Something is rotten in the state of higher education: time for change!

Higher education today is like a feudal castle, with the King living in opulence, his knights doing well as long as they serve the king faithfully, and the servants toiling away in perpetual bondage.

President Shirley Ann Jackson of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, is the highest paid private college president in the land

President Shirley Ann Jackson of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, is the highest paid private college president in the land

Thoughts of Elsinore are rising to mind today because of a new report detailing just how wealthy those academic Kings are: The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that “In 2010, 36 private-college presidents earned more than $1 million,” and among the 493 presidents surveyed at private American colleges with budgets exceeding $50 million, the median compensation was $396,649.”

In contrast, a recent American Association of University Professors survey found the average faculty salary at American institutions of higher education to be $82,000—but this average is pulled way down by the inclusion of “instructors” in the mix, for whom the average salary was $47,000.

Tenured faculty, in the Elsinore analogy, would be the nobles of the realm, the knighted vassals who serve the King in the castle, and are richly rewarded for their allegiance.

They are supported by a legion of staff, including graduate teaching assistants and adjunct faculty, whose salary falls behind the cost of living a little more each year.

And then there are the serfs in the system, whose labor supports it all: the students and their parents, many of whom are forced into a new kind of debt bondage to attain the gold ring of that vaunted college degree—paying ever-increasing tuition, and ever-increasing taxes as well.

What would make young Hamlet really moody these days is the growing recognition that the college degree just isn’t worth what it used to be.

Kevin Carey, director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation, cites Academically Adrift, the damning study by Richard Arum and Josipa Ruksa, which “found that many students at traditional colleges showed no improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing, and spent their time socializing, working or wasting time instead of studying.”  And then, he adds, there are all the students who enter college but never end up graduating, often because the price is too high or the academic work too dull.

At the graduate level, too, there is a sense of crisis.

According to Chronicle of Higher Education reporter Stacey Patton, “The student-debt problem, coupled with the dearth of jobs, has sparked a national conversation about whether going to graduate school is worth it.”

At the Council on Graduate Schools annual meeting this month, Patton reports, the buzz was about whether it’s “unethical to keep admitting students to programs and training them for jobs that don’t exist while they are racking up piles of debt only to risk finding university employment as just an adjunct, or obtaining some other low-wage job for which a graduate degree is not necessary, or ending up on food stamps.

Poor Hamlet, who just wanted to go back to Wittenberg and bury himself in philosophy!

These days, the humanities are particularly beleaguered, with leaders among the humanities professoriate having to constantly deliver pep talks to the rank and file on why what we’re doing matters.

“We should keep telling our students (and their parents) that ‘doing the humanities’ prepares them generally in a way no narrow occupational degree can,” says Rosemary Feal, Executive Director of the Modern Language Association.

“When we say the word research,” she continues, “most people don’t think of the humanities, and they have trouble recognizing the product as useful. It’s true that “doing the humanities” doesn’t produce scientific knowledge that can, say, cure cancer. But it can yield imaginative works on cancer like Susan Gubar’s Memoir of a Debulked Woman and Mary Cappello’s Called Back: My Reply to Cancer, My Return to Life that change people’s lives.”

It’s interesting that when pressed to think of humanities work that “changes people’s lives,” Feal points to two memoirs as examples.

As someone who is currently writing a memoir, and who has studied personal narrative since my dissertation (entitled Hybrid Encounters: Postcolonial Autobiographies of the Americas), I have to agree with Feal that personal narratives have great educational value.

Human beings have been sitting around campfires telling stories since we first began to use language.

We have always learned by listening to our elders hand down traditional stories, and inventing new ones.

The tragedy of Hamlet, for example, was Shakespeare’s reworking of the older Scandinavian tale, and it illustrates vividly the dangers of puffed up pride, greed and ruthless ambition.

The desire of Claudius for wealth and power blinds his moral sense, and in killing his brother, marrying his sister-in-law, and plotting to kill his nephew, he sets the stage for the total destruction of the royal house of Elsinore, leaving it ripe for the plucking of the neighboring Prince, Fortinbras, who is as decisive and aggressive as Hamlet is moody and tentative.

In our current educational landscape, the Fortinbras army waiting in the wings might be robotic: the legions of online courses that are swiftly breeching the walls of Castle Academe.

Online learning has the potential to be as revolutionary as the rise of industrial capitalism back in the 19th century.  Suddenly the educational territory cannot be entirely controlled by the King in his castle, although to be sure he is dispatching his Knights left and right to try to secure his boundaries—every day brings word of new online learning consortiums or treaties being signed in the scramble to lock down the goldmines of higher learning.

But what kind of educational model are those Kings of Academe trying so hard to protect and secure?

The kinds of subjects that lend themselves best to MOOC virtual classrooms (that’s Massive Open Online Courses, for those new to the territory) are those that can be taught by lecture and multiple-choice exams.

But does young Hamlet, or any other thoughtful, creative young person, really want to be lectured to and tested on canned, pre-recorded knowledge?

Wouldn’t he rather be engaged in a dialogue with his elders, or a dynamic, free-ranging conversation among his peers and their mentors?

Online technology does have the power to help open up multiple conversational platforms.  Since the advent of the internet, we humans are conversing globally in ever-expanding ways, and the price of admission to the conversation is fairly low: a computer and an internet connection is all you need, for starters, to get into the game.

But to succeed in this brave new social landscape, you do need competence with those familiar old tools of the humanities trade: the ability to read and analyze critically; the ability to write and speak with precision and thoughtfulness; the ability to sort through, understand and analyze the massive amounts of complex data that are thrown at us every day through the media.

The Kings of Academe must not lose sight of this bedrock mission of higher education in their rush to consolidate their hold on the online learning market.

