Who's Killing Higher Education?





Educom Review table of contents
March/April 1999
This article was published in Educom Review, Volume 34 Number 2 1999. The copyright is copyright is shared by the author(s) and EDUCAUSE.
An EDUCAUSE publication




Who's Killing Higher Education?

Corporate Universities and the Academy

Corporations and students: the unusual suspects


by Stephen Talbott

A growing consensus holds that new information technologies foretell the end of higher education as we have known it. I suspect this is true. Its truth, however, is not that the technologies are positively revolutionizing education. Rather, what we are watching is more like the end -- the final perfection and dead-end extreme -- of the old regime's shortcomings.

For a long while now we have slowly been reconceiving education as the transfer of information from one database or brain to another. Access to information is the universal slogan, and by "information" we demonstrate with countless phrases every day that we mean something routinely transferable between containers.

What we haven't realized is that this fact-shoveling model of education renders both teachers and schools superfluous. It's true that many colleges and universities have struggled mightily to convert themselves into more efficient vehicles for information delivery. But they can hardly hope to compete successfully with the computer in this sterile game.

The old institutions, however, are not the only things placed at risk by the computer's fulfillment of the reigning model of education. Eventually, we will realize that students, too, are superfluous. It's much more efficient to transfer information from one database to another than from a database to a mind.

The logic of this has already been glimpsed in the workplace, where the remarkable phrase, "just-in-time learning," is taking ferocious hold as only the latest business jargon can. The idea is that you need no longer worry about the general resources your employees bring to the job; all operations are managed by sending exactly the right information to exactly the right terminal at exactly the right time. Everything is taken care of automatically, with the employee functioning smoothly as little more than an assistive cog in the mechanisms of information transfer.

If you want a model for effective information delivery, here's where it is, not in the classroom -- not even in the wired classroom.

Actually, some people are already explicitly urging this model as the basis for an education of the future. Lewis Perelman, author of School's Out, lauds those businesses that have replaced "preparation-oriented education" with just-in-time learning:

"They saw, correctly, that the systems they were constructing were doing to knowledge what the just-in-time delivery processes the Japanese called kanban had done to material resources and goods in manufacturing." ("Interview with Lewis J. Perelman," Technos Quarterly, vol. 6, no. 3, Fall, 1997)

Perelman's "kanbrain," the instrument for so-called hyperlearning, amounts pretty much to an (unnecessarily biological) name for the technical networks of information exchange. The network is what gets "educated," not people.

When Business Embraces the Academy

Information delivery has always been intimately associated with well-defined, effective procedures -- algorithms. That is, information is designed more for manipulation and doing than for understanding, and this helps to explain the convergence of business and education today. A spate of recent news items illustrates the trend:

  • A survey reported in Computerworld suggested that 40 percent of large corporations plan to negotiate training deals with colleges and universities this year. The idea is to encourage the creation of academic programs tailored for the needs of particular businesses. (Computerworld, Apr. 13, 1998)


  • High-tech companies such as Cisco Systems, 3Com, Oracle and IBM are going into the teacher-training business, helping teachers with the latest technologies. But more than training is involved:

    "Rather than selling products and services to schools . . . companies are now developing curricula for schools and giving them the equipment to aid the learning process. And while most four-year colleges are reluctant to offer credit for vendor-developed courses, that may be changing -- students at the University of San Francisco can take a Cisco course in networking and a database course from Oracle, both for credit." (Investor's Business Daily, May 12, 1998, as reported in Edupage)


  • The number of corporate "universities" -- comprehensive training institutions run by corporations -- has increased from 400 to 1,600 in the last ten years. A few of these have formal degree-granting powers, and many have cooperative relationships with colleges and universities. But now these corporate institutions, under growing pressure to become self-supporting, are bringing their "branded" education into competition with mainline higher education. (Financial Times, June 18, 1998, as reported in Edupage)


  • Los Angeles businessman Alfred Mann has donated $100 million each to the University of Southern California and the University of California at Los Angeles. His main objective, according to the Economist, is "to build biomedical institutes that will act as bridges between industry and the ivory tower." UCLA accepted the gift only after a decade of hesitation -- a decade whose changes certainly did not make the acceptance more difficult. As for Mr. Mann, he

