Amooc Time

28 March 2013, 1105 EDT

About a month ago I wrote that:

The recent obsession with MOOCs has its roots in three interlocking trends: the application of business-school speak to higher education, technology fetishism, and the quest to push down labor costs. It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that these are three faces of late-modern capitalism: the colonization of all modes of life by scripts associated with capitalist exchange relations, the “virtuous cycle” of rent-seeking by advocates of “creative destruction,” and relentless pressure to enhance profit by increasing capital-labor ratios.

I’ve been intending to expand on these claims. But now David Brockington has basically written a better version of that nascent post, so I’m going to outsource to him.

As many expat American professors working in Britain tell me, the UK looks an awful lot like the extrapolation of current trends in US academia. And that future isn’t pretty.

These two issues, the commercialisation of academia and the erosion of academic freedom, are tightly interwoven. The erosion of academic freedom (and, concomitantly, tenure) has side effects, magnified when combined with a concentration on teaching specific skill sets in a vocational manner rather than more general cognitive / critical skills. In other words, teaching a set of facts and practices with “fairly definitive answers” as opposed to teaching students how to think and engage critically with the material, whatever that material might be and whatever direction critical engagement takes the student.  Side effects include the loss of autonomy for the professor, in both research and teaching, the loss of individuality for the student, and the treatment of the latter as little more than a revenue stream, the former mere content providers.  Indeed, the mission of the entire enterprise (erm, university) becomes devoted to enhancing revenue streams, in which the production and dissemination of knowledge is useful only insofar that this can be exploited towards the end goal of profit.

Brockington’s narrative explores what this looks like in practice. Obviously, there are important contextual differences between the US and the UK, including  the idiosyncrasies of British bureaucracy and the degree that educational funding is centralized at the national level. But what’s happened in Britain remains instructive.

What’s particularly depressing about the whole thing is how self-destructive it is. Quality higher education is the last remaining jewel in Britain’s faded imperial crown, yet the government has set out to destroy it for largely ideological reasons. Similarly, the American post-secondary educational system is the envy of most of the world — particularly for the way it nurtures critical and independent thinking — yet many seem intent on demolishing it as well.