Controversial Professor Dies

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David Noble (right), a professor at Canada’s York University, is dead. The academic was 65 years old.

Noble was notable for his strident opposition to distance learning, arguing that such endeavors were impersonal and undermined the quality of higher education.

A critic of what he called the corporatization of the university, Noble’s concerns grew out of his work as a historian of technology.

In his 1984 book, Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation, he argued that American factories introduced and promoted computerized machines following World War II in order to both increase efficiency and break the power of labor unions.

But it was later that he became a critic of the corporatization of the university. In 2001 he wrote Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education. In this book he argued that:

Automation – the distribution of digitized course material online, without the participation of professors who develop such material – is often justified as an inevitable part of the new “knowledge-based” society. It is assumed to improve learning and increase wider access. In practice, however, such automation is often coercive in nature – being forced upon professors as well as students – with commercial interests in mind. The trend towards automation of higher education as implemented in North American universities today is a battle between students and professors on one side, and university administrations and companies with “educational products” to sell on the other. It is not a progressive trend towards a new era at all, but a regressive trend, towards the rather old era of mass-production, standardization and purely commercial interests.

He also argued that this push toward automation was a move that forced universities, in particular second-tier ones, to adopt more “careerist” practices in the interest of training students for practical employment. Noble argued that in practice, however, mechanization at the university actually made students less qualified for professional jobs because they simply weren’t broadly educated.

“He was very vehement, vibrant, intense,” his friend Denis Rancourt of the University of Ottawa told the Globe and Mail. “He was very energetic and exciting to be around in terms of all the ideas.” [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer