The Real War on Higher Education

I’ve written before about rhetoric of some conservative politicians with regard to college. Rick Santorum has said that he believes “the left” uses universities to indoctrinate young people for the purpose of “holding and maintaining power.” North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory has railed about the uselessness of the humanities and threatened to eliminate liberal arts courses from public universities.

But what if education innovation can also be a means to destroy higher education? Why are the politicians so excited about technology-based education innovation so often the same ones who seem to hate college? That’s what Andrew Leonard argues over at Salon. As he puts it:

What if [massive open online courses] MOOCs actually turned out to be part of a right-wing plot?

After some reflection, it’s become clear to me that there is a crucial difference in how the Internet’s remaking of higher education is qualitatively different than what we’ve seen with recorded music and newspapers. There’s a political context to the transformation. Higher education is in crisis because costs are rising at the same time that public funding support is falling. That decline in public support is no accident. Conservatives don’t like big government and they don’t like taxes, and increasingly, they don’t even like the entire way that the humanities are taught in the United States.

Lest one think well, whatever, the theory is out there, who cares where it was generated, consider this:

It’s absolutely no accident that in Texas, Florida and Wisconsin, three of the most conservative governors in the country are leading the push to incorporate MOOCs in university curricula. And it seems well worth asking whether the apostles of disruption who have been warning academics that everything is about to change have paid enough attention to how the intersection of politics and MOOCs is affecting the speed and intensity of that change. Imagine if Napster had had the backing of the Heritage Foundation and House Republicans? It’s hard enough to survive chaotic disruption when it is a pure consequence of technological change. But when technological change suits the purposes of enemies looking to put a knife in your back, it’s almost impossible.

Leonard’s main point here is that while higher education commentators point to the power of technology to disrupt existing college and usher in a wonderful new world full of easily accessible, exciting free education content, actual changes in higher education happen because of policy. And these the most radical changes here seem to be pushed by republican governors who kinda hate academia.

It’s not entirely education opponents who are pushing for online courses. Leonard notes that California’s Jerry Brown has also pushed online education as a way to address funding shortages in the state’s higher education system. But education reform doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We’re not getting online innovation in college merely because colleges are sitting idly by while awesome tech companies come in and drive away all the students.

No, innovation happens in part because of what government programs will pay for. Will state and federal financial aid pay for online programs? Will it pay for programs administered by for-profit companies? What regulations will govern the programs where students will receive education?

The future of this, how this will play out, is unclear. But it should perhaps strike us as a little disturbing that those in charge of making those decisions are people, like Scott Walker and Rick Perry, who are so eager in other forums to express their contempt for college.

Don’t hire a demolition crew to construct the new building.

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