Liberating Liberal Education

By Tom Lindsay

Peter Lawler’s “The Downside of MOOCified Disruption” challenges my op-ed, “Confronting MOOC Melancholy.”  Let’s start where he and I apparently agree, and see where the logos leads.

First, I argue in my piece that higher education suffers from watered-down standards and ideologically-driven instruction.  Lawler agrees, writing, “Political correctness has corrupted the humanities and social sciences.”

Second, higher education is growing increasingly unaffordable. Tuitions nationwide have jumped 400 percent in the past quarter-century. To keep pace, students have taken on historic debt ($1.1 trillion).

Third, and most important, Lawler agrees with me that most students have little choice between face-to-face instruction and online learning.  Instead, the bulk of courses taught in the first two years at most universities takes place not in discussion-driven seminars but in lecture halls attended by hundreds.

At this point we diverge, and the divergence is instructive.  I argue that online courses can replace lectures at less cost and with learning outcomes shown to be at least equal to face-to-face instruction.  Lawler objects that I don’t “suggest any way of giving more of our students such a face-to-face experience, ” which would be “genuinely disruptive” (emphasis mine).

In reality, much of my and other reformers’ work seeks precisely to restore the centrality of classroom instruction, through championing reducing administrative bloat, rewarding excellent teachers, reducing publication requirements, and returning to the higher average teaching loads taught a mere quarter-century ago.

If Lawler neglects such recommendations as not “genuinely disruptive,” he is left with two other means to increase “face-to-face experience.” The first follows Charles Murray’s genuinely disruptive proposal, animated by the proposition that too many now enroll in college, as part of the utopian “college-for-all” movement.   But, rather than reduce enrollment, Lawler insists we give “more of our students such a face-to-face experience,” which requires additional funds to hire a sufficient number of professors to do away with lecture courses.  Doing so appears to be what Lawler lauds as “genuinely disruptive.”

Given his own critique of political correctness, this move would be far from disruptive.  Nor it is possible. From where would come the money to expand?  From extracting still more tuition from students and parents already mired in debt?  From cash-strapped states or our debt- and deficit-ridden federal government?  This is the reality ignored by the blithe challenge to “give more of our students” more face-time with instructors.

It is also the reality with which serious deliberation must begin.  Deliberation, writes Aristotle, concerns only matters within our power.  Given the plethora of students attending college, asserting that the solution lies in finding a way to “give more of our students such a face-to-face experience” is not deliberation. It is wishing.

Another reality ignored in Lawler’s account is that the majority of students seeking postsecondary education (certificates and two- and four-year degrees) are “nontraditional”; they are over 25, and/or working fulltime, and/or supporting families. If online education can give the new majority a chance at the American dream through providing accessible, affordable degrees, this would be no small accomplishment.

A greater accomplishment still was outlined in my piece, though ignored in Lawler’s summary. I write that online education may offer discontented-because-unchallenged students 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.

Therefore, I conclude that, “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.” My hope here rests in another conviction shared by Lawler–the liberating power of the Great Books, which in time could come to be studied more often, and more seriously, online than elsewhere.

Lawler finds this hope guilty of elevating “techno-calculative capabilities” over humane learning, and resorts to charging its proponents with having  “every incentive” to deceive society “not to worry about what excessive time in front of screens is doing to the human soul.” Alas, imputing bad motives falls perilously close to parroting what Lawler condemns in our universities’ pervasive relativism, which, he writes, “is used to convince students that behind every claim for the truth there’s a hidden agenda of oppression.”

Moreover, the reality is that our young already live in front of their screens; so, why not try to put Great-Books classes in front of them?  Somehow, Lawler deems this effort “war with what remains of liberal education in our country.”

Now supplied with my full argument, readers may decide for themselves.

Tom Lindsay, Ph.D., is director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation Center for Higher Education.

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