So, I just watched an interview on the Daily Show in the midst of grading a stack of papers on Roman Barbarians and found myself getting rather worked up.
In this interview Stewart and Fareed Zakaria have a conversation about higher education. They start out well, but as they got into the details the discussion became profoundly troubling to me.
I absolutely agree with the idea that liberal education is a good thing and that the drive towards STEM is bad. I agree with the rejection of concepts like common core in favor of a more diverse curriculum. I agree with the value of an inspirational teacher no matter what subject is being discussed. They are on the right line of discussion on the really big issues.
But then they don’t ever get to the things that prevent the inspirational teaching to think that they talk about. They never get to the problems of underpaid and overworked teaching labor. They don’t talk about the almost complete death of the full time teaching job. They don’t talk about how much damage is done by the idea that the purpose of college is job preparation rather than life preparation.
Instead they talk about Massive Online Courses.
Massive Online Courses are not the bloody answer. They shouldn’t even be a part of the discussion.
It is not that they are a bad thing. They have the potential for immense value, especially in the area of continuing interest based education. But if online courses are going to replace traditional classes they cannot be so large. Remember the much touted value of that archetypal inspirational teacher? I hope anyone reading this had at least one in their lives. That teacher is effectively excluded by the MOC model. You cannot get the person that actually takes the time to try and help you get better rather than just slapping a grade on your work in a huge online course. You cannot get the person who tries to engage with you and improve your thinking. You cannot get the teacher who gives you a job reference or writes you a letter of recommendation. You cannot get the teacher that you can contact years later and know that they won’t have completely forgotten who you were. Eventually online courses might allow that level of student teacher engagement, but the massive online model will never do so.
Also, only someone who is not a teacher themselves and who has very little concept of education before the twentieth century could think that education hasn’t changed before online courses as Stewart and Zakaria’s conversation suggests. Our intellectual technologies of education have changed rapidly and constantly, often seeing paradigm shifts several times in a century. Many of the things we take for granted in a university system are less than 200 years old. Most of our departments were late 19th or early 20th century developments. Someone listening to a philosopher in the Painted Stoa of Athens in the 3rd century BCE would have had a very different experience than a student in the University of Paris in the 14th century BCE. And both would barely recognize the university system we have today. The idea that teaching hasn’t changed and that this new technology changes everything is just bald ignorance.
Now sensationalist rhetoric about new technology is nothing special and normally I would not really bat an eye about it. In this case, however, it distracts from a very real problem that need to be addressed first. That problem is the devaluation of teaching.
University degrees are more expensive than they have ever been. Yet teachers are not being paid more. They are being paid less. In a significant number of cases, teaching a course is only worth a few thousand dollars.
There is a serious disconnect between the public discussion about what people are looking for in college educators and the compensation for college educators. We demand top notch work from teachers, but we are not interested in paying people top dollar for top work.
If people want to see more inspirational teachers then they have to pay them what they are worth. They have to pay teachers enough that they don’t leave for some career with higher rewards. They have to pay them enough that teachers don’t prioritize their research over their students. They have to pay them enough that teachers feel justified in spending their time dreaming up ways to make their classes better the next time around or spending time really trying to make sure that their comments on a student paper are useful rather than cursory.
If we are going to talk about what it means to revitalize more Liberal forms of education, then we cannot look to gimmicks. Massive Online Courses are a tool. They may even prove a valuable tool. But they won’t help anything unless we actively start reversing the trends when it comes to valuing the work that teachers do.