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.
Sustainability has become "higher education's new fundamentalism," according to a report released Wednesday by the National Association of Scholars, a group that is an advocate for a traditional college curriculum. Sustainability is not just about promoting environmentalism, the report argues. Rather, the movement "distorts college curricula and cuts off free inquiry on important questions." Further, colleges are "spending lavishly on sustainability programs" at a time of tight budgets for other priorities, the report says.
Lost among my books, probably in a box somewhere, is a paperback copy of Bhagavad Gita As It Is, offered to me at a reasonable price by a smiling Hare Krishna devotee working the crowd in Union Square. The word “smiling” is probably redundant. What the group advertises is bliss, and it would be a pretty shoddy product if it broke down under the pressure of New Yorkers’ indifference.
I bought it -- the book, anyway -- but hadn’t noticed it going AWOL until reading Richard H. Davis’s The 'Bhagavad Gita': A Biography, a volume in Princeton University Press’s rewarding Lives of Great Religious Books series. Davis, a professor of religion at Bard College, mentions that A. C. Bhaktivedanta, “a vigorous 70-year-old Bengali,” arrived in the United States in 1965 and in short order was teaching and chanting among the protohippies in Greenwich Village. Swami Prabhupada, as he came to be known, published his own heavily annotated edition of the Gita in 1968 -- the one you can still get from his robed and shaved-headed acolytes now, 50 years after he began proselytizing.
The swami went on to his reward in 1977. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness he founded can now claim, semiplausibly, to have put out more than 20 million copies of Bhagavad Gita As It Is in some 56 languages. It is a sign of Davis’s accomplishment with his “biography” that he leaves the reader aware of how small a blip those missionary efforts are in the context of the Gita’s history -- let alone on the scripture’s own cosmic scale.
As sacred texts go, the Bhagavad Gita (“song of the Lord”) is notable for both its brevity and the relatively straightforward relationship between doctrine and narrative. It has a plot. The setting is ancient India, shortly before a war that will leave more than a million dead. Arjuna, a warrior by birth, surveys the two armies poised for battle and, turning to his charioteer, Krishna, expresses overwhelming despair at the pointlessness of the fratricidal warfare about to begin.
Krishna first counsels a kind of stoic attitude toward the performance of duty: the lot of the warrior is to fight, but without attachment, to fulfill destiny without desire or fear as to its outcome. It is attachment, the corruption of action by the passions, that keeps someone bound to the cycle of rebirth.
Then Krishna reveals that he is not just a god moonlighting as chariot driver but the Supreme Being ne plus ultra, something beyond all human imagination or understanding: “Arjuna sees Krishna’s arms and eyes, bellies and mouths, stretching out in all directions. He sees all the gods contained within Krishna’s vast body.” The vision can only be called mind melting as Krishna speaks the words that Robert Oppenheimer recalled while witnessing the first atomic explosion:
If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst at once into the sky,
That would be like the Splendor
Of the Mighty One…
I am become Death
The shatterer of worlds.
Returning to human form, Krishna makes what is in some ways the most powerful revelation of all. Love and devotion are Krishna’s due, and Arjuna is prepared to give them. But the relationship is not one-way. Krishna expresses his love for Arjuna and promises to be the warrior’s ultimate refuge: “I will liberate you from all sins. Do not grieve.”
With that, Arjuna’s doubts and hesitation are put to rest, and the battle is joined.
The dialogue appears as a philosophical interlude in The Mahabharata, an epic poem of prodigious scale. It is unclear which came first -- the dialogue may have been composed as part of the larger work and then extracted, or it could be a freestanding text that some ancient editor spliced in. “Some observers,” Davis notes, “have pointed to the unlikelihood, or the ‘dramatic absurdity,’ as one noted Indologist put it, of great masses of zealous warriors sitting idly by for ninety minutes while a soldier and his charioteer chat in the no-man’s land.”
As an aesthetic objection that seems fair enough. The situation doesn’t work as a realistic segment in a chronicle of war. (I can’t say, having never read The Mahabharata, or even met anyone who has.) But its “dramatic absurdity” nonetheless works in expressing the mood of terrible existential pain, the moment of facing life or death and feeling overwhelmed by the reality right in front of you. That quality makes the Gita a powerful work even for readers incapable of regarding surrender to Krishna as what William James called “a live option.”
