The Net and Higher Education

It seems to me that the “vision” offered by what was supposed to be a provocative issue of the Tomorrow’s Professor listserv, the excerpt from Burck Smith’s “Higher Education: The Vision [2015],” was neither a vision nor provocative. It is in fact merely a fuller, more imaginative articulation of what has really become a cliche, that the net is THE place for realization of the corporate mentality’s belief in “more, better, faster, with less,” especially at the level of knowledge production — or at least knowledge inculcation.

While I am, as well as others like me, more than tempted to scribble a Swiftean counter-statement, along the lines of “A Modest Proposal” or “Gulliver’s Travels,” I think it’s even more telling to make a counterfactual argument, one that reveals just how low our pants have been pulled down: there is no desire for knowledge for the most part in corporations. One need only look to the exponential increase in third-party consulting groups to see the dynamic at work: any and all undesirable consequences are in the end deferable to consultants, who as certified bearers of knowledge, should have all the answers. (Of course, the lovely irony here is that consultants always have the opportunity to rage about how clients did not follow through.)

Certification, or deferment, is exactly the point here. Quite often employers are not looking to hire the best and brightest but simply those who have been certified as being the shiniest, either by class ranking, school ranking, or both. No one has time anymore, since the internet is now the speed of business (to jumble a couple of ad campaign slogans together), and so there is no time for human interaction, interaction which would reveal the fit and fitness of individuals within organizations. Everyone is too busy checking off boxes. (Anyone who has suffered any contact with the paper end of HR departments will know exactly what I mean.)

Now along comes the internet, which would seem to offer the exciting possibility of no real human contact, but unfortunately it does not offer us the certification processes that most corporations want out of an institutionally-backed diploma. This leaves business, which is the driving force behind much of the net’s recent expansion, in a real quandary. How do they know that the person who lists off twenty internet courses actually learned anything without having a crimped transcript in front of them? Horrors. They would have to talk with them.

Human interaction, then, has to occur at some point in the process in order for the system to bear up, either in the form of professors engaging students in the classroom or HR personanel engaging applicants in the interview. My preference would be for this happening all along the way, but all the visions I have so far seen go in precisely the opposite way, which I believe most humbly is the wrong way.

Then again, what do I know? I left a well-paying job as a management consultant to become a folklorist. I actually like talking with people and finding out what they know, much of which has never graced the screens of the internet.