What is valuable, one-of-a-kind and can’t be copied while retaining its original worth? The high-end art market. It contains thousands of works of art whose value is determined by what any individual or group is willing to pay. As the prices for such works of art escalate, something almost magical happens: the value pushes most of the works by particular artists beyond the market itself, rendering them, in effect, priceless, thus apparently entombed forever in museums and circulated no longer in the marketplace but among safe and secure institutions of display.
Now consider by analogy the modern university and its relationship to the public. What is a professor? Joseph Epstein once quipped that “a professor is someone who talks in someone else’s sleep.” What better definition of professor could there be for the coming era of the MOOC celebrity? Pajamas media adds the classroom to its list of new venues in which one can go to school, not exactly homeschooling, but the new approximation of no-guilt hooky. Imagine a world in which “going to school” is transformed into “having school”. “I am having school at the moment (I could put it on hold, but I don’t want to lose my concentration), can I call you back?”
The “instructor” for those having school provides inspired lectures with many new bells and whistles (literally) that have been developed by the best psychological engineers of our time, just the right cadence and tone to stimulate even those who prefer to have school horizontally, or while eating and drinking. The new professor no longer teaches in a concerted way, rather the concert, as it were, is pre-recorded, available on demand, and can be endlessly played back. This new figure of teaching authority has nothing to learn from students through real-time interaction. The teacher’s identity is two-dimensional, not simply distant, but fictional in the same way that characters in a novel are “real” in our imagination. There is something to commend in this respect. Every act of creation invites some notice. The life of the novel and the life of the two-dimensional teacher are to one another as Guttenberg and the printing press are to Edison and the phonograph. That the genius of one is about to replace the genius of the other as the mainstream of creative notice is being lamented by humanists nearly across the board. But the real problem is not the disappearing of one and the hegemony of the other.
The real problem is that eventually the new creations (MOOCS) will wear out their welcome. We see little public enthusiasm or handwringing about the possibilities of MOOCs for kindergarten or even up the chain to high school. After all, those kids already watch and experience the world too much in two-dimensions. This seems exclusively a deal to wring out greater efficiencies in the costs of higher education, as one ostensible rationale. That the private institutions are taking the lead is even more interesting. With their substantial endowments, their flirtations with technology have become full-fledged romances with guiding their teaching corps toward greater and greater performance conformity. What memory remains of the wholly idiosyncratic curmudgeon whose classroom was a floating board of coherence in a sea of incoherence is distant and evermore foreign to the experience of learning in the most elite institutions. Such earlier figures are gradually recalled more as monsters (e.g., sexists in particular) than as great teachers. The transition is more than a matter of diversity. We are already selecting out personalities that offend the abiding conformity that MOOCs promise to deliver.
The implications of changes in where the leadership in higher education is taking us are not only about the unintended consequences of elite infatuations with technology. The long arc of influence that began with multiculturalism and its reduction of identity and identification to simplistic and over-determined demographic categories of race, class, and gender has finally begun to bear fruit in the guise of globalization. Someday, I predict, Yale University will be primarily based in China and New Haven will be but a burnt-out remnant of a city whose crown jewel will have survived in three dimensions elsewhere. The vast majority of human beings want to know where they stand in the status hierarchies that will never be leveled by such two-dimensional tricks as MOOCs or by a romance with transnationalism that imagines by bringing American institutions to their knees, such institutions will not arise precisely in the places regarded so much now as havens of opportunity.