    "is a tough-minded fellow who has detailed plans for his institutes. They will be large, each employing more than 100 people, including graduate students. They will license their ideas to a range of companies (not just Mr. Mann's) for commercial exploitation. And they will use their patents to generate a steady stream of income for their host universities." (The Economist, July 11, 1998)

All this worries a growing contingent of educators, who fear the corporation's "crushing solicitude." (The phrase is William F. Buckley's, which he applied many years ago to the ministrations of centralized government.) I share this fear, but it seems to me that the more fundamental issue often goes unnoted: Our changing notions about what education is make it inevitable that business and industry should step into the picture aggressively. If you want efficient delivery of effective facts and procedures, then business -- already attuned to such computationally rigorous training -- will far outperform the university.

In other words, having increasingly accepted their role as training grounds for business -- which is what the information-transfer model of education implies -- universities are now finding that business is better situated to train its own employees than schools are. At best the universities will simply hire themselves out to corporations.

Buying an Education More Cheaply

But I seriously wonder about the long-term survival of the university in any form. How long before the students rebel? If someone handed me $25,000 a year for four years and said "Go get yourself an education," could I possibly choose to blow it all at a university? Unthinkable.

Why should I pay a school $100,000 for a vocational education when I can almost certainly find a business or agency or laboratory or nonprofit organization willing to hire me for nothing, assign me some useful chores, and give me an opportunity to start learning my desired vocation? Even if I had to pay something to the business at first, it would be well worth it. Long before I would have graduated from school, I'd be earning an income in my chosen field.

The options are unlimited. Nothing prevents me from obtaining the best textbooks the world has to offer. Nothing prevents me from approaching a first-class researcher or business manager or teacher with the proposition, "Will you give me an hour per week for a year in exchange for a couple of thousand dollars?" (In such a highly motivated context, the mentoring will likely prove more valuable, more humane and more intense than several college courses put together.) And, in general, nothing prevents me from going wherever the "action" is in my field and plunging in with the aid of some of that $100,000.

The irrelevance of our educational institutions today has been summarized by Albert Borgmann:

"We assume that the increasing length of average education reflects rising requirements of training for typical technological work. But this summary view fails to inquire whether education in this country, for instance, is also of increasing quality; nor, if that were the case, does it ask whether typical labor allows for the exercise of greater knowledge and training. The answer to both questions is probably negative. To avoid the consequent embarrassment of finding that much of our education is irrelevant to labor, length of education has been put to new purposes which are really foreign to its nature. Since desirable work is scarce, education is used as an obstacle course which is lengthened as such work becomes scarcer. Educational requirements are used as a device to screen applicants. And finally, educational credentials serve to solidify the privileges of professions and the stratification of society." (Albert Borgmann, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry, University of Chicago, 1984)

The Credentialed Society

The most damning testimony against higher education today may be that students have not rebelled; they are evidently incapable of it. Two things prevent such rebellion. One is the inability of high school graduates to take their own education in hand. We do not teach them to become self-learners. I am continually amazed at the number of adults who assume that, if they are to learn anything new, they must "take a class."

The second obstacle, pointed out in Borgmann's analysis, is the fact that, for extraneous social reasons, we insist on the academic degree. It is one of the revealing facts about the Information Age that it is the supreme Age of Credentials. Not just credentials as such (against which I have no complaint), but wooden credentials -- degrees, certificates, diplomas and licenses based solely on "measurable outcomes," such as credit hours and standardized test grades, with scarcely any reference whatever to the actual inner accomplishment and capability of the certificate bearer.

Being married to a registered nurse, I have been able to note the unfortunate inferiority complex within that wonderfully humane profession. (I think "doctor-envy" might be a good name for it, but my wife threatened to protest in a scorching letter to the editor if I wrote that.) In order to raise the standard of respectability for nurses, the governing bodies try to define an ever more proprietary training that can be seen as the nursing profession's own. They pile on credit-hour requirements in vacuous subjects (you haven't seen gobbledygook until you've tried to read three consecutive sentences in the typical "nursing theory" book). And they continually raise the barrier for "outsiders" who might have traveled by a slightly unconventional route.

