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The University of Nowhere

A cursory look at recent jeremiads on higher education resembles a thesaurus entry for “doom”: Academically Adrift. Education Disrupted. College Unbound. Degrees of Inequality. The Last Professors. It’s no surprise that the latest entry in the field, by Kevin Carey, a fellow with the New America Foundation, comes bearing another portentous title: The End of College.

Carey, though, is offering a gospel of uplift, not calamity: As he recounts at the outset of the book, he was struck by an epiphany while enrolled in a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on genetics, one that was modestly titled “The Secret of Life.” The secret of college’s salvation was right there on his laptop! One day soon, he realized, students around the world will enroll in the online University of Everywhere, which will offer plugged-in web users the same education currently reserved for the lucky few who can pay for elite colleges.

Carey directs the New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program, though he might more accurately be called the organization’s chief leveraged buyout consultant. Silicon Valley startups will not merely change education, but will “disrupt” and “scale” it for a global market, he writes in the governing clichés of the age. Like the visionary caste of Silicon Valley disruptors he so ardently admires, Carey seems to have swallowed the blue pill, so his prose is suffused with the breezy techno-utopianism found in your typical Thomas Friedman column. Digital technology will democratize knowledge. The masses, long excluded from access to higher education, will discover that liberation is now at their fingertips. The beautiful souls clinging to personal instruction in traditional classrooms will find the proverbial dustbin of history sweeping them away. You’ve read it all before.

This technologically enhanced vision of universally available free education could be appealing, even utopian. But Carey’s vaunted University of Everywhere is the product of a handful of prestigious universities and online education companies. There is no ethos of leisured self-discovery, let alone civic engagement, as the legitimate aim of higher learning. Instead, the MOOC-ified university focuses its curriculum on no-frills training tailored to the demands of the labor market.

The private-sector takeover of our higher ed system is, in Carey’s telling, just like any other buyout operation: a righteous quest for maximized returns, underwritten by the mandate to eliminate archaic inefficiencies and other stubborn obstacles to market conquest. The bricks-and-mortar university has become a bloated, corrupt, “rickety edifice,” one that deserves to be “trampled into dust” and replaced by online courses, video lectures, chat rooms, and assignments graded by computers. MOOCs will soon supplant our obsolete “cathedrals of learning,” transforming college education from a scarce, expensive luxury into a commodity available to everyone free of charge. Today’s nail-biting college admissions scramble will become a vestige of the Dark Ages. In the gleaming digital future, gaining admission to MIT will be as easy as setting up a Facebook account. Click! You’re in!

Carey declares that America’s obsolete “hybrid” universities have failed because they tried to do three tasks simultaneously: conduct research, impart practical skills, and teach the liberal arts. Well, yeah. He never bothers to explain just why these goals are incompatible; even the most choleric critics of the American university would have to concede that it has managed to carry out all three tasks for a very long time.

But as Carey sees things from his think tank perch, time-serving scholars are the stubborn foes of innovation. Professors strive to advance their own careers by publishing research, which leads them to neglect and even disdain teaching. He charges repeatedly that professors “have no training in teaching,” and so, presumably, are incapable of conveying knowledge to students. In fact, many faculty members do prize teaching, especially those at smaller colleges; the large research universities that do not esteem or reward good teaching are precisely the ones that seem most likely to crowd out competitors in the online scramble for MOOC students.

But Kevin Carey relishes hanging with the hip young Silicon Valley software engineers and venture capitalists busily reprogramming higher education. Tech entrepreneurs are “laid back,” wear hoodies and yellow sneakers to work, dine at trendy restaurants, and zip from place to place by clicking the Uber app on their smartphones. Professors are plodding dullards mired in esoteric research who can’t find the light switch. Carey giddily anticipates the imminent Day of Judgment, when online learning tosses these fossils out of their cushy, overpaid jobs. The demise of the humanities is of no great concern. Anything that fails to shore up the glittering truisms of cyberdemocracy is expendable.

And what wonders will follow from the collapse of the old order! Carey rhapsodizes that the University of Everywhere will democratize education and make our increasingly unequal society more egalitarian. Everyone will be able to go to Stanford, MIT, and Harvard! Everyone will be taught by famous professors, not the schmoes who couldn’t land a job in the Ivy League. He scoffs at naysayers who suggest that online education will prove impersonal, even dehumanizing. Increasingly sophisticated algorithms, he writes, will tailor lessons to each student’s performance and needs, providing each student a personal “cognitive tutor,” just as Alexander the Great was taught by Aristotle! That’s right: algorithms and online classes that enroll hundreds of thousands of students will make education more individualized.

This chipper assurance, like so many forecasts of spontaneously flourishing digital democracy, has the problem precisely backwards. Rather than democratize education, MOOCs seem poised to ratchet up existing educational inequalities. Carey’s vaunted University of Everywhere would force hundreds of colleges and universities to close, leaving higher education in the hands of a few richly endowed brand-name universities and software companies. Sons and daughters of the affluent would continue to attend cathedrals of learning and be taught by professors. Everyone else will train themselves by pecking away at problem sets and quizzes on their laptops and praying to land a job that will enable them to move out of their parents’ house.

The promise of online learning, Carey writes, is not its ability to deliver information to students, but the oligarchic capacity of Big Data firms to compile information from them. The University of Everywhere will monitor “every log-in, keystroke, discussion, test, essay, and problem set” and create a vast database on millions of students that will unlock the “mysteries” of how human beings learn. Just as Facebook, Google, and Amazon have become behemoths of the digitized economy by amassing information about consumers’ preferences, the U of E will stockpile valuable demographic data about students’ knowledge and skills. Corporate interests will be the ultimate beneficiary of all this data-mining, since it will yield them detailed statistical portraits of job applicants’ skills and track records.

Hey, this transformed university landscape would prove a perfect training ground for an adult life consigned to similar data-mule duty in a cartelized Information Economy. But the whole point of education is to pursue a life of inquiry, organized around principles other than maximum return on investment. If only for four years or so.