Clay Shirky is so concerned about the state of higher education that he can’t help but want to destroy it.
In a recent blog post , he argues that we are in the midst of a new (or not so new) “reality.” This reality, to Shirky’s figuring, is the end of higher education’s “Golden Age.” The solution – which is no real surprise coming from someone who has made his living as an Internet futurist – is to embrace our digitally mediated future.
Shirky believes that each day we fail to adapt to the new “reality” we are “doing damage to our institutions, and our students, and our junior colleagues.”
In other words, the sooner we “adapt,” the better.
Shirky argues that that the Golden Age was roughly 1945 to 1975, a time where the GI Bill and rising state appropriations made higher education affordable and accessible. We all know what’s happened since as state contributions have declined and tuitions increased, a slow-motion train wreck accelerated by the economic collapse at the end of the Bush Administration.
According to Shirky, higher education has been sticking our heads in the sand at these new realities and it’s time to stop. In his words, “Our current difficulties are not the result of current problems. They are the bill coming due for 40 years of trying to preserve a set of practices that have outlived the economics that made them possible.”
It’s a clever argument in the sense that Shirky loves to paint a big picture, and the concern trolling for adjuncts and the less advantaged is a nice touch. But this isn’t argument, at least not in the spirit of the academic conversation, because on this issue, Shirky is a huckster, about as reliable as source on what’s good for education as Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry on the state of one’s soul.
Shirky’s favorite rhetorical trope is to conflate the possible with the inevitable. He did it in 2012 with a blog post  comparing the rise of MOOCs to the invasion and decimation of the music industry by digital file sharing services like Napster. Aaron Bady, writing in Inside Higher Ed, unraveled  some of Shirky’s twistier claims in that case.
Shirky’s “argument” in this more recent piece is nearly identical. He believes we have an “access” problem to higher education. According to Shirky we have been hooked on a desire for higher education that is now unsupportable by the new “economic realities.” The “non-elite” institutions are ill-serving their constituencies by giving them increasingly poor (in economic payoff terms) educations at increasingly higher prices.
Thankfully, the non-elite have a champion in Clay Shirky, who wants to “dramatically reduce the price or time required to get an education of acceptable quality.”
2012 Shirky wasn’t quite ready to say that MOOCs are better than traditional education, but he has an evangelist’s faith in technological progress, analogizing the possible development of MOOCs to those of the recording industry, “Records were scratchy, PCs were crashy. But first they got better, then they got better than that, and finally, they got so good, for so cheap, that they changed people’s sense of what was possible.”
2013 Shirky has backed off those claims a bit. Nonetheless, he still sees our unbundled online educational futures as inevitable, saying of these now “acceptable” educations, “This is a worse option in every respect except one, which is that it may be possible.”
2012 Shirky was imploring higher education to get on the technological innovation train because if we didn’t, it was going to splatter us across the tracks. 2013 Shirky isn’t sure the train is every going to arrive, but no matter because we’ve been doing it all wrong anyway.
The thing that is not possible, according to Shirky, is actually funding education. In his words, “No one is coming to save us.” He believes that entrenched academics are protecting their turf by refusing to wake up and smell the silicon chips. Never mind that Shirky might be touting our internet education future because he has a stake in that particular vision.
(If you read enough Shirky, you start to wonder if he wouldn’t be the first to volunteer to plug into the Matrix.)
By every possible measure we are a richer nation than we were during higher education’s so-called “Golden Age.” We could choose to spend more money on education than defense or prisons.
The Land Grant university system wasn’t possible until we decided to do it. The original GI Bill wasn’t possible until we decided to do it. Going to the moon wasn’t possible until we decided to do it. Invading Iraq wasn’t possible until it was decided to do it. A black president wasn’t possible until it happened.
Our choices are a reflection of our values. Just because our values regarding education have been out of whack, and even further skewed by people like Clay Shirky or Bill Gates or Sebastian Thrun who are enthralled by technology and mistake innovation for improvement, doesn’t mean we can’t choose differently.
As a society we can absolutely decide to treat education as a priority and in that eventuality, lots of things become possible.
I can see why Shirky might be skeptical given the way we’ve been going, but it definitely isn’t time to surrender.
Mostly, I’d like to see Clay Shirky stop proclaiming how much he cares for the patient as he hastens her into the grave.
Maybe Clay Shirky thinks superprofessors Tweeting are an acceptable substitute for person to person education.