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TV, Higher Ed, and Change
February 8, 2011 - 5:00pm

Will higher ed follow the TV quality curve?

TV today is immeasurably better than the time when I was in college ('87 to '91). Why has TV improved so much? And what can the reasons behind the improvement in TV teach us about improving higher ed?

What were the best TV shows of the 1980s? My list would include:

  • St. Elsewhere (1982-1988)
  • Hill Street Blues (1981-1987)
  • Thirtysomething (1987-1991)
  • L.A. Law (1986-1994)
  • The Cosby Show (1984-1992)
  • Cheers"(1982-1993)
  • Miami Vice (1984-1989)
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)
  • Quantum Leap (1989-1993)

Am I missing any 1980s great shows? Care to add your own?.

Now compare this list to the best TV of the last few years:

  • The Wire (2002-2008)
  • The Sopranos (1999-2007)
  • Six Feet Under (2001-2005)
  • Deadwood (2004-2006)
  • Dexter (2006-present)
  • Weeds (2005-present)
  • Mad Men (2007-present)
  • Big Love (2006-present)
  • Brotherhood (2006-2008)
  • Sleeper Cell (2005-2007)
  • The Tudors (2007-present)
  • Breaking Bad (2008-present)
  • The Office (2005-present)

I'm sure that you have some arguments with this list. I haven't caught Boardwalk Empire yet, and I've never watched Curb Your Enthusiasm or Rescue Me or House or The Shield or Arrested Development or 30 Rock. Maybe the new Battlestar Galactica (which I watched) or the Simpsons (which I haven't watched since college) should have made it on my list.

Whatever your quibbles, can you disagree that TV over the past few years blows away TV before 1999?

I'm pretty sure that people are not any smarter or more creative today than in the 1980s and early 1990s. So what is the difference, and what can this difference teach us about education?

Every one of the shows in the list above, save The Office, is not on network television. They are all cable shows, with most of them produced for paid cable (HBO and Showtime).

What if the higher ed incumbents of today are like the broadcast TV networks? What if the new for-profit institutions are like the cable TV networks? HBO and Showtime don't make great TV to improve humanity, they do so because great TV makes money.

Will the for-profits come up with innovative courses that break with higher ed tradition?

Will a diversity in higher ed supply increase quality, in the same way that diverse TV networks has also resulted in better shows?

Will a proliferation of educational providers focussed on narrow educational niches serve as a quality catalyst?

I know that the logic of this metaphor is not very tight. The highest quality educational institutions are still the oldest educational institutions. The highest quality educational institutions are still the traditional non-profits, the incumbents.

But only a select few can take advantage of the best institutions. And the best institutions are amongst the most expensive (even if they are the most generous with aid).
Perhaps the for-profit education providers are like the cable networks twenty years ago. Perhaps they will surprise us.

What are you watching?


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