So it is that a nurse who has worked in a particular field for 15 years and may be one of the best healers around, can find himself blocked from advancement, while someone else whose sensibilities were sufficiently dulled to endure endless hours of post-graduate make-work marches straight ahead. And a nurse trained in Switzerland has no hope of practicing in this country without going back to school for a couple of years to duplicate his education.

Of course, the same syndrome afflicts virtually every profession. (Was it Mencken who said, "Every profession is a conspiracy against the public"?) Just think of the educational establishment, with its obstacles for non-credentialed outsiders, and its protection of incompetent insiders. In general, the closed professional circle, protecting itself through artificial requirements, is one of the pressing social problems of our day.

The credential problem threatens quickly to become even more acute. The European Commission is now trying to create a smart-card-based European Accreditation System. According to Joe Cullen, who is working on the project, the idea is to "set up permanent and accessible skill accreditation mechanisms that will allow individuals to validate their knowledge however it has been acquired."

"Central to this vision is the use of new technologies such as personal smart cards that will allow citizens to record their training and experience on portable, computer-readable curriculum vitae. Another set of applications involves the use of remote, electronic assessment and testing systems that can allow individuals to obtain qualifications and credentials that in turn can be recorded on their personal skills card, perhaps via existing frameworks such as the European network of chambers of commerce, or even at home." (For further information about the European Accreditation System, see http://tavinstitute.guinet.com/)

The goal is admirable. But, as with so many cases of computer-enabled "flexibility," the flexibility easily turns out to be a higher-order rigidity with a vengeance. You can expect to see the final, irrevocable triumph of the numerically scored, standardized test.

Toward Greater Standardization

An element of standardization is inescapable in all social interaction. Lacking it, we would be helpless to connect with each other. Language itself represents a kind of standardization. But so long as language and society are healthy, there is a creative tension and balance between the standard (lexical) meanings of words and the speaker's individualized meanings. (It turns out that you can't say anything meaningful at all without this individualized element, but that is a larger topic.) In this play of stasis and invention all human growth, all new understanding, is incubated.

In the business of establishing credentials today, where is the recognition of a principle to set against standardization, to prevent its becoming tyrannical? A one-sided pursuit of standardization (which, incidentally, coheres wonderfully well with the pursuit of information as shovelable fact) means neither more nor less than the obliteration of everything individual. In a valuable set of reflections upon educational standardization, Phil Agre casts the issue in terms of diversity:

"We need to recognize . . . that the ease of transferring courses between schools -- effectively assembling one's college education a la carte from among the offerings of a large number of potentially quite different programs -- may come at a significant price in intellectual diversity. If the internal modularity of degree programs must be coordinated centrally, or at least negotiated among numerous independent universities, then the result will be less flexibility and greater uniformity. Power over fine details of the curriculum will inevitably shift in the direction of accrediting organizations, university administrators, and other professional coordinators. Faculty may effectively lose the ability to write their own syllabi." (Red Rock Eater News Service, June 25, 1998)

Agre urges us to "preserve the institutional conditions for a diversity of intellectual approaches." I will suggest what this might mean shortly. Meanwhile, to summarize:

The central focus of information technology upon the reliable, precise and quantifiable transmission of well-defined bits from one place to another, and the emphasis upon algorithmic procedures for manipulating this information, accord perfectly with

  • the "shoveling facts" style of education;
  • the increasingly cozy relationship between education and businesses, whose primary concern has more to do with operational effectiveness than with depth of understanding; and
  • the rigid "credentialization" and standardization of society, which, in turn, amount to a denial of the distinctive life of the individual. But, in the end, this model of education leaves little room for schools or, ultimately, students.
Everyone disowns fact-shoveling education. And yet the computer and its databases, into which we pour information, have emerged utterly triumphant as the reigning metaphors for learning. The metaphors that powerfully grip us are more indicative of what's going on than our much too frequent protesting.

