My ears have been burning: Michael Eric Dyson’s philippic directed at Cornel West, published a few days ago at the website of The New Republic, echoes much of my grumbling and gnashing of teeth in this column back in late 2009, following the publication of Brother West, an “as told to” autobiography. Dyson now calls that volume “an embarrassing farrago of scholarly aspiration and breathless self-congratulation” -- quite an astute characterization, if I say so myself.
The New Republic article is the most public and substantial (or at least sustained) phase of a conflict that began late in President Obama’s first term. Until then, the West-Dyson relationship was close -- practically symbiotic. A professor of philosophy at Union Theological Seminary, West is also an emeritus professor at Princeton University, where in the early 1990s he served on the dissertation committee for Dyson, who is a professor of sociology at Georgetown University. In 1995 -- when a string of articles appearing in The Atlantic, The New Yorker and other high-profile venues identified them as members of a new cohort of black public intellectuals -- West and Dyson still had what was clearly a mentor-protégé relationship, and their dialogue tended to be, as Adolph Reed Jr. put it in a blistering essay at the time, “a publicist’s delight, a hyperbolically log-rolling love fest.”
The mutual-admiration arrangement lasted until sometime near the end of the first Obama administration, when West turned up the heat on his criticisms of the president as (among other things) a “black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs” and “the head of the American killing machine.” A number of black liberals took issue with West’s hard left turn. But it was Dyson’s defenses of the president that seemed especially to rankle West. In August 2013, West singled out Dyson by name as one of the people “who’ve really prostituted themselves intellectually in a very ugly and vicious way.”
Similar pleasantries followed. Dyson’s response was muted until earlier this month, when he made some not very subtle allusions to West at a meeting of the National Action Network, the civil rights organization founded by Al Sharpton. “Be honest and humble in genuine terms,” Dyson said, “not the public performance of humility masquerading a huge ego. No amount of hair can cover that.” His more expansive remarks in print run to more than 9,000 words, accompanied by a drawing in which West appears to have a very bad case of dandruff.
One assessment now making the rounds is that it’s a lamentable case of the white establishment turning two formidable African-American minds against one another when otherwise they might be uniting against all that merits ruthless critique. I doubt a more inane judgment is possible. A pretty thoroughgoing ignorance of African-American intellectual history would be required to assume that black thinkers can’t or won’t do battle without there being some Caucasian fight promoter involved. Richard Wright never entirely recovered from James Baldwin’s essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” The great but long-neglected black sociologist Oliver C. Cox was scathing about the work of his colleague E. Franklin Frazier.
Such conflicts can be psychobabbled into meaninglessness, of course. Cox’s remarks were attributed to jealousy (Frazier became the first African-American president of the American Sociological Association in 1948, the same year Cox published his overlooked masterpiece Class, Caste, and Race) while Baldwin’s critique of Wright seems like a perfect example of the Oedipal conflict between authors that Harold Bloom calls “the anxiety of influence.” And yes, the ego will take its revenge, given a chance. But real differences in understanding of American society or the role of the artist were involved in those disputes. Those who profess to favor a vigorous intellectual life, and yet deprecate polemic, want crops without plowing up the ground.
But in moving from Baldwin/Wright and Cox/Frazier to Dyson/West, we descend a hundred miles in conceptual altitude. The earlier debates are still interesting to revisit, while the sooner we forget this one, the better. For at issue here are not ideas or principles but questions of demeanor and attributions of motive. It is the way celebrities feud.
My complaint of a few years ago was that Brother West treated intellect as little more than grounds to earn a backstage pass to meet famous people. It was frustrating and dismaying, and the passing of time has not made anything better: I find myself in the awkward and disagreeable position of agreeing with West’s opinions about Obama (and so concurring with Dave Zirin’s criticism of the New Republic article) while growing even more disappointed with West’s sense of priorities.
He hasn’t returned to philosophy or social analysis. He appears content with what I’ve come to think of as “that speech Cornel West always gives.” It is a set list of standard references, sparkling and variously arranged, like the bits of colored glass in a kaleidoscope:
“Coltrane and Chekhov, Foucault and Funkadelic. Du Bois wore a three-piece suit like this one. Structural inequality; the Panthers sold their paper near Yale when I was a student there; applause-winning mention of Larry Summers and/or Spike Lee. Quotation(s) from my dear brother _______ [famous philosopher or performer]. Nihilism is bad, bluesman of the mind; keep hope alive.”
It is never the same speech, yet it is always the same speech. In it are occasional riffs from West’s early writings, but they go undeveloped. Circa 1990, the prospect of seeing him work out the deep links between Chekhov and Coltrane was intriguing. Now it’s just a shiny piece of glass, pretty enough but not going anywhere.
Dyson’s essay is for the most part a chronicle of a friendship betrayed, but it does make a telling point. The issue is West’s constant references to the Judeo-Christian idea of prophecy, understood not as prognostication but as advocacy for justice and righteousness. The word “prophetic” appears in a number of West’s titles, in ways that suggest it applies to the author himself, or at least the book. But he has never offered “detailed comparative analyses of prophets in Judaism, Christianity, Islam or Zoroastrianism,” Dyson says. “…He hasn’t explored the differences between social and political prophecy, examined the fruitful connections between the biblical gift of prophecy and its cultural determinants, or linked his understanding of prophecy to secular expressions of the prophetic urge found in New Left radicalism, for example….”
Dyson considers the vagueness all too convenient. It leaves West free to put on the prophetic mantle when and how he sees fit -- to issue warnings and denunciations while never clarifying the grounds for his claim to assume that role. In challenging this blind spot, Dyson also challenges the authority upon which West’s discourse rests.
As rhetorical strategy goes, it’s a shrewd move. Dyson targets something more fundamental than West’s political stance, and something harder to hit than a side-of-the-barn-sized ego. It will be interesting to see if West takes up the challenge. His students at Union Theological Seminary ought to press him on it.
At the same time, grounding their disagreement within the terms of their shared religious faith leaves open the possibility of reconciliation. Dyson’s other point about prophecy is that the prophet’s inspiration coexists with human fallibility. All of the most pointed jabs at West -- his vanity, appetite for media attention and intellectually lightweight work -- are also reflexive. “West’s off-the-cuff riffs and rants,” Dyson says, “spoken into a microphone and later transcribed to page, lack the discipline of the written word.” Coming from the man who published Debating Race With Michael Eric Dyson, a collection of transcripts from his television appearances, let’s hope this was meant as self-critical.
From mutual admiration to mutual recrimination -- to mutual forgiveness? Who knows? The next move is West’s. Five years ago, I hoped, against all odds, that Brother West might count as hitting rock bottom.
Alas, no. West’s activities since then have included a cameo appearance on a situation comedy. He also offered himself as the bait to lure thousands of fans into attending his “dialogue” with a Maoist cult leader whose grandiosity and verbosity did not lend themselves well to conversation, as such.
So, to repeat: I agree with a very large portion of what West says, but only his worst enemy could feel much enthusiasm for the use he makes of his time.
Probably the best-known fact about The Higher Learning in America by Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) is that the author’s original subtitle for it was “A Study in Total Depravity.” By the time the book finally appeared in print in 1918, the wording had been changed to “A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men,” which gives the reader a clearer sense of the contents, albeit at a considerable loss in piquancy.
The “memorandum” nonetheless displayed Veblen’s knack for turning a phrase that twisted the knife. He attacked the “bootless meddling” of governing boards and the “skilled malpractice and malversion” of the presidents they appointed. These “captains of erudition” (a play on the then-recent expression “captains of industry”) understood the value of a dollar and of publicity, but not much else. To their way of thinking, good public relations meant “tawdry, spectacular pageantry and a straining after showy magnitude.” And worse, they molded higher education in their own likeness.
“The school becomes primarily a bureaucratic organization,” writes Veblen, “and the first and unremitting duties of the staff are those of official management and accountancy. The further qualifications requisite to the members of the academic staff will be such as make for vendibility, volubility, tactical effrontery [and] conspicuous conformity to the popular taste in all matters of opinion, usage and conventions.” The cumulative, long-term effect on the life of the mind? “A substitution of salesmanlike proficiency -- a balancing of bargains in staple credits -- in the place of scientific capacity and addiction to study.”
Veblen was more than a satirist and scold, brimming over with vitriol and bile. That final expression, for example -- “addiction to study” -- could only have been coined by someone who had experienced what it names, and his critique of the university includes a serious effort to understand its nature and history. But Veblen’s problems with the field of higher education in his day were both substantial and dogged, and even the most analytical portions seem driven by sublimated anger.
In the 1890s and early 1900s, he was a professor at the University of Chicago and then at Stanford University, but in each case he left under a cloud of scandal. Besides his religious disbelief and his acerbic (if not misanthropic) disposition, there were the rumors about his animal magnetism -- which, it was said, irresistibly pulled colleagues’ wives into bed with him.
In fact, the rumors were spread by his first wife, who brought them to the notice of the presidents at Chicago and Stanford. They confronted Veblen, who declined to respond -- something his first and most influential biographer, Joseph Dorfman, took as an admission of guilt. As far as I can tell, contemporary Veblen scholarship rejects that judgment entirely, treating the charges of Don Juan-ism as fallout from the dissolution of marriage that (in a telling detail about the level of estrangement here) seems never to have been consummated.
Be that as it may, the image that the literary and intellectual historian Daniel Aaron depicted in an essay from 1947 has continued to color how Veblen is read. “Irascible, dour and sardonic,” Aaron wrote, “living precariously along the fringes of the American university world he anatomized so mercilessly, Veblen remained during his lifetime a kind of academic rogue, admired by an increasing number of discriminating disciples but never winning the kudos handed out to his less able but more circumspect colleagues.”
Nearly all of whom were soon utterly forgotten, of course, but not Veblen, whose grievances -- whether about “conspicuous consumption” in society at large or “nugatory intrigue and vacant pedantry” within the groves of academe -- retain a certain vigor and bite. The opening pages of the new edition of The Higher Learning in America from Johns Hopkins University Press call it “an appropriate way to mark the centennial of Veblen’s great book,” and most of the back cover is taken up with comments by historians and critics of higher education, noting how disconcertingly timely it still seems.
The editor, Richard F. Teichgraeber III (a professor of history at Tulane University), has prepared what’s bound to remain the standard edition of the text for a long time to come. His extensive yet unobtrusive notes “identify -- when identification proved possible -- events, institutions, persons and publications alluded to or mentioned,” and he glosses the literary quotations and biblical references embedded in Veblen’s wild and sometimes woolly prose. The timeline of Veblen’s life and the recommended-readings list benefit from the past three decades of Veblen scholarship; in contrast, Dorfman’s biography from 1934 often looks like a target after a busy day at the shooting range. But the text’s apparatus limits itself to presenting the positive side of revisionist efforts rather than continuing to fire away.
For his own part, Teichgraeber, in his introductory essay, presents The Higher Learning in America as a more policy-minded work than a reader is likely to imagine going in with little sense of context beyond knowing about that abandoned subtitle.
Veblen started writing an essay on the university in 1904 and continued revising and expanding it for another dozen years, despite the reactions of colleagues and publishers, who were discouraging or appalled. In the preface drafted in 1916, he admits that circumstances “made it seem the part of insight and sobriety… to defer publication, until the color of an irrelevant personal equation should again have had time to fade into the background.” Veblen kept the discussion of institutional problems and academic politics on a level of generality that avoided naming names or describing his own troubles. But the note of personal frustration was audible even so, and readers at the time could hear it. (As, indeed, readers can now, though they'll usually need the annotation to fill in the details.)
