This week’s New Yorker features an interesting article about the relationship between Stanford University and Silicon Valley. The university and the technology sector are closely affiliated, to a degree envied by many universities and regions across the country. It’s a symbiotic relationship that works pretty well, writes Ken Auletta, but there might be something wrong with all this.

In American we’ve long since gotten to used to the idea of universities as “engines of economic development,” but is there such thing as an academic institution being too involved in economic development and innovation? That answer is, well, perhaps. Because the problem is that Stanford, the cradle for some of America’s most incredible accomplishments, is also, perhaps, a little too practical. As he writes, “some ask whether Stanford has struck the right balance between commerce and learning, between the acquisition of skills to make it and intellectual discovery for its own sake. “


David Kennedy, a Stanford historian, explained to Auletta that he “there are not nearly enough students devoted to the liberal arts and to the idea of pure learning. ‘The entire Bay Area is enamored with these notions of innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship, mega-success,’ he says. ‘It’s in the air we breathe out here. It’s an atmosphere that can be toxic to the mission of the university as a place of refuge, contemplation, and investigation for its own sake.’”

Related to this, I found that one of the most interesting parts of this article came at the end. Stanford is the center of innovation; one wonders about how that innovation could come to impact higher education itself.

Many advocates point to technology as a really important tool to change higher education; technological innovation, particularly classes administered online, might finally allow all people to access information anywhere, greatly reducing the cost of college.

Good idea, but the Stanford experience suggests that there are drawbacks. According to the article

[Stanford President John] Hennessy… believes that online learning can be as revolutionary to education as digital downloads were to the music business. Distance learning threatens one day to disrupt higher education by reducing the cost of college and by offering the convenience of a stay-at-home, do-it-on-your-own-time education. “Part of our challenge is that right now we have more questions than we have answers,” Hennessy says, of online education. “We know this is going to be important and, in the long term, transformative to education. We don’t really understand how yet.”

Since so much of an undergraduate education consists of living on campus and interacting with other students, for those who can afford it—or who benefit from the generous scholarships offered by such institutions as Stanford—it’s difficult to imagine that an online education is comparable. Nor can an online education duplicate the collaborative, multidisciplinary classes at Stanford’s [design] school, or the personal contact with professors that graduate students have as they inch toward a Ph.D.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the promise of online learning is unrealistic, it’s just that it’s incredibly hard to predict what this will look like, if and when it ever happens.

Stanford has, so far, been the incubator of many, many ideas that have destroyed and created the companies that are central to American culture and the way we live and do business. Some five thousand companies, including Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo, Cisco Systems, Sun Microsystems,eBay, Netflix, Electronic Arts, Intuit, Fairchild Semiconductor, Agilent Technologies, Silicon Graphics, LinkedIn, and E*Trade “trace their origins to Stanford ideas or to Stanford faculty and students,” according to the piece. That’s what the institution does; it builds technological products that change the world, and make a few smart people very, very rich.

So Stanford is prepared for change, even if it doesn’t know what that change actually means. Auletta:

John Hennessy’s experience in Silicon Valley proves that digital disruption is normal, and even desirable. It is commonly believed that traditional companies and services get disrupted because they are inefficient and costly. The publishing industry has suffered in recent years, the argument goes, because reading on screens is more convenient. Why wait in line at a store when there’s Amazon? Why pay for a travel agent when there’s Expedia? The same argument can be applied to online education. An online syllabus could reach many more students, and reduce tuition charges and eliminate room and board. Students in an online university could take any course whenever they wanted, and wouldn’t have to waste time bicycling to class.

But online education might also disrupt everything that distinguishes Stanford. Could a student on a video prompter have coffee with a venture capitalist? Could one become a T-student [someone with deep knowledge of a particular field of study but also breadth across multiple disciplines] through Web chat? Stanford has been aligned with Silicon Valley and its culture of disruption. Now Hennessy and Stanford have to seriously contemplate whether more efficiency is synonymous with a better education.

Yes, we shall see. We shall see. [Image via]

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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