Juvenile U


At Duke University and the University of North Carolina, two highly popular professors have transformed their course Think Again: How to Reason and Argue into a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) that is taken by 170,000 people from all over the world at one time. This is old news. There is nothing to worry about when hundreds of thousands of people around the world watch flashy lectures by top professors on how to think and argue. Better such diversions than playing Temple Run. There are advantages and benefits from MOOCs and other forms of computer learning. And we should not run scared from MOOCs.

But the alacrity with which universities are adopting MOOCs as a way of cutting costs and marketing themselves as international brands harbors a danger too. The danger is not that more people will watch MOOCs or that MOOCs might be used to convey basic knowledge inside or outside of universities. No, the real danger in MOOCs is that watching a professor on your Ipad becomes confused with education.


You know elite universities are in trouble when their professors say things like Edward Rock. Rock, Distinguished Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and coordinator of Penn’s online education program, has this to say about the impending revolution in online education:

We’re in the business of creating and disseminating knowledge. And in 2012, the internet is an incredibly important place to be present if you’re in the knowledge dissemination business.

If elite colleges are in the knowledge dissemination business, then they will over time be increasingly devalued and made less relevant. There is no reason that computers or televisions can’t convey knowledge as well or even better than humans. Insofar as professors and colleges imagine themselves to be in the “business of creating and disseminating knowledge,” they will be replaced by computers. And it will be their own fault.

The rising popularity of MOOCs must be understood not as a product of new technology, but as a response to the failure of our universities. As Scott Newstock has argued, the basic principle behind MOOCs is hardly new. Newstock quotes one prominent expert who argues that the average distance learner “knows more of the subject, and knows it better, than the student who has covered the same ground in the classroom.” Indeed, “the day is coming when the work done [via distance learning] will be greater in amount than that done in the class-rooms of our colleges.” What you might not expect is that this prediction was made in 1885. “The commentator quoted above was Yale classicist (and future University of Chicago President) William Rainey Harper, evaluating correspondence courses.” What Newstock’s provocation shows is that efforts to replace education with knowledge dissemination have been around for centuries. But they have failed, at least until now.

MOOCs are so popular today because of the sadly poor quality of much—but certainly not all—college and university education. Around the country there are cavernous lecture halls filled with many hundreds of students. A lone professor stands up front, often with a PowerPoint presentation in a darkened room. Students have their computers open. Some are taking notes, but many are checking Facebook or surfing the Internet. Some are asleep. And others did not bother to show up, since the professor has posted his or her lecture notes online so that students can just read them instead of making the effort to make it to class. Such lectures may be half-decent ways to disseminate knowledge. Some lectures are better than others. But not much learning goes on in such lectures that can’t be simply replicated more efficiently and maybe even better on a computer. It is in this context that advocates of MOOCs are correct. When one compares a large lecture course with a well-designed online course, it may very well be that the online course is a superior educational venture. That it is cheaper too makes the advance of MOOCs seemingly inevitable.

As I have written here before, the best argument for MOOCs is that they may finally put the large and impersonal college lecture course out of its misery. There is no reason to be nostalgic for the lecture course. It was never a very good idea. Aside from a few exceptional lecturers—in my world I can think of the reputations of Hegel, his student Eduard Gans, Martin Heidegger, and, of course, Hannah Arendt—college lectures are largely an economical way to allow masses of students to acquire basic introductory knowledge in a field. If the masses are now more massive and the lectures more accessible, I’ll accept that as progress.

What this means is that there is an opportunity, at this moment, to embrace MOOCs as a disruptive force that will allow us to re-dedicate our universities and colleges to the practice of education as opposed to the business of knowledge dissemination. What colleges and universities need to offer is not simply knowledge, but education.

“Education,” as Martin Luther King wrote, “must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking.” Quick and resolute thinking requires that one “think incisively” and  “think for one’s self.” This “is very difficult.” The difficulty comes from the seduction of conformity and the power of prejudice. “We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda.” We are all educated into prejudgments. They are human and it is inhuman to live free from prejudicial opinions and thoughts. On the one hand, education is the way we are led into and brought into a world as it exists, with its prejudices and values. And yet, education must also produce self-thinking persons, people who, once they are educated and enter the world as adults, are capable of judging the world into which they been born. (I have written more about King’s thoughts on education here).