But Veblen was not the only figure turning a critical eye on the higher education of his day. European models of graduate study and the research university, combined with the proliferation of land-grant colleges, inspired running public debates over academic freedom, curriculum reform, funding and so on. Teichgraeber points out that the whole genre of commentary even had a name to distinguish it: “the professors’ literature of protest.”
Veblen indicates that The Higher Learning in America was written in response to this “bulk of printed matter,” but without quoting it or identifying whom he’s answering. Perhaps he wanted to stop short of antagonizing people he hadn’t already made enemies, or causing trouble for anyone he agreed with. But our editor and annotator knows his way around “the professors’ literature of protest” and can make reasonable surmises about what articles and authors Veblen had in mind.
Between those sotto voce arguments and the biographical details, we can finally put his spleen in context. The Hopkins edition makes the best case possible for The Higher Learning in America as a serious contribution to institutional critique. At the same time, it’s the book in which Veblen refers to the corporate university as an “abomination of desolation.” Even without an annotation guiding you to the Book of Daniel, it’s easy to recognize that as something “often thought but ne’er so well expressed.”
Kevin Carey has written a book called The End of College -- by which he means the end of college as we know it… and he feels fine. At least we assume he does, because The End of College is a celebration, not a lament. The traditional college education is dying, he says. As it should, he adds. No more buildings, no more exclusively face-to-face classes, no more libraries, no more graduation ceremonies. Everything will fall by the wayside, Carey predicts. The good news, he posits, is that it will all be replaced by what he calls the University of Everywhere.
Carey's book comes at a time of rising college costs, swelling student debt and cuts to university courses, faculty and majors. From students to parents to taxpayers, everyone is alarmed about higher education’s most pressing challenges. As an education technology writer and scholar of higher education policy, we are, too. Unfortunately, many people will find false hope in TheEnd of College and its fantastical promises of the University of Everywhere.
“The University of Everywhere is where students of the future will go to college,” Carey writes. “The University of Everywhere will span the earth. The students will come from towns, cities and countries in all cultures and societies, members of a growing global middle class who will transform the experience of higher education.”
How will such a thing be possible? The Internet, of course: the University of Everywhere, says Carey, will be digital, personalized, networked, virtual, intellectually rigorous, hybrid, cheap if not free and lifelong.
Parents of future undergraduates will be understandably relieved to know that someone finally has figured it out. To know they will not need to mortgage their home or take that second job. To know that technology is coming to save them. Like Netflix or Amazon, like Uber or Fitbit, the University of Everywhere will soon emerge from the cloud, ready to disrupt the status quo with its flexible, accessible tools. Or so we're told.
The University of Everywhere is the response, led by venture capitalists and ed-tech entrepreneurs, to “ancient institutions in their last days of decadence,” Carey writes. And we are to believe that an end will come soon for the oppressive regime created by colleges and universities, as he personally has numbered the days until they either “adapt” or become extinct.
In the book and with his platform with the New York Times's Upshot blog and in various essays on the subject written from a perch at New America, Carey professes to possess a deep understanding of higher education. He genuinely believes his plan for online degrees will disrupt recalcitrant institutions, unleash individual ingenuity and power the jobs of the 21st century. He is “angry” about the “chronic neglect of undergraduate education” that he assures us he has witnessed in personal meetings and read about in a single volume with hotlycontested findings, and he isn’t going to take it anymore. This book is his response.
One of Carey’s strongest objections is to the way in which higher education confers enormous benefits on the privileged and powerful (an issue that we agree is a major problem and have each written abouttime and again). And so, in this age of extreme inequality, Carey declares that the University of Everywhere will serve to flatten and erase hierarchies of social status and socioeconomic privilege. The future of education in his vision will be, as edX C.E.O. Anant Agarwal has also pronounced, “borderless, gender-blind, race-blind, class-blind and bank account-blind.” It will be, in other words, the ultimate meritocracy.
This vision of the University of Everywhere is endowed with such grandeur that it can leave one breathless; it is so hopeful about the future that any doubt or critique may seem unkind, even inappropriate. Why ask questions about how or why or who or what? Carey and his University of Everywhere want you simply to believe. And if you do have questions, you must be a defender of the status quo, an insufficiently “careful reader,” or, worse yet, a professor in a traditional institution.