For medieval Indian poets, artists and sages, the conversation between Arjuna and Krishna resonated with ideas and debates of long standing; they read it as a work concentrating and clarifying doctrines expressed rather more obliquely in the Vedas, a much older set of scriptures. The Bhagavad Gita’s depiction of Krishna also put pressure on the devotees of other gods to produce revelatory works of their own. “These gitas,” Davis writes, “always involve discourses conveyed from deities to listeners that constitute authoritative instruction on the fundamental nature of the world along with guidance for effective human conduct leading to worldly benefits and ultimately liberation.”
Infomercials of the gods! Still, it was Krishna’s gita that became the Gita -- a text widely, if dubiously, regarded as “the Hindu bible.” Its ascension was no sure thing. In two absorbing chapters, Davis traces a series of stages leading from the first English translation in 1785 (a byproduct of British imperial interests) to widespread fascination among the literati (Thoreau took it to Walden pond, Whitman died with it under his pillow) to a kind of rebirth as an element of Indian national identity, in part through Gandhi’s reading of Edwin Arnold’s The Song Celestial, which put the Gita into English, and iambic pentameter to boot.
Davis notes that only a very small share of early iconography of Krishna shows him in scenes from the Bhagavad Gita. More commonly depicted were legends of his mischievous childhood or his role as combative young prince. Treating the Gita as the Hindu equivalent of the Judeo-Christian scriptures probably revealed more about British Protestant sensibilities than it did about Indian religion.
But it proved to be a productive sort of confusion: with so many questions about the Bible they knew troubling the minds of Westerners, the new scripture from the East proved timely. Davis says just a little about the broad similarity between Krishna and Christ (each understood as a human incarnation of the divine, with a message of love) but clearly it was on the minds of some enthusiasts even before gurus started making trips to Europe and America.
There’s so much else to say about The 'Bhagavad Gita': A Biography -- but my karma depends upon meeting a deadline, so not today. Princeton’s Lives of the Great Religious Books continues to offer interesting titles (up soon: The Book of Revelation) and is the rare instance of a series with a concept that really works.
Leading scientists are releasing an open letter today urging science museums to cut ties to the Koch brothers, who individually and through their philanthropic arms have been major donors to some museums. The letter says that Charles and David Koch's work to deny climate change makes their giving to science museums suspect. "We are concerned that the integrity of these institutions is compromised by association with special interests who obfuscate climate science, fight environmental regulation, oppose clean energy legislation and seek to ease limits on industrial pollution," the letter says. Museum officials contacted by The New York Times said that donors do not influence museum content, and that the institutions were not planning to limit ties to Koch philanthropy.
Half a century ago, C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures pointed to a growing gap between the sciences and the humanities. Despite similar levels of education and similar socioeconomic origins, he wrote, scientists and literary intellectuals “had almost ceased to communicate at all.” In Snow’s view, the different perspectives could have sparked an enormously creative conversation, but the communities were too isolated for such a conversation to take place, and members of both cultures were the poorer for it.
Many would argue that the gap between the disciplines that concerned Snow is still with us. But in higher education that gap has been supplemented by a new divide, one that is perhaps even more threatening to the future stability and prosperity of academic culture as a whole. This is the gap between the worldview of college and university faculty on the one hand and that of the information technology sector on the other.
The faculty view is rooted in the values and goals of tenure-stream instructors at elite research universities, a culture that informs the academic community up and down the postsecondary spectrum. The ethos of the technology sector is found in its purest form in Silicon Valley. Elements of Valley culture are increasingly echoed across the country and beyond in hackathons, technology incubators, coworking facilities, boot camp-style code schools and maker spaces. To a certain extent, the faculty map to Snow’s literary intellectuals and the technologists to Snow’s scientists. Snow’s literary community was skeptical of change, inclined to cling to the majesty of the literary and intellectual culture they knew. His scientists were more focused on the future, confident that their skills could improve the world.
Like Snow’s literary intellectuals and scientists, today’s university faculty and technologists have much in common. Many of Silicon Valley’s brightest stars come from elite research universities. And like Snow we can see a gap separating the two cultures. The resulting lack of communication impoverishes both sides. Like Snow’s cultures, our two cultures have different goals and different values. They use such different vocabularies that it can be difficult to find common ground for discussion. But we cannot be content with this situation, any more than Snow was. How can we encourage the conversation to move forward? What is at stake if we do not?
