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Essay on the divide between faculty members and the ed tech industry

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.

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