The old model of having students physically living on a campus with their professors on the outskirts may not hold up in the 21st century, other than at a few of the most fabulously wealthy castles like Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

Is it worth having students and their parents bury themselves in debt to afford the tuitions that keep brick-and-mortar campuses running?

Maybe not.

But in this transition time, let’s make sure we hold on to what’s best in the old system, while getting rid of what no longer works.

I am all for increasing the horizontal democratization of learning, which is the promise of online education, as long as it doesn’t lead to the pauperization of the professoriate, the students and their parents, all toiling beneath bloated administrators.

It’s possible that we may be able to transition to what is now being called “blended learning” environments, rather like today’s distance MFA programs, which convene students for intensive sessions four times a year, but otherwise have them working in small online learning groups facilitated by a professor.

But it’s also possible that it may be time for some really profound change.  What if, instead of having to choose between Elsinore and Wittenberg, young Hamlet could reject both these traditional poles and instead strike off on his own, relying just on his own creativity, wits and drive?

What if he could access the maps, equipment and tools he needed to succeed from other entrepreneurs like himself, free agents circulating their skills in the grand market of online ideas?

Maybe massive fortunes wouldn’t be made this way, but isn’t it becoming painfully clear that the growth and accumulation model of economics is crashing and burning these days, going down like Claudius under the weight of its own greed?

A new kind of barter system might work just as well or better, if the goal were happiness and productivity, rather than frantically making enough cash to stay ahead of the debt collectors.

Joi Ito

Joi Ito

I am excited by the vision of Joi Ito, the dynamic new director of MIT’s influential Media Lab program.  Ito, profiled in a recent issue of WiredUK magazine, wants to break down the castle walls of academe, and get students and their professors out into the streets where the action is.

“In the old days,” he told WiredUK,  “being relevant was writing academic papers. Today, if people can’t find you on the internet, if they’re not talking about you in Rwanda, you’re irrelevant. That’s the worst thing in the world for any researcher.”

At the Media Lab, it’s not about students passively sitting and taking in a professor’s canned words of wisdom.  Instead, posses of students and professors work together in the labs and out on the streets to find creative solutions to real-world problems.

“By opening up the Media Lab,” WiredUK reports, “Ito hopes to move closer towards his goal of  ‘a world with seven billion teachers,’ where smart crowds, adopting a resilient approach and a rebellious spirit, solve some of the world’s great problems.

“His is a world of networks and ecosystems, in which unconstrained creativity can tackle everything from infant mortality to climate change.

“‘We want to take the DNA [of the lab], the secret sauce, and drop it into communities, into companies, into governments,’ he says. ‘It’s my mission, our mission, to spread that DNA. You can’t actually tell people to think for themselves, or be creative. You have to work with them and have them learn it themselves.’”

Ito has just placed his finger on the prime value of education at any level: helping young people learn how to think for themselves and be creative.

Young Hamlet had that gift, which is why he was able to escape the clutches of Claudius and maintain his own principles in even the poisonous atmosphere of Elsinore.

Laertes, whose poisoned sword kills both Hamlet and himself, is the other kind of student: the kind easily influenced by a corrupt mentor like Claudius into playing foul in the quest for personal gain.

In this day and age, we need to be teaching our young people not only to be creative problem-solvers, but also to be ethical, principled human beings who are willing to take risks and stand up for what is right and just—even if this means foregoing easily attainable blood money.

The Media Lab’s Ito has observed that “a lot of the kids at the Media Lab today don’t want to make more money, don’t want to become immortal, they just want to figure out how to fix this unhealthy system we have. There are lots of kids who are not happy with this massive consumerism, this unsustainable growth, but who have really smart science and technology values. That’s a type of person we can draw into what I think will become a movement.”

What kind of movement? A creative commons movement (Ito, by the way, was one of the founders of Creative Commons and the Mozilla Foundation), in which some of the key principles would be, in Ito’s words: “Encourage rebellion instead of compliance”; “Practice instead of theory”; ” Constant learning instead of education”; “Compass over map.”

Exactly the kind of principles that Hamlet employed to successfully navigate Elsinore—until he was undone by the treachery of Claudius and Laertes.

But get a billion young Hamlets–and Ophelias!–going, and there will be no stopping them.

“In the old days,” Ito told WiredUK,  “you needed hundreds of millions of dollars and armies of people to do anything that mattered. Today a couple of kids using open-source software, a generic PC and the internet can create a Google, a Yahoo! and a Facebook in their dorm room, and plug it in and it’s working even before they’ve raised money.

“That takes all the innovation from the centre and pushes it to the edges — into the little labs inside the Media Lab; inside dorm rooms; even inside terrorist cells. Suddenly the world is out of control — the people innovating, disrupting, creating these tools, they’re not scholars. They don’t care about disciplines. They’re antidisciplinary.”

This kind of talk, as Duke University professor Cathy N. Davidson observes, has many traditional educator-types quaking in their boots.

Tenured faculty tend to be rather complacent as a group, since their jobs are assured for life—unless, that is, their institutions fail.  The truth is that we are in a sea-change time when many of the weaker institutions of higher learning are likely to be weeded out.

We have, right now, a fantastic opportunity now to break out of what Davidson calls the “Fordist, production-line compartmentalizations and hierarchies of knowledge,” including ossified disciplines and stifling pedagogical models.

Those of us within the profession now need to be tunneling from within towards the freedom of creative expression that we and our students so desperately need.

Every discipline has a role to play, but only to the extent that we allow the disciplinary walls to become permeable, fostering the free germination of potent new ideas.

In the fresh air that will then begin to circulate in the musty corridors of academe, we will be able to hear rumors of the coming of a better world.

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