First, a bit of historical background. The word “university” comes from universitas, a term used in the medieval period for a legal collective -- a guild. The original universities were corporate bodies of students or masters, formed to give academics legal standing and bargaining power in the towns. Important elements of the modern university faculty’s sense of self -- the formation of a collective professional identity via a difficult, lengthy apprenticeship, governance by a privileged group of masters, the impulse to restrict market competition in the name of ensuring higher quality, the value of hierarchy and tradition in decision making and problem solving -- can be recognized in the value system of guild culture. These values played a crucial role in sustaining the institution of the university across the centuries. This is why universities are so protective of their culture and its norms.
In contrast, the techno-capitalist culture of Silicon Valley and its remote satellites is of much newer vintage. A heady brew of aggressive postindustrial venture capitalism, concentrated technological brilliance, ruthless competition, an almost surreal melding of various strains of libertarianism and the opportunity to earn enormous amounts of money have combined to create a culture of very smart technologists who believe they can fix the world with code and make a bundle doing it. Snow describes how literary intellectuals in his day found the world-transforming claims of the scientists arrogant and off-putting. I think the same can be said about how academics regard the self-confidence of contemporary information technologists.
The contrast is perhaps most evident in the two cultures’ professed attitudes toward formal hierarchies and especially the trappings of rank. The Valley delights in discovering young talent like Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, who got their first six-figure investment check before they had a bank account to cash it. It looks to Fairchild Semiconductor, a storied Valley firm that did away with private parking spots and other executive perks. Some of the heroes of the technology industry are college dropouts or question the value of a degree. In keeping with this diminishing of outward signs of privilege, contemporary programming spaces tend to have an open layout with large tables and side offices for meetings or phone calls. The space will include areas like coffee bars or game tables intended to foster the social aspects of coding and creativity. A hierarchical structure is still very much there, but the space tries to mask or blur the hierarchy and keep it from stifling communication and innovation.
The university, in contrast, emphasizes hierarchy and longevity in service as values in themselves. Each faculty member is keenly aware both of his or her position within the institution and of the institution’s rank with respect to its rivals. Again, the attitude toward space is revealing. The best offices go to the senior people. When new office space is available or a department moves, a flurry of maneuvering ensues, with the senior faculty using their rank to best advantage in the negotiations. An open, flattened work space would not fit university culture. The university seeks to emphasize rather than mask its hierarchical structure.
The communication gap between the cultures has negative consequences for both. On the university side, the culture’s instinctive resistance to structural change prevents postsecondary institutions from taking full advantage of the technologists’ achievements. University decision-making and procurement structures discourage innovation by creating high barriers to entry.
This conservatism affects both established vendors and new entrants. New companies in particular may be forced to look for other markets with lower barriers. But as universities come under increasing pressure to improve student success rates and lower costs, they will need the talent of the technologists, and perhaps especially the talent of the start-ups they are unintentionally driving away. To tap that talent, they need to embrace technological change with more enthusiasm. Ideally, that enthusiasm could be grounded in a true intellectual engagement between the cultures.
For the technologists, at one level the gap between the two cultures simply deprives them of clear access to a large market sector in which they see opportunity. But the loss goes deeper than that. Today’s online start-up culture owes a great deal to the universities. The Arpanet that became the Internet, time-sharing, video games and interactive displays, the mouse, online communities and collaboration all have roots in university laboratories and public funding. Tim Berners-Lee invented the web as a way to manage information at CERN, a high-energy physics laboratory in Switzerland. The original Google algorithm was inspired in part by ranking systems for academic papers based on their citation count. When coders share tips and programs, they are participating in a software-sharing culture that originated in university computer centers.
If our current technology’s history is rooted in university culture, a richer dialogue between the two cultures could benefit the future development of information technology.
Technology has its deepest meaning in its use. Its impact is most marked when it interacts with and becomes integral to larger cultural practices -- when it enters into a dialogue with other elements in the cultural stream. Well-designed applications and devices draw on the history of product design, of architecture, of visual and verbal cues that have meaning for users.
Perhaps if we asked our programmers to learn a little more about history, literature and the arts -- perhaps especially if we learned to teach these things in a way that had meaning and appeal across the gap between our two cultures -- then our software and our devices might serve more people more effectively, because they would be designed with a deeper understanding of the cultural context in which they are to be used. The university might reach out to the start-up culture emanating from Silicon Valley as a potentially powerful ally. To do that effectively, university culture needs to acknowledge that there are important lessons to be learned beyond the walls. Academics need to understand that people like to code because code can be beautiful, and people like start-ups because they can be creative and smart. We would do well to ask again the questions Snow asked 50 years ago, and see if we can hope to find different answers 50 years from now.
David G. Halsted is director of online and blended learning in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He teaches European history and the history of information technology.