Why Tom Friedman is Wrong

A few weeks ago, Tom Friedman, the New York Times op-ed whiz and enthusiast of the flat world, announced that “revolution” has come to the university. Some time ago, he had headed out to Palo Alto to soak up some public relations propaganda from the folks at Stanford who were then creating Coursera, the current working standard for MOOCs (“massive open online courses,” which, for a small fee, are open to anyone in the world). More recently (and instead of, say, picking up the phone, emailing, or skyping) Friedman returned to the rough pastures of northern California to catch up on the same folks. He left really convinced. “I can see a day soon,” he wrote, “where you’ll create your own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors from around the world — some computing from Stanford, some entrepreneurship from Wharton, some ethics from Brandeis, some literature from Edinburgh — paying only the nominal fee for the certificates of completion. It will change teaching, learning and the pathway to employment.”

Yesterday, Friedman continued his great quest to unmake the system of higher education that has existed since the Middle Ages, to render the university as merely an information delivery system brought to you by Harvard-via-Google. Two days in Cambridge assured him that the wave of the future was for students to acquire the basic information “at their own pace” online, freeing up the classroom for “lab experiments,” “questions and answers,” and the general “honing” of competency. The traditional college experience still has “value,” he maintained, but it will need to reduce costs, trim inefficiencies, and deploy new technologies. If it doesn’t, he concluded with a flourish, it will go the way of GM in the 1970s, which, as he tells it, was crushed by Toyota largely because the Japanese manufacturer had better tech. (And not better cars).

I won’t dwell, as Historiann has, on the irony of putting the large, 14,000 student lecture at the heart of this educational model. I won’t spend too much time saying, of course, that a university is not like an automobile manufacturer in a thousand ways, ranging from its nonprofit status to the absence of a consumable product. I won’t retreat, simply, into the rarefied notion that higher learning is an aspiration of civil society, that it improves the “we,” and that it is not aimed at training the workforce of the 21st century. I won’t link to the billions of intelligent thoughtful posts about the MOOC revolution, about what it augers for all of us. And I won’t wonder why Friedman is a big believer in the “flat” digital world, except for when his writing requires him to take an “in person” plush holiday to Palo Alto or New England.

Instead, with a genuflection to this post, I will simply say this, earnestly: most of our students do not know how to read a film, or dissect a book, or think critically about a lecture, or an idea. If you ask them to analyze an object, they can’t do this intuitively. They do not know how to watch a lecture online and take notes on it. With the exception of the most privileged, they come from a primary and secondary education landscape denuded of funded, pruned of intellectual ambition, and yoked to poorly-thought-out standards. They have parents who have made every decision for them, and who still oversee much of what they do. They do not understand that the frantic pace of the semester is a part of the lesson, that what they are doing can’t be slowed down, or consumed at their own leisure.

And even the best and the brightest – all shiny and fancy – aren’t prepared to think, aren’t taught, really, to do the hard, close, dirty work of learning enough about one thing to teach it thoroughly to someone else. That, after all, is the true measure of competency. They flit, like so many others, on the surface. Just like Friedman himself. The world always looks flat from the penthouse, but it isn’t.

In short, our students arrive not knowing how to learn. This is why they go to college. And it takes time for them to figure it out. This is why they stay for four years. Or more. We aren’t just giving them information and competency; we are making it possible for them to recognize both. That is much more difficult. And it can’t be delivered by youtube.

A friend wrote to tell me that she was attending an edx seminar, and reported that one of their man-props insisted that “the university is like a hotel; it has no core. To improve, it just needs to copy what its betters are doing.” This is wrong, on so many levels. It is Friedman-think. But what seems frightening is that this idea is already cemented into the firmament as Truth. What is needed here is an extraordinary intervention by university presidents, not merely signaling caution, but also reminding everyone that some great part of the work of academe cannot be turned into a profit making, branding opportunity, that our students do not come to us knowing how to learn, how to read, how to think, and that they cannot simply absorb or receive information via streaming technologies on their own time. And that we can have all the MOOCS we want – without any guilt, shame, or remorse – just as soon as we fix primary and secondary education, and just as soon as we assure all participants in these ventures that the barkeep in Bangladesh, enrolling in Econ 101 at Harvard, will get the same education as tow-haired Clarence Winthrop Weatherspoon III, who sips his latte in Harvard square.

Sharing Friedman’s piece, I’ve had many of my academic friends say something like: “He should come to my classroom.” By this, I think they all mean that he should come back to ground level, come to see what it means at Wright State, or Skidmore, or Florida A & M, or Purdue, or even Harvard, to see how we teach students how to learn, to see how often a lecture becomes a Q & A, and how frequently the conversations are continued online or outside of the classroom, and to understand how impossible it would be to turn this into a process that is paced by the student and transformed into a MOOC. But maybe they also mean that Friedman needs, as well, to learn how to learn again.

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