Confronting MOOC Melancholy

By Thomas K. Lindsay

Have we fallen prey to MOOC mania? A recent article by Professor Peter Lawler, a distinguished humanist, raises deeper concerns about these "massive open online courses" than we usually hear.

Lawler finds faith in the "disruption" promised by MOOC supporters ill-founded. "The truth is that 'disruption theory' ... means replacing an expensive and often self-indulgent concern for quality with doing what's required to come up with a cheaper alternative that's good enough for giving students what they need" to get jobs. But "this transformative agenda includes putting the higher quality but higher priced brands out of business." This is "not a real issue when it comes to software or tablets," which entail "nothing essential to human flourishing," but that's not "true when it comes to the disappearance of close reading of the 'real books' of philosophy, literature, theology, and so forth, the study of history, and the disciplined appreciation of art and music because they're unreliable and not cost-efficient."

It is delightful to read an academic defending the proposition that close reading of Great Books is essential to human flourishing. More sympathetic I could not be.

But is close reading of Great Books really being sacrificed at the altar of MOOC mania? As a former college teacher of political philosophy, I will be the first to say that online courses are inadequate substitutes for the face-to-face, small-class, discussion-driven close reading of the Great Books required in my field and others. In Plato's Republic, Socrates comments that his adversary, Thrasymachus, blushes during their debate over the nature of justice. Plato intends by this observation to invite us to reason about the connection between the phenomenon of blushing and Thrasymachus' view of justice. Thinking about why Thrasymachus blushes becomes essential to thinking clearly about what justice is.

Similarly, humanities courses, especially, require face-to-face discussion. This cannot occur in an online course, however rigorous it might otherwise be.

Nevertheless, I don't share Lawler's MOOC melancholy. In reality, "online" versus "face-to-face" instruction is rarely the choice before students, the bulk of whom take fewer than half of their courses in the optimal setting just described. Instead, much of students' two years of "general education courses" (which, along with "distribution requirements," are the present-day imposters for a genuine core curriculum) occurs in cavernous auditoriums seating hundreds, laptops in front of them. Any interaction with an instructor usually consists in a chance to consult a graduate assistant. This is one reason for MOOCs' attractiveness.

There are others. In a recent article on this site, I described the decay of America’s universities, which largely have abandoned Professor Lawler’s noble vision of education through their 50-year dismantling of required core courses, including the civic education that is indispensable to maintaining political freedom. Today, few colleges require even one course in American government. Why? Carol Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, finds among today's academics "not just a neglect of but a resistance to college-level study of United States democratic principles."

Worse than jettisoning an education in political freedom, universities have abandoned the effort to cultivate intellectual freedom, the peak of what Professor Lawler rightly describes as "human flourishing." For a time, universities always regarded the highest freedom to be intellectual -- freedom from unexamined assumptions, from ideology and prejudice. Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind describes how today's humanities, dominated by moral relativism, deny the possibility of intellectual freedom, because they reject the existence of the "self-evident" (absolute) truths liberal learning seeks. Today's humanities reduce the age-old quest to discover the "good life" to what they deem more essential: the will to power in the service of race, class, and gender, resulting in relentless classroom propagandizing rooted in the postmodern proposition that past education aimed not to expose the truth for all but to impose Western hegemony on "the other."

Worse still, the illiberal makeover of liberal education may become more institutionalized, and with this task the federal government is here to help -- through the administration-endorsed national curriculum for collegiate civic education, "A Crucible Moment," which proposes transforming civic education into the promotion of radical egalitarianism and progressive activism, principles antithetical to the limited government and individual liberty that lie at the heart of "American exceptionalism." Moreover, a new "sexual harassment" standard announced by the Departments of Justice and Education will, critics say, make "nearly every student ... a harasser, completely ignoring the First Amendment."

Add to the above rampant grade inflation and abysmal student-learning outcomes, and you glean the reality of much of education, whose grimness makes MOOCs and other alternatives, such as Texas’s new "$10,000 degree," more palatable. While Lawler is correct that the coming higher-education bazaar will feature bizarre and illiberal offerings, a good deal of that is near-institutionalized already, with students finding little opportunity to escape.

Online education may offer an escape by establishing separate islands of learning, where seeds may be planted from which genuine education might come again to flourish. This is the mission of two entities with which I've been working recently. LibertasU is launching a set of online courses consisting of real-time, discussion-driven seminars in the Great Books. The Great Books Honor College of Faulkner University has been doing this for four years.

My other reservations notwithstanding, I embrace MOOCs because they may offer a way out. Given higher education's systemic corruption, a way out may be our children's only means to a way up.

Thomas K. Lindsay directs the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and is editor of SeeThruEdu.com. He was deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under George W. Bush. He recently published Investigating American Democracy with Gary D. Glenn (Oxford Press).

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