In her essay “The Crisis in Education,” Hannah Arendt writes that education must have a double aspect. First, education leads a new young person into an already existing world. The world is that which is there before the child was born and will continue to exist after the child dies. It is the common world of things, stories, and experiences in which all of us spend our lives. All children, as newcomers who are born into a world that is at first strange to them, must be led into the already existing world. They must be taught to speak a common language, respect common values, see the same facts, and hear the same stories. This common world is what Arendt calls the “truth… we cannot change; metaphorically, it is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.” In its first aspect, then, education must protect the world from “the onslaught of the new that bursts upon it with each new generation.” This is the conservationist function of education: to conserve the common world against the rebelliousness of the new. And this is why Arendt writes, “Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it.”

At the same time, however, there is a second aspect of education that seeks to afford the child “special protection and care so that nothing destructive may happen to him from the world.” The teacher must nurture the independence and newness of each child, what “we generally call the free development of characteristic qualities and talents… the uniqueness that distinguishes every human being from every other.” The teacher must not simply love the world, but as part of the world in which we live, the teacher must also love the fact—and it is a fact—that the world will change and be transformed by new ideas and new people. Education must love this transformative nature of children, and we must “love our children enough” so that we do not “strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.” Alongside its conservationist role, education also must be revolutionary in the sense that it prepares students to strike out and create something altogether new.

Now is the time to use the disruption around MOOCs to rethink and re-invigorate our commitment to education and not simply to the dissemination of knowledge. This will not be easy.

A case in point is the same Duke University Course mentioned above, “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue.” In a recent article by Michael Fitzgerald, the Professors— Walter Sinnott-Armstrong from Duke and Ram Neta of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill— describe how teaching their MOOC led them to radically re-conceive how they teach in physical university classrooms. Here is Fitzgerald:

“The big shift: far fewer in-class lectures. Students will watch the lectures on Coursera beginning Monday. “Class will become a time for activities and also teamwork,” said Sinnott-Armstrong. He’s devised exercises to help on-campus students engage with the concepts in the class, including a college bowl-like competition, a murder mystery night and a scavenger hunt, all to help students develop a deeper understanding of the material presented in the lectures. “You can have these fun activities in the classroom when you’re not wasting the classroom time with the lectures,” he said.”

What we see here is that the mass appeal of MOOCs and their use as a way of replacing lectures is not being seized as an opportunity to make education more serious, but as an excuse to make college more fun. That professors at two of this country’s elite universities see it as progress that classes are replaced by murder mystery games and scavenger hunts is evidence of a profound confusion between education and infotainment. I have no doubt that much can be learned through fun and games. Children learn through games and it makes all the sense in the world that Finland allows children in schools to play until they are seven or eight years old. Even in primary or at times in secondary school, simulations and games may be useful. But there is a limit. Education, at least higher education, is not simply fun and games in the pursuit of knowledge.

As Arendt understood, education requires that students be nurtured and allowed to grow into adults who think for themselves in a serious and engaged way about the world. This is one reason Arendt is so critical of reformist pedagogy that seeks to stimulate children—especially older children in secondary schools and even college—to learn through play. When we teach children a foreign language through games instead of through grammar or when we make them learn history by playing computer games instead of by reading and studying, we “keep the older child as far as possible at the infant level. The very thing that should prepare the child for the world of adults, the gradually acquired habit of work and of not-playing, is done away with in favor of the autonomy of the world of childhood.” The same can be said of university courses that adopt the juvenile means of primary and secondary education.


The reasons for such a move to games in the classroom are many. Games are easy, students love them, and thus they fill massive classes, leading to superstar professors who can command supersized salaries. What is more, games work. You can learn a language through games. But games rarely teach seriousness and independence of thought.

The rise of MOOCs and the rise of fun in the college classroom are part of the trend to reduce education to a juvenile pursuit. One hardly needs an advanced degree to oversee a scavenger hunt or prepare students to take a test. And scavenger hunts, as useful as they may be in making learning fun, will hardly inculcate the independence of mind and strength of character that will produce self-thinking citizens capable of renewing the common world.

The question of how to address the crisis in education today—the fact that an ever more knowledgeable population with greatest access to information than at any time in the history of the world is perhaps the most politically illiterate citizenry in centuries—is the theme of the upcoming Hannah Arendt Center Conference, “Failing Fast: The Educated Citizen in Crisis.” In preparation for the conference, you can do nothing better than to re-read Hannah Arendt’s essay, “The Crisis in Education.” You can also buy Between Past and Future the book of essays in which it appears. However you read it, “The Crisis in Education” is your weekend read.


Posted on 13 September 2013 | 1:18 pm

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