Higher Education

more on wasting a liberal education

I see that Will Richardson and Jeff Jarvis have been talking recently on the issue of a "distributed university." This fits in with my earlier discussion about a low-cost or no-cost higher education. Again, everyone wants to point out that we go to college for the certification; that’s what we are paying for.

There’s an interesting set of contexts here. Of course these are generalizations, but I’ll make them anyway.

  1. The typical, 18-20 yo college student is not especially interested in learning. They’ve got a million other things going on in their lives. I’ve seen enough students struggle to stay on pace in online courses to realize how unlikely the idea of a "distributed university" is for them. Older professionals looking for continuing education, maybe.
  2. The standard line is that students aren’t interested in "liberal arts" b/c they want a "practical" education that will help them get a job. This may be more true at other schools, but my experience is that this is hardly the case. First, most students have no idea what they want to do. Second, students who do have ideas about what they will be often have very unrealistic ideas (e.g. "Yes it would be great to be an editor for a prestigious literary press and maybe if you work hard for 20 years you’ll get there). Third, even students who have realistic career goals often have little idea about what they need to learn to enter those professions.
  3. There’s a misleading dichotomy that emerges from the traditional and constructivist teaching models as they filter into everyday discourse. You look at the lecture-driven format and say "of course I can get that experience downloading video or audio." Then you look at the constructivist model and say "I can get that experience on a blog or web forum or whatever." However, what most students need, in my experience, are customized, interactive lectures and discussions guided by experts (who are expert in both subject matter AND pedagogy). Furthermore, they need this in a sustained and fairly systematic way that obligates all involved to hundreds of hours over many months: that’s just to complete the major requirements for a typical BA.

All that said, I do think we should waste liberal education, just as I said we should waste humanities scholarship in my previous post. I’m very much a proponent of making course materials public, including course conversations. In fact you can read my course blogs elsewhere on this domain. Certainly one can learn from reading such material and/or participating in such conversations. I learn all the time from being online.

When it comes down to it, the building blocks of an excellent liberal arts education should be dirt cheap, so cheap that it can be freely wasted, too cheap to meter. Of course they have been for a long time. Most decent-sized public libraries contain such many of these building blocks. The vast majority of canonical works in philosophy and literature are in the public domain. All of that, plus our lectures, our scholarship, and our teaching materials should all be freely available online.

What you’d have to pay for is my time to work with you, to discuss the materials with you, to respond to your compositions, to point you in the right direction with your research, and to evaluate your work. Students need all these things, and I don’t think it’s just a matter of teaching them "how to learn." That is, I don’t think you could fix K-12 education so that college students were ready to do this on their own. In my experience, and obviously this is a generalization, college students lack the general knowledge, intellectual maturity, and personal drive to be self-directed learners. Does that stun anybody?

That said, I do believe that the internet will transform the way higher education does business. Colleges and faculty will need to rethink the source of value in their work. By freely distributing the materials/objects of learning and scholarship, higher ed might even reinvigorate the role it plays in culture. Meanwhile with an ever larger and less-prepared portion of the population pursuing tertiary education, I do not imagine the need for faculty declining.

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2 replies on “more on wasting a liberal education”

Alex, what you’re proposing is that *teaching* should be valued.
Ha! Simple, but revolutionary.
One of the reasons I love the C.C. (at least, the one I was fortunate enough to work in) is that teaching is very much the focus, there.
In the university, it’s perhaps tougher going to put teaching (that thing that adjuncts, TA’s, and the untenured put so much loving time into) at the center, economically or in terms of “psychic income.”
The psychic income keeps the adjuncts coming around, especially in writing. Experts in content and pedagogy? Well, sometimes they are, despite much suspicion to the contrary. At the very least, they often have a breadth of classroom experience that few can (or wish to) match.
Meanwhile, I love teachers who put all of their modules and materials online. As a “mature” (not to say old and gray) learner, I’m perhaps less in need of the day-to-day feedback,and can run with some of that on my own. On the other hand, lots of interaction with experts, too, is free.
Anwyay, I like the idea of envisioning the teaching as the real value–the service?


Yeah, I know that calling profs experts in content and pedagogy might be a little optimistic, regardless of their rank. So we’ll see what happens.
Clearly the research faculty do is also valuable and necessary. I know that if I was talking about science or medicine, everyone would agree with that. With humanities, the culture is less sure, but maybe we can do something about that by rethinking what we do and making our work freely available.
It’s curious what happens to value here, though. I mean, could you imagine the web without search engines? And yet, they’re free. Same deal here. I just think that the thing that students pay for when they pay tuition is NOT the course materials but rather interaction with faculty and the opportunity to participate in the open-but-managed learning environment of the classroom.


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