Indeed objections seem to offend Carey, as they would any true believer. He promotes the online and hybrid future of higher education and extols the innovations that have spun out of Stanford’s artificial intelligence lab -- startups like Coursera and Udacity -- with a fanatical sustained passion that sets aside the far more conflicted reality of these initiatives. While the University of Everywhere purports to be a meritocracy that will save us all from social inequities, it's worth noting that it is being built and promoted by three of the most elite of America’s universities: Harvard, Stanford and M.I.T.
These universities are at the center of the recent push for massive open online courses (better known as MOOCs), which are the cornerstone of Carey’s University of Everywhere. In his telling of their history, the Golden Three and their new MOOC initiatives can do no wrong.
Except they have already done much wrong. Take the experience of San Jose State University with MOOC-like instruction provided by Udacity. Beginning in early 2013, this experimental effort at one of the most racially diverse universities in the country was promised to “end college as we know it.” Yet the data show that the pilot was an unmitigated disaster. The students in the Udacity-run classes -- remedial algebra, college algebra and statistics -- did far worse than students in traditional, face-to-face classes. Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun blamed the students, whom he said “were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives… [For them] this medium is not a good fit."
Here is Thrun in a Silicon Valley tech blog: “If you’re a student who can’t afford the service layer, you can take the MOOC on demand at your own pace. If you’re affluent, we can do a much better job with you, we can make magic happen.” Incredibly, as Tressie McMillan Cottom has noted, the University of Everywhere is also magically postracial. No wonder, since, as the data from MOOCs around the country clearly show, this university is for the highly educated, not the underserved.
Given the sheer vehemence of his argument and a professed lack of responsibility to warn off “careless misinterpretation,” perhaps it is unsurprising that Carey omits the evidence about the real and disturbing flaws of online and even hybrid education. To support his contentions that information technology can lift all boats, he turns to William Bowen, author of a study using a randomized experiment to assess the effects of online versus face-to-face instruction. He reports that Bowen found no differences when it came to the outcomes he measured: course completion rates, scores on final exam questions and a standardized test.
“Bowen had previously been skeptical of the idea that technology could fundamentally change higher learning. Based on his new research, he wrote, 'I am today a convert. I have come to believe that now is the time.'” Rather than question the wisdom of sudden conversions based on single studies, Carey wonders, why didn’t colleges immediately hop on board and begin embracing what he calls “a golden opportunity to charge students less money without sacrificing the quality of instruction”?
The answer, of course, lies in empirical research and respect for the scientific process, both of which Carey has little time for. Bowen’s 2012 study was then and remains today one of only a tiny number of such studies producing these sorts of results. Despite efforts, including those of Ithaka S&R, where Bowen works, to suggest that instructional format does not affect outcomes, there are just four rigorous yet also stylized and idiosyncratic studies that even somewhat support the conclusions that Carey promotes. And the most robust of them, a study of 700 students at the City University of New York, identifies negative impacts for lower-achieving students placed into online-only courses.
Moreover, none of the studies examine the outcomes commonly used to assess the utility of educational interventions -- for example, year-to-year retention and graduation rates. A thoughtful reader of the research might ask: What responsible educator, and indeed, what responsible educational policy expert, would recommend wholesale changes in higher education based on such a paltry body of knowledge? When a long and detailed body of scientific evidence (the most recent example is the evaluation of ASAP at CUNY) details the intensive attention required to bring first-generation and low-income students from college entry to graduation, why run in the opposite direction, offering less personal contact and coaching?
Carey's book invokes education research only when it serves his narrative. Otherwise, education research -- indeed all manner of research -- is framed as one of the many flaws that weigh down certain elements of our current higher education system.
