Higher Education is in a Crisis. A deep, dark, existential crisis which can only be blamed on its resistance to innovative disruption and its abandonment of cherished liberal arts principles. You might think that assertion is paradoxical, that it’s merely a buzzword-laden lede for academic clickbait, but you would be wrong. The humanities are dying. And the only way forward is to go back.
And then back again, like a cha-cha.
Indeed, Innovation, like the cha-cha, can be disruptive, cacophonous, and involve silly routines and lots of nonessential movement. It is long past time for Innovation to take its place in the hallowed, ivy-covered halls of America’s colleges and universities. Higher Education cannot afford to wait.
What makes Western education so worth saving is its resilience and adaptabity in the face of existential threats. Cutting-edge overgeneralizations culled from evolutionary science tell us that we’re hardwired to meet these existential threats via a combination of fight-or-flight response and provocative thinkpieces. American Higher Education stands at such a moment now, a disruptive juncture to end all disruptive junctures. At the end of the day, it will be the Innovators who preside over the College of the Future. And they will be joined by the Humanities professors who are brave enough to ignore the nattering nabobs of pedagogy and cling tenaciously to What Made Us Great. Both groups will win, or neither will. That’s the nature of Disruption.
I may be some years removed from my own undergraduate experience, but that won’t stop me from extrapolating from it to make boundless decrees about what today’s undergraduates need. I distinctly recall some of the lectures I attended as a Neophyte Humanist yearning for mentorship and guidance for my delicate, impressionable mind. There was the impressive vastness of the auditorium, the distinct smell of old books and mildewed ceiling tiles, the smooth boards of the front stage, worn down by the tread of many a Demosthenes imparting–nay, entrusting–the Western Tradition to a new generation. And now I was one link in that chain, stretching from the Agora to the Quad, which is where I hung out when I was skipping lectures. I remember everything that happened as if it were unfolding right now–the overhead projector and fuzzy transparencies, the lapel mic fading in and out, the sweet bliss of dozing off just enough where I could still hear the professor’s voice in my dreams. For today’s undergraduates not to have the chance to become a part of this great tradition whereby the sacred knowledge of a civilization is scattered well over the heads and beyond the ears of indifferent students is a travesty. The recent fetishization of “active learning” may be well and good for a Montesssori school, but this is the Humanities! The American University! And we do not suffer such research-based, empirically-verified silliness to intrude into our comfortable narrative of smug accomplishment.
To save Higher Education, and its handmaiden, the Humanities, we must then be open to the ‘un.’ We must unbundle the components of college, unlearn all of our stodgy traditions except the stodgiest (those are pure gold) and understand the myriad challenges facing Today’s Thought Leaders. The College of the Future will have to be nimble. To accomplish this, Agile Innovators can leverage technology to unbundle the University. Content providers are everywhere, so Today’s University will be cramming students into MOOCs. By seizing this economy of scale, the resulting savings on faculty salaries will be game-changing. The Innovative Edupreneurs can appoint a Director of Unbundling, whose mission will be to strategically unbundle every component of the undergraduate experience until we reach Peak Unbundled: a range of Apps on the devices of Digital Natives. These learners are now liberated from the irksome support structures and intellectual communities of a “traditional” campus and free to complete their badged credentials according to their individual learning platforms. That is, if they have digital literacy, access to a device, and a high-speed internet connection. But Today’s Students are fully digitally-enabled. It’s true because I took an Uber to Starbucks and saw everyone on their phones.
Most importantly, we must unbundle pedagogy. Enough of these so-called “Faculty Developers” with their research and best-practices hokum. With an unbundled pedagogy, faculty will be free to pursue the methods that suit them best in Today’s College environment and its challenges. Teaching six classes on five campuses requires creative use of time. Planning for active learning is hard. Lecturing is natural–just follow the publisher-supplied outline. It was lecturing that saved the West in the Cold War Era; as Niall Ferguson’s disruptive accounts of the 20th Century show us, communism’s emphasis on collaboration was the fatal flaw that doomed the USSR. Do we want to tread the same path, or do we Disrupt before we are Disrupted? We have a moral obligation to our venerated tradition of passively absorbing other’s interpretations. We have to model for our students exactly what the New University is: following a mass-produced script in a large faceless classroom for 20% of what an academician should be paid. If we don’t prepare our students for the Real World, then the Humanities will die.
Seriously. I’m holding them hostage right now.