as something to be destroyed.

    I write all this because I want to emphasise that the ‘war’ is not only on the humanities, and right-wing ideology is only a small part of it. The larger issue is monopolism, and the whole of higher learning is at risk.

  2. Fascinating response, Daniel. When I was reading around on MOOCs, I never once encountered a reference to the Open University or any other well-established distance learning provider. Now that you mention it, that’s beyond bothersome. Either the venture capitalists behind MOOCs aren’t aware of existing distance learning options (not likely), or they’d prefer not to engage in debate and comparisons.

    I agree that monopolism is a heavy strain here, particularly on the venture capitalism side. Thanks for pointing it out. I also agree that this monopolism does place all of higher learning at risk, not just the humanities, because it places diversity of thought at risk. Eventually – and maybe not so eventually – it places the culture at risk. The right wing are along for the ride, and are likely to be tolerated as long as they are useful vehicles for pushing product.

  3. CIP says:

    I’m no fan of your designated villains here, but I think they are a distraction that is mostly irrelevant to the MOOC. MOOCs will succeed or fail on whether they deliver an education that students and their potential employers value. I haven’t taken any humanities type MOOC courses but some of the technical courses I’ve taken are superb – including the biology course from MIT that you mention.

    I’ve been a college student, off and on, for 50 years, and accumulated several degrees in the process, and I’ve taught a number of college courses myself. The MOOC can’t match every aspect of in class experience, but it outdoes the traditional course in some equally important ways: cost, convenience, and interaction with educational materials.

    Most Sundays I like to go out to a local restaurant for breakfast. It can’t match what I might get to eat at a Michelin three star, but it beats the hell out of it in cost, convenience and accessibility.

    • CPI:

      You’re making part of my argument with your restaurant analogy. MOOCs are like a local restaurant – perhaps a corporate chain restaurant, where everyone in the country can eat the exact same thing. Chain restaurants beat the Michelin three star in “cost, convenience, accessibility” but not in quality. However, nobody is pretending the two are equivalents, or that the chain meal is just as good as the three star, or trying to turn three star restaurants into chains. Nobody’s giving three stars to the chain restaurant and telling the patrons they just had a fine dining experience and can now go into the world and consider themselves gourmets.

      As I say in my piece, some MOOCs are terrific at conveying information. They have their uses, and one of those uses might be for life-long learners like you (and me) who don’t necessarily need or want a degree in a particular subject but are curious to learn something about it. But that’s different than engaging students in the kind of interactive critical thinking so important to humanities studies. And to the sciences. For that you need live interaction. Taking an “Introduction to Biology” MOOC, fascinating as it might be, is not the same as actually going to a biology lab, doing experiments, making mistakes, and engaging in the scientific process. An entire degree program based on on-line courses for credit would be – to use your analogy – like an entire diet of fast food certified as healthy. Low cost and convenience are not proxies for “great education.”

      • CIP says:

        Actually I usually choose Mom and Pops over chains, but the point remains. The NYT has an article on a mixed model of MOOC and real life classroom experiment at San Jose State: here

  4. […] “The War on the Humanities has Three Fronts (Part 1: The Right Wing),” a post on Karen Michalson’s blog.  I think Michalson has a lot of good points here about how things like MOOCs are favored by the right wing (which generally is not that crazy about paying for this pesky “public” education in the first place) and she links to a lot of good stuff. The problem though is she avoids the hard to escape reality that MOOCs in higher ed are getting the most traction in Democrat-thick California. […]

  5. You raise a good point, Steven D. Krause. I wonder if MOOCs are getting traction in Democrat-thick California because California also happens to be the home of Silicon Valley and many of the techno investors who stand to profit from MOOCs. San Jose State uses MOOCs for engineering classes, and San Jose is in the thick of Silicon Valley. Also the California budget is in tatters. Look how much money “three strikes” has cost the state, and the mess it’s caused with prison overcrowding. Any proposal to save money in public higher education budgets is likely to be welcomed there, even at the expense of education quality.

    But Democrats shouldn’t get a pass here, either. Right wing governors have made it clear what their agenda is regarding humanities education, but Democrats (at least in California, and maybe elsewhere) seem oblivious to the effect that a MOOC-saturated curriculum would have on humanities study. Or else they don’t care. The right wing may be banging the drum for limiting access to humanities education (of which MOOCs are part of the agenda), but Democrat-thick California is simply desperate to save money, even at the expense of the people’s access to quality education.

    The end result is the same. (Of course I may be naïve. Governments have never been fans of widespread critical thought among the population, no matter who’s in charge.)

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