Carey does not ask questions of experts who are unlikely to agree with what he is arguing, including noted economist David Figlio. “When I look at the weight of the evidence, it looks like online education might come at some sacrifice to student learning,” said Figlio in a recent article. “Thoughtful administrators will need to weigh those sacrifices against the cost savings. You can see a situation where schools for the haves will continue with face-to-face instruction, perhaps enhancing it with technology. And the have-nots will get this mass online instruction. That can be potentially problematic from an equity perspective.” Of course, Figlio works at one of those “traditional” institutions that Carey abhors and thus he can be ignored.
Of course, credentials like those held by Figlio will not matter in the future, thanks to the University of Everywhere. The prestige associated with certain institutions will be flattened. Opportunity, access, biases -- all swept away by the Internet.
The University of Everywhere, in Carey’s telling of it, will be free of racists, trolls, harassers or stalkers. Despite all empirical evidence that the single greatest change in higher education over the last 50 years is a remarkably diverse and diversifying student population, Carey’s vision for U.S. higher education also has no race, class or gender. These are unexplored and unmentioned in his book. In his version of the future, the Internet, site of the University of Everywhere, is open equally and safely to everyone. Who cares that M.I.T. emeritus professor Walter Lewin, once the star of YouTube for his videos demonstrating various physics experiments and featured by Carey in The End of College,has been accused of sexually harassing female students in his MOOC? M.I.T. has scrubbed much of Lewin's course materials from the Web. But the University of Everywhere remains unscathed.
The University of Everywhere that Carey promotes cares not for intellectual property, neither the professors’ nor the students’. He writes, “We can already, today, replicate much of what colleges are charging a great deal of money for and distribute that information electronically at almost no marginal cost.” Students can hand over their content and data to technology companies to mine, with the promise of more efficient personalized learning. By transferring their data to technology companies and not to universities, “people will control their personal educational identities instead of leaving that crucial information in the hands of organizations acting from selfish interests,” he writes. Universities, not the tech sector, are the ones with selfish interests here, according to Carey. Similarly, faculty will manage their classrooms, including their syllabuses, lectures, lessons and course design via those same companies.
As for research, it will happen elsewhere, beyond the University of Everywhere, as Carey argues that existing universities have erred by trying to fulfill a mission of both research and teaching. The University of Everywhere is “unbundled.” That is because the "roaming autodidacts" of the University of Everywhere do not need these services. The learners of the University of Everywhere need their MacBooks and Wi-Fi, and the world is theirs. As such, they don't look much like today's students in community colleges. Nor will their experiences look like the experiences of undergraduates working with faculty in university laboratories today -- experiences that studies show are demonstrably effective at creating cadres of scientists from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. Without an explicit attention to diversity, the University of Everywhere will ignore it -- much like Silicon Valley has already proven to do with the demographics of its employees and investment portfolio and much like Carey's history of the development of higher education does as well.
Echoing Silicon Valley, the University of Everywhere envisions a meritocratic labor market, just waiting to be filled by those with badges and certificates, though not necessarily by those with bachelor’s degrees. The person with the right badges and MOOC certificates will get the job and the promotions, and there will be no discrimination based on prestigious universities; indeed there will also be no discrimination based on race or gender or sexual identity. These are the proclamations and promises made over and over in the book despite their direct contradiction to rigorous studies of how employers treat job candidates with nontraditional credentials from new or no-name institutions.
Such facts matter little as Carey sweeps his readers through the book into this magical world and takes them into a new age of higher education in a text that makes no mention, offers no analysis of race or gender or sexual identity. These facets of today’s life simply do not exist in his dream. This is a story told by a white man about other white men -- indeed, all other voices, with the exception of Daphne Koller's, are mute. [Editor's Note: Subsequent to publication of this essay, commenters have noted other voices quoted in Carey's book from people who are not white men.] The story is set entirely in an America that isn’t part of global communities. Despite the nod to "Everywhere," there are apparently no universities in the rest of the world that might respond to the technological imperialism of MOOCs or to the cultural imperialism of standardized general education classes.
