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Is Online Learning Poised To Replace Universities?

Perhaps sooner than we think, if present trends continue. A degree may confer only social status — which depends on others’ acceptance

In 2019, freelance writer Allen Farrington wrote an insightful piece, asking a question many have avoided. Does the acceptance of Cancel Culture signal the irretrievable decline of universities?

He begins by discussing a short documentary on the Bret Weinstein affair at Evergreen State College in Washington State in 2017. Weinstein, along with his wife Heather Heying, was driven from the campus by angry students because he spoke out against racial exclusion policies. Both were biology teachers with fairly liberal views:

No matter how closely you followed the debacle at the time, there is really no substitute for this fascinating glimpse behind the scenes. Evergreen academics can be seen meekly and repeatedly submitting to ideological manipulation, and on a number of occasions terrified senior faculty offer transparently insincere professions of faith in the hope of evading the vengeful fury of their mindlessly sloganeering student tormentors. The barely contained thirst for violence as the means to an end is palpable.

Allen Farrington, “After Academia” at Quillette (May 9, 2019)

Farrington sums up:

Defenders of “education,” who more often than not have a stake in the present racket prescribed by the modern definition, like to pretend that they are part of a system upholding the classical definition. At Evergreen, this was obviously false—critical thinking was subordinate to dogma and Bret Weinstein was hounded from his job for having the temerity to defend it. The university was conceived to provide scholars with a secure redoubt in which to conduct their studies, which would be partly funded by letting willing students pick up a thing or two by being in close proximity. This was a very sensible proposition in the 1300s, but is looking like a fantasy today. There are no safe spaces for scholars, and students can mimic proximity to scholars for the cost of an Internet connection. Willing students can get 20 or 30 separate undergraduate degrees’ worth of (classically defined) education from MIT OpenCourseWare alone. But many just want a piece of paper that says they are an adequately socialised member of society, approved of by the cultural elite.

Allen Farrington, “After Academia” at Quillette (May 9, 2019)

Very well. Billions of dollars in endowments, generous government funding, and enormous social cachet all combine to make universities very powerful. But are they indispensable?

Venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who will be speaking at COSM 2021 on November 10, doesn’t seem to think so. Along the way, Farrington unpacks his approach:

Peter Thiel has given a uniquely scathing critique of the insanity of this system. He questions whether higher education, as an economic exchange, represents much of an investment anymore—the student defers gratification to reap higher rewards in the future, or the student enjoys a four-year party as a consumption good. Thiel says he originally thought of higher education as consumption masquerading as investment, but now thinks of it as an even crazier combination of concepts: as insurance against failure in life in general, and as a kind of Veblen good that is priced uncompetitively so as to confer status on those who can afford it. This produces a ridiculous situation in which insurance is desirable, not because something disastrous is prudently insured against, but because the disaster would be the ignominy of failing to purchase insurance in the first place. It is effectively a Ponzi scheme. No wonder Thiel calls college administrators subprime mortgage brokers. They get a cut on selling pieces of paper that are only as valuable as we all pretend they are.

Allen Farrington, “After Academia” at Quillette (May 9, 2019)
Group of five people protesting outside with signs

There is a lot to mull here but Farrington argues, riffing Thiel, that the current purpose of the university is to provide, at huge cost, a piece of paper that supposedly gains the graduate admission to the upper crust of society: “Higher education has become a transfer of wealth from the future earnings of the aspirational lower and middle classes to a metastasising administrative parasite, which funds the permanence of the cultural elite by wielding its leverage over anybody foolish enough to dissent.” He thinks the disease is “terminal.”

But what to do? Here Farrington turns to Peter Thiel again:

Aside from perhaps doctors and engineers, we need to stop pretending that the pieces of paper on which degrees are printed have value so that nobody can be tricked into buying them in the first place. Initiatives like the Thiel fellowship, which awards $100k each to 20 of the most gifted pupils to do something more constructive than higher education, are a good start, but by design will not scale. Austen Allred’s Lambda School is a promising next step, and I encourage all readers to acquaint themselves with it. The arXiv is a premier effort to use the power of the Internet to maintain a classical system of education while routing around academia, as is Khan Academy, Udemy, Coursera and many more. But we needn’t empty all our hope into a techno-utopianism. The most important change will likely come from corporate employers, who can have an enormous impact in two ways.

Allen Farrington, “After Academia” at Quillette (May 9, 2019)

Farrington offers two additional ideas: He encourages businesses to fund more research directly (“It is not a mystery that some of the greatest scientific work of the twentieth century was funded by AT&T at Bell Labs, and Xerox at Xerox PARC. There were no administrators forcing them to write twenty-page reports explaining why Unix would advance social justice.”)

Second, he suggests, businesses could quit rewarding expensive pieces of paper. He saw that trends as already starting in 2019: “In 2015, Ernst & Young announced that it will no longer consider degrees or even high school level certification when considering applications.” In 2021, it is well under way: “No college degree? More employers than ever just don’t care” (October 12, 2021)

Recently, classicist and commentator Victor Davis Hanson observed that “universities are making themselves not just disliked and disreputable but ultimately irrelevant and replaceable”:

Few of today’s woke 20-somethings will graduate with rigorous instruction in language, logic, and the inductive methods with a shared knowledge of literature, history, science, and math. At far less cost, they would likely find better online classes in those now ossified subjects than in the courses that they went into hock in order to finance.

Victor Davis Hanson, “Ground Zero of Woke” at Independent Institute (October 25, 2021)

It’s also true that, historically, alternative systems arise under just these sorts of circumstances.

You may also wish to read: Top venture capitalist on tackling the big, corrupt universities. Peter Thiel: Online education is great for learning, but unfortunately, learning has almost nothing to do with the so-called educational system. Thiel’s Third Contrarian Idea: Never bet against the human spirit as a source of new ideas. That includes education reform.

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Is Online Learning Poised To Replace Universities?