As Carey recognizes, this does happen at many liberal-arts colleges. Professors are active scholars, scientists, writers, and artists—they are creating knowledge on campus, not just disseminating it. The students feel strongly about this; they recognize that learning is more powerful when it is active rather than only receptive. This can also happen at larger universities—but it takes creative design and purposeful investment.
As president of a small institution focused on undergraduate liberal education, I may be expected to defend the status quo. But I do not. We now have an opportunity for fundamental change in higher ed, but that shouldn’t translate into the reduction of its mission. Online education will be part of the new, more effective hybrid educational platforms. I have taught two different MOOCs myself and have found the experience exhilarating. I’ve witnessed students from around the world engage with one another and with me in intellectual cross-training, what Carey describes as developing “broad patterns and principles that transfer to new environments.” In discussion groups, many MOOC participants express the intense desire to come to a university campus—a physical place, however hybrid, at which they can pursue learning beyond digital screens.
My small institution has served over 1 million students from more than 120 countries through MOOCs in less than three years. These classes have been free for the students, and it has been absolutely thrilling for the professors who have devoted a good portion of their careers to helping students learn and now are touching so many, many more. Alas, that sense of devotion, a feeling I’ve encountered at American colleges and universities across the country, is not something the Carey seems to recognize. Or, at least, it doesn’t fit into his “this needs disruption” narrative. As Jill Lepore demonstrated last year in The New Yorker, the idea of disruption is “transfixed by change” and “blind to continuity,” and thus “makes a very poor prophet.”
Whatever the technology, the tradition of pragmatic liberal education empowers students by addressing them as whole, complex individuals—not just as users or eyeballs. Let’s not succumb to the techno-fantasy of thinking higher ed can be hacked into an app—comparable to ordering a taxi or arranging a date via a selfie. In the 19th century, Emerson urged students to “resist the vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever to barbarism.” He emphasized that a true education would help one find one’s own way by expanding his or her world, not narrowing it: Notice everything, but imitate nothing, he urged. Carey’s book should challenge readers to develop this cultivated attentiveness beyond the traditional university.
The most important lesson of recent commentary on higher ed isn’t about disruption; it’s about the importance of learning as a way of life that can be made much more accessible with tools both old and new. If professors and administrators invest in student learning with the same intensity that they’ve applied to research and the trappings of prestige, America may yet have the chance to avoid the end of college.