As should be clear by now, this entertaining narrative about higher education is an inch deep in shallow waters. It zooms past debates of history with barely a note of documentation for its claims (indeed a total of 21 endnotes are provided for 5 entire chapters of text, with some supporting statistics about "achievements," such as those about the new "elite" online college Minerva, provided by unverifiable sources including the founder of the school himself). Research findings that fit the storyline are termed “shocking” and “mind-boggling,” while those that contradict the tale are simply left out.
Certainly, Carey is not alone in constructing such accounts. There is a plethora of higher education prescriptions funded by respectable think tanks and nonprofit organizations. They are issued nearly weekly, many hopping onto the excitement and hype (and hefty venture capital funding) for MOOCs and other education technology efforts. Carey references very few of these even when his arguments are clearly influenced by them (think of the formative DIY U by Anya Kamenetz and the forward-thinking prescriptions offered by Andrew Kelly and Rick Hess). Many in this space value “outsider” takes on higher education for their supposed unbiased clarity. They also seem to value the gravitas of wealthy technologists and data scientists who pose as being too serious for identity politics or culture wars.
In this political economy, the experts on education are rarely experts in education, and that is just the way an increasing number of powerful people seem to like it. Books like these and the speeches and essays accompanying them eat up the landscape of popular discourse. With the microphone, these voices have the gravitas of maleness and whiteness and wealth. They are so loud they must be expert. They look like, walk like and talk like leaders.
And the story that they tell is quite comforting for many who look at the rising cost of college and the fragile economy and hope that their children will be able to follow the right path toward a more secure future. As such the University of Everywhere is a consumer fantasy of the future of higher education, a fantasy that purports to be about freedom for learners, about more personalized learning, but that is traced through the history, at least in Carey’s book, of programmed instruction. Machines will teach. Artificial intelligence will replace teachers and tutors.
Swept away by the mystical magic of technology, Carey sees a world of possibility. That is the moral and the lesson of The End of College, his prescription far more than his analysis. Carey promises, as the title of the opening chapter suggests, a new "secret of life." It's a secret that, once unleashed and fulfilled, will disrupt institutions -- much like Uber, which Carey describes with fascination and glee when he visits Silicon Valley. Designed to replace the taxi service -- like higher education, a service that's deemed outmoded -- all you need to summon an Uber is a mobile app. Like the future of higher education that Carey predicts, Uber is always on, always on demand. It is also unregulated, well funded by venture capitalists, collecting personal data not simply for efficiency and algorithms but for dubious purposes, and based on a precarious labor force. But we're not supposed to ask questions. No one should ask questions when the end is nigh.
Audrey Watters is a journalist specializing in education technology news and analysis. Sara Goldrick-Rab is a professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
In the early 1980s, Umberto Eco enjoyed a remarkable streak of beginner’s luck with his first novel, The Name of the Rose. An improbable international best seller, it was a pastiche of detective fiction filled with nods and winks at Eco’s own field of semiotics as well as his longstanding interest in medieval theology. Most of the intertextuality was removed when the novel was adapted for the screen in 1986, presumably to make room for Sean Connery.
But at the peak of Rose mania, many a paper was written trying to sound out Eco’s historical and theoretical echoes. (The pun was inevitable, even providential.) An essay appearing in Diacritics, the preeminent journal of literary theory at the time, even made a connection between the novel and one of Eco’s lesser-known efforts: “a handbook on dissertation-writing for the vast despised vulgus of Italian students,” namely Come si fa una tesi di laurea (1977). It was one of the very rare mentions in an English-language journal of another international best seller by Eco: the work now available as How to Write a Thesis, published by M.I.T. Press.
Roger Conover, the press’s executive editor, tells me that the handbook has been staple reading for a couple of generations of students in Europe and beyond. It was translated into 17 languages, including Russian and Chinese, before reaching English. Its closest Anglophone equivalent is probably Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff’s The Modern Researcher, originally published in 1957. But while Barzun and Graff made substantial revisions to their book across its six editions, Eco’s has remained in print essentially unchanged for almost four decades, apart from the introduction he added to the 1985 edition.
