Giving college credit for a massive open online course will devalue degrees, but the moment I write that, a voice in my mind asks, "Why do you believe that?"
Although I don’t think colleges and universities should equate MOOCs with other courses, I’m no Luddite. I’m happy to see digital humanities breathe life into literary studies, and at one point I took an online class to prepare to teach in that format. Since then I’ve taught several courses entirely online, but the results discouraged me: Committed students did well, but the rest did poorly or vanished.
Although some students have problems in my face-to-face classes, I’m able to intervene and provide help earlier in that format, so far fewer disappear. Currently I use digital resources to enhance the classes I teach, but I have no desire to run a course entirely online again. Therefore I assume that instructors who favor MOOCs have taught online classes with quality equal to or better than their face-to-face classes.
My skepticism about MOOCs also comes from the size of the face-to-face classes I’ve taken and taught. I earned my undergraduate degree at St. John’s University, a small liberal arts college in Minnesota, and I teach English at a similar institution, Aquinas College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Almost all my experience comes from classes with 25 or fewer students, but perhaps I would champion MOOCs if I had had educational triumphs while taking and teaching face-to-face