- Created on Tuesday, 17 July 2012 16:09
If you’ve seen the movie Good Will Hunting, you’ll remember a scene between the psychologist, Sean, played by Robin Williams and his patient, Will, played by Matt Damon. Will has never been to college. It’s unclear whether he finished high school. But he’s a genius. Will’s sped-read his way through thousands of volumes from the Boston public library – from history, to philosophy, to literature, to (“just for fun”) organic chemistry – and can solve mathematical equations that stump the top professors at M.I.T. The scene I have in mind involves a psychotherapy session between Sean and Will, which unfolds as follows:
Sean: Do you feel like you’re alone Will?
Sean: Do you have a soul mate?
Will: Define that.
Sean: Someone who challenges you.
* * *
Will: I got plenty.
Sean: Well, name them.
Will: Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Frost, O’Connor, Kant, Pope, Locke.
Sean: That’s great. They’re all dead.
Will: Not to me they’re not.
Sean: You don’t have a lot of dialogue with them. You can’t give back to them Will.
While it’s not the movie – or even the scene’s – real point (and with apologies to screenwriters Matt Damon and Ben Affleck for using their work in a way they may not have intended), this exchange helps illustrate the difference between learning and education. Will may know more about a greater range of disciplines than anyone else on the planet, but he is not an educated person. He has not lived and studied in a community of his peers. He has not run the risk of offering up his own thoughts for others to critique and challenge. He does not know how to engage in meaningful interchanges with others and profit from them. What he has learned makes him able to perform tasks of great value – many enterprises want to hire him for his mathematical skills – but it has not given him joy, helped him decide how to live his life, or resulted in wisdom.
With this in mind, let’s turn to a story prominently featured in today’s New York Times and Washington Post.
The University of Virginia is joining a consortium that will offer online courses to mass audiences across the globe. The venture is a collaboration between a private firm, Coursera, and a dozen of the nation’s most prestigious universities, including Stanford, Princeton, Penn, and Caltech. Coursera has already offered – so far on an entirely free and open basis – 43 courses to 680,000 students in 190 countries.
Harvard and M.I.T. have formed a rival joint venture named edX. “Online education – it is revolutionary. Online education will change the world.” So said Anant Argarwal, director of M.I.T.’s computer science and artificial intelligence laboratory, when he announced the formation of edX.
Perhaps. But whether it changes the world for better or worse remains to be seen.
I’m not against online teaching programs. They have their uses. But should colleges and universities be involved with such ventures?
Colleges have a special, critically important, and I will even go so far as to say sacred mission – to turn our nation’s next generation into educated citizens. Becoming educated involves acquiring information, but that may be the least important part of the process. More importantly, education involves developing analytic skills and critical reasoning. It requires reevaluating one’s biases, prejudices, and values – not necessarily to change them, but to better understand one’s choices. And to better understand other people’s choices too, for democracy cannot thrive unless we can understand and talk with one another. It requires learning to think and to be creative. And it involves finding the joy in one or more pursuits.
Most of us who have had the good fortune to go to college believe that we learned as much outside the classroom as we did in the classroom. Actually, it’s the interaction between the two that makes college unique. College is about living for a period of time in a community of intellectual stimulation and engagement. It entails passionate discussions in the classroom and in the dormitories, cafeterias, and pubs as well. A cyber-community will never be an adequate substitute for a flesh-and-blood community.
Technology is fabulous. But technology provides tools, nothing more. When Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in 1819, there were no electric lights or ball point pens. Blackboards were then cutting-edge. I expect that if Thomas Jefferson were to visit the University of Virginia today, he’d been delighted to discover that computers have replaced slide rules. (Yes, slide rules existed in 1819. In fact, they had been around for more than two hundred years.) But how would Jefferson react if he learned that the University of Virginia had joined Coursera?
University officials would tell Jefferson: We can now project education across time and space, to the far reaches of the nation and the world. They might even confront Jefferson with one of his own quotes: “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people...they are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”
But Jefferson might ask: What do you now mean by education?
Thomas Jefferson also said: “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people." Was Jefferson speaking about citizens who had merely acquired information and technical skills?
Am I attaching too much importance to these online ventures? After all, the online initiatives are still largely experiments, and no one is suggesting that online enterprises are going to replace colleges.
I believe deep concern is warranted. Recently, members of the governing board of the University of Virginia forced Teresa Sullivan to resign as president because, in part, they believed Sullivan was not moving the university quickly enough into online education. Helen Dragas, the head of the board, clearly believed that online education is a matter of fundamental importance.
A fire-storm of protest forced Dragas and the board to recant and retain Sullivan. But Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia has since reappointed Dragas to the board. The current line is that the board was mistaken and Sullivan had been moving Virginia toward online education all along.
And according to the Washington Post’s article:
Over the past decade, online instruction has exploded in higher education. But the nation’s top universities have been slow to embrace online for core undergraduate and graduate programs. The movement seemed at odds with the residential, dialectical learning experience that is their chief product.
Now, opposition is melting away. A compelling body of research has shown that some online initiatives yield improved outcomes at reduced cost, an irresistible proposition.
I don’t doubt that online programs can inculcate information and technical skills, and do so inexpensively. Nor do I doubt that tests can be devised to prove those things. Students can easily be tested on whether they can memorize the structure of a particular molecule, solve a math problem, translate a passage from a foreign language, or identify quotations from Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Kant, or Robert Frost. But objective tests aren’t going to determine how students react to Nietzsche, Kant, or Locke’s ideas, or evaluate their – that is, the students – criticisms of those thinkers. An objective test is not going to determine how Shakespeare and Frost make students feel, or what connections they make between Macbeth and the Critique of Pure Reason. It’s a terrible mistake to confuse education with what can be objectively tested.
Can colleges and universities both operate excellent residential colleges and provide online educational programs? I fear not. Running a first-rate residential college is a sophisticated undertaking that requires exclusive focus and effort. It also requires appreciating what true education is, and constantly explaining the value of true education to students, parents, and funding sources including, for public institutions, state legislatures and taxpayers. Helen Dragas has already demonstrated how easy it is to become seduced by the sexiness and potential profit of mass teaching through cyberspace. Or to believe that because the likes of Harvard, Stanford, and M.I.T. are doing it, it must be the thing to do.