By then, Eco’s manual was being used in several countries and, he noted, by middle-school students as well as doctoral candidates. These developments did not surprise the author: “The methods necessary to conduct high-quality research, at any level of complexity, are the same all over the world.”
So why didn’t How to Write a Thesis come out in English in the aftermath of The Name of the Rose, when everything from Eco’s own thesis to his newspaper columns were being translated? I don’t know for certain, but the arrival (not to say invasion) of the personal computer on college campuses may have been a factor.
“A thesis is a typewritten manuscript,” we read at the opening of chapter one, “usually 100 to 400 pages in length, in which the student addresses a particular problem in his chosen field.” Barzun and Graff expressed skepticism about word processing in the fourth edition (1985) of The Modern Researcher, while Eco’s stubbornly un-updated handbook avoids the matter entirely. He devotes a solid 100 pages to the art and science of preparing index cards in the course of research, which is no longer the selling point it once must have seemed.
Even so, How to Write a Thesis remains valuable after all this time largely thanks to the spirit of Eco’s advice. It is witty but sober, genial but demanding -- and remarkably uncynical about the rewards of the thesis, both for the person writing it and for the enterprise of scholarship itself. Eco’s original target audience consisted of the influx into Italian universities of students “who, for example, work in the city clerk’s office in their hometown of only 10,000 inhabitants, a town where there are perhaps only newsstands that substitute for proper booksellers,” or who never learned “how to sign up for a library card, how to search for a book, or in which libraries to look.”
But remedial instruction in basic skills forms only a small part of the guidance Eco offers. Far more of the book concerns the higher cognitive operations involved in selecting and refining a topic for research -- one suitable given the time and the resources available to a student, but also challenging enough to demand sustained, intensive mental labor -- and then producing a text that is readable, cogent and even a contribution to knowledge.
Eco’s pages on the seemingly obsolete practice of taking notes on index cards prove to have more lasting value than the 21st-century reader might expect. The cards themselves are more than just a storage and retrieval mechanism for citations and quotations; the work of preparing and cross-referencing them is inseparable from that of finding and analyzing sources, primary and secondary. Notebooks are equally suited to such purposes. And I suppose many of the techniques could be adapted to screen-based devices. “At the very least,” Eco writes, “always work on homogeneous material that is easy to move and handle. This way, you will know at a glance what you have read and what remains to be read.”
Some of Eco’s advice is, if anything, even more valuable now, given the ubiquity and seeming omniscience of our digital tools. One paragraph in particular comes to mind:
“You must overcome any shyness and have a conversation with the librarian, because he can offer you reliable advice that will save you much time. You must consider that the librarian (if not overworked or neurotic) is happy when he can demonstrate two things: the quality of his memory and erudition and the richness of his library, especially if it is small. The more isolated and disregarded the library, the more the librarian is consumed with sorrow for its underestimation. A person who asks for help makes the librarian happy.”
Still true! The Association of College and Research Libraries ought to use this quotation in a poster. It also displays the wry tone that frequently makes How to Write a Thesis a lot more entertaining than its title might suggest.
Eco explicitly warns that his book is not meant for people seeking “to write a thesis in a month, in such a way as to receive a passing grade and graduate quickly.” But he does offer them a couple of possibly helpful suggestions: “(a) Invest a reasonable amount of money in having a thesis written by a second party. (b) Copy a thesis that was written a few years prior for another institution.”
He also explains that a successful plagiarist must exercise due diligence:
“It is better not to copy a book currently in print, even if it was written in a foreign language. If the professor is even minimally informed on the topic, he will be aware of the book’s existence.... Consequently, even plagiarizing a thesis requires an intelligent research effort.”
Eco’s humor never detracts from his serious intent. And anyway, even the sardonic pointers on cheating are instructive in their way. As William of Baskerville puts it in The Name of the Rose, “Learning does not consist only of knowing what we must or can do, but also of knowing what we could do and perhaps should not do.” Even when the tools on hand make it awfully easy to try.