Becoming Qualified

I know of a school in Europe -- it happens to be a seminary -- where there is no fixed term of study. The sense of calling is high, the demands upon students are remarkably heavy, and students graduate whenever they are "ready." This averages out to something like three or four years, but, depending on prior experience and qualification, may be as little as two years -- or, not infrequently, never at all. I have heard, perhaps apocryphally, of one student who was still trying after seven years.

I do not understand how a human-centered institution of higher education -- one not conceived as an assembly-line or information-transfer system -- could operate without at least some of this flexible, individual-centered character. If, as I indicated above, standardization tends to obliterate everything individual, the principle we need to set against standardization in order to hold the balance is recognition of the individual. Every individual follows a unique path through this world, and the teacher's failure to enter upon that path with the student is a failure to teach. This failure also makes any profound assessment of the student's performance impossible.

Inevitably, though, the objection is voiced that an individual, qualitative assessment of students is not even desirable, since it eventuates in merely subjective and often biased judgments. After all, who has not heard of doctoral students suffering irremediable loss at the hands of willfully antagonistic thesis advisers?

Nothing is more symptomatic of our age than this objection, with its implicit argument for unmitigated standardization. It would eliminate from consideration everything not measurable, which is to say, everything qualitative, which is to say, everything giving individual character to the human being.

Certainly educators can lose their objectivity; they can yield to biases of one sort or another. But in no domain do we solve this by denaturing human relationships so that the opportunity for bias and subjective error does not arise. We can overcome our subjective limitations only by overcoming them, only by seeing more truly, more deeply.

We can, and should, try to build some checks and balances into the arrangement (there is a place for standardization) but to eliminate the decisive role of profound and healing insight because it may fall short is like eliminating the institution of the family because there will inevitably be instances of child abuse. It is to say, in effect, "Let's cease our striving toward higher things, since to be human is to err." And it is to lose sight of the fact that an unduly zealous drive toward "objectivity" and standardization is a drive to erase ourselves. We are, after all, subjects, not objects.

A teacher can genuinely assess a student's achievement -- but only by meeting the student, by traveling along the path with him. This is likely to prove wrenching, and there is great risk: the experience may transform the teacher fully as much as the student. The difficulty in it is the difficulty in confronting another human spirit, and it's all too easy to pull back in fear. Without a doubt, it's simpler to disengage from the individual and resort to the comfortingly definitive testimony of the standardized test.

All this bears on the transfer of credits between institutions. We do not have to impose diversity-killing standardization to enable student movement between institutions. If teachers know what it means to have a grasp of their own subject matter, and if they must eventually determine their students' adequacy before conferring a credit or a degree, why can't they just determine their students' adequacy? Why do they need the reassurance of a certain number of standardized credit hours on a transcript? Is it that, like convicts putting in prison time, students must "pay their dues"?

Obviously, a record of "dues" paid will prove helpful. For one thing, a teacher's knowledge of a student can fully develop only over the entire course of study, so on what basis does the student get admitted in the first place? But the point is that personal knowledge, as well as standard measures, must be applied so far as possible from the very beginning. This introduces a balancing principle of flexibility, preventing a standardized system from simply crushing individual students.

Nothing to Teach

But there is one final piece of the puzzle of higher education. If the university is sinking into irrelevance, and if the student is disappearing from view, so, too, the subject matter of education is evaporating, leaving only the informational dregs of what once were living subjects. If, as I said above, we've been reconceiving education as the transfer of information from one database or brain to another, this is because what passes for knowledge within the various disciplines has more and more been reduced to the kind of decontextualized fact fit for such transfer.

The world we ought to be engaging has disappeared behind a tissue of brittle, yes-or-no abstractions. Just as we have ignored the student in favor of an array of measurements, so also we have turned our faces away from the world itself, as qualitatively given -- the world that might, unnervingly, speak to us. From the scientist's instrumentation to the sociologist's surveys, we have perfected the means for ignoring the immediate, expressive presence of the people and the natural phenomena around us, and therefore we have no meaningful context in which to anchor our swelling cascades of data.

