No Libraries for You!

Yet another foundation tells higher ed how to cut costs through technology, eliminating frills like libraries, research,and face-to-face learning.

March 11, 2015

Quite a few librarians noticed when Joe Nocera, a columnist for The New York Times, profiled Kevin Carey, director of the New America Foundation’s educational policy program and author of The End of College. The gist of the column: College costs too much, and that cost comes from luxuries we can’t afford - like libraries.

Here's Carey's money quote:

You don’t need libraries and research infrastructure and football teams and this insane race for status.

Because libraries and research exist only to promote the university's brand. Because the assumption is that nobody does anything except out of self-interest. 

His solution to expensive college? (At least as described by Nocera; I haven’t read the book.) The University of Everywhere. Sounds utopian. Free or low-cost online courses. Badges and certificates instead of curricula and degrees. Unbundle it all. Pay only for what you, personally, need. Don't spend a dime on a book that someone else might read. And, because universities haven’t valued teaching enough, replace them (and teaching as we know it) with online courses that will use data mining and artificial intelligence that will watch what you do so the machine can correct and guide you.

By strange coincidence, the chair of this foundation is Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google. Maybe he wants to arm-wrestle Bill Gates for the future of education.

The lede touchingly explains Carey’s personal interest in this topic. He has a four-year-old daughter, and the cost of educating her worries him. Yeah, right. I doubt he will turn to online courses and badges when she could go to a prestigious institution and have a good education and meet all the right people, any more than the Silicon Valley tech barons send their kids to schools where the reforms they propose are actually playing out. 

The false assumptions or misleading claims are myriad, including the following: 

  • All of higher education puts value on research, not teaching. Nope. A majority emphasize teaching.
  • All institutions charge something like $60,000 a year. Nope. Few students enroll in the kind of institution Carey's child probably will attend, and even in those institutions, few students pay full price.
  • College costs too much because tuition has to pay for everything, and everything includes unnecessary frills like libraries and research. Nope, though it’s true that in too many cases public funding has been withdrawn and students are required to make up the difference through tuition - except perhaps in STEM departments at R1s where researchers are expected to bring in grant dollars by the millions. 

The idea that libraries and research are indulgences, status symbols, and a total waste of money, is . . . well, it’s breathtaking. It’s pure hypocrisy that so many moneyed interests that benefit from publicly-funded basic research keep saying this kind of nonsense. This is FUD – fear, uncertainty, and doubt - being spread to advance the dismantling of as many public goods as possible to benefit the few under the guise of populism: School shouldn’t cost so much. (It doesn't.) Everyone should have access to education (They won't if it requires high speed internet  and the time and skills to educate yourself). 

We could return to the early 20th century ideals of public education, but that would require public investment in institutions owned by the people. We could appeal to the civic-mindedness that undergirded the development of public libraries and our great public research libraries. How ironic is it that public libraries were the University of Everywhere of their day, that the purpose of the great land grant universities was to bring the benefits of research to all? That requires taxation with representation. Unthinkable. 

We could control college costs and make it more widely available as a people, not just as individuals struggling to get by (or to get even wealthier), but that would require caring about our fellow citizens and sharing the cost..That sounds like democracy. We can’t have that. 


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