This, of course, is a huge assertion -- as huge as the entire range of academic subjects. I can hardly justify it here. All I can essay now is to point at one particular symptom of the denaturing of what we call "knowledge."

If the efficient transfer of information is what educational institutions are all about, and if measuring the transfer of information is what credentials and certification are all about, and if gaining information in the first place is what the various academic disciplines are all about, then you'd think we must have some reasonable understanding of information. What is this stuff we are so busy gaining and transferring and measuring?

Last June I opened an address to more than 500 librarians in Washington, D.C., by saying, "I defy anyone here to tell me what information is." Seeing no takers, I asked how many in the audience, given several minutes to think, imagined they could write down a serviceable definition of "information." Not a single hand was raised.

Subsequently I put the same question to more than 300 librarians in Calgary, Alberta, and again no one raised a hand. Surely this should provoke some reflection in us (as I think it did in many of those remarkably good-humored and sensible librarians). Anyone looking at the contemporary educational scene with its ceaseless invocations of information as the source of enlightenment, empowerment and efficiency is fully entitled to stand up and shout: "What the hell is going on?"

Instead of this, however, an official respondent to one of my talks ventured this remark: "What's the problem? We all know what information is. It's the stuff our users need."

Unfortunately, this doesn't quite do it. Coal miners, McDonald's employees and dentists are also in the business of providing what their customers need. Does this make them information workers?

Actually, though, I think the respondent came as close as one can come to the substance of the prevailing usage: information is "stuff." Which makes him, I suppose, a stuff worker, and our age the Age of Stuff.

But there's another side to information, represented by the prestigious halo it has borrowed from the technical theory of information. The problem here is that, by design, meaning is excluded from the theory's purely statistical formulations. In terms of the theory, that is, information doesn't mean anything at all. The theory is simply not concerned with meaning -- which is why it can bring perfect mathematical precision to its analyses.

So we have a notion of information that is so vague and all-encompassing that it means just about everything -- "stuff." And we have a companion notion that parades wonderful precision by abandoning all consideration of meaning. Should we wonder that the institutions aspiring to "train tomorrow's information workers" lack any profound sense of their own mission?

Perhaps you think I exaggerate the confusion surrounding information. If so, just look at one of the fields where the concept of information figures most centrally: genetics. The historian of science, Lily E. Kay, has recently documented the "contradictions, misapplications, slippages, circularities, and aporias in the usages of the concepts of information, message, code, and language" within genetic research -- "problems acknowledged already in the 1950s." By 1968, she points out,

"the genome had become (erroneously, from a technical standpoint) an information system, an authorless book of life written in a speechless DNA language." (Lily E. Kay, "A Book of Life? How the Genome Became an Information System and DNA a Language," Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, vol. 41, no. 4, Summer 1998)

This misleading and completely obscure usage has gone a long way toward convincing the public that genetic engineers actually know what they're doing when they juggle and splice snippets of genetic "code." After all, the code is being "deciphered," yielding its precise content of "information" -- isn't it? And aren't we already experts at information processing -- moving bits of information around in a sensible fashion?

As any honest genetic engineer will tell you, the problem of understanding gene expression -- how specific genetic alterations will actually affect an organism -- is one we scarcely have a clue about today. The work proceeds, but it's largely trial and error. All the information talk only obscures this fact, in addition to being the purest gibberish in its own terms.

A penchant for gibberish is not exactly what one hopes for in those who propose to rewrite our genetic destinies. Nor is it what one hopes for in the academy. But, when it comes to the presumed informational core of the academic mission, gibberish is what we have. Recognizing this fact seems to me the first step in re-visioning education. I don't see any hope for educational reform until we can either get some reasonable clarity into our information talk, or else abandon it.

Maybe the next time I ask an audience what information is, at least one person will raise a hand. And, even better, maybe he will say, "Information is a hopelessly muddled notion. Let's talk about meaning."

Steve Talbott is editor of the online newsletter, NETFUTURE -- Technology and Human Responsibility and author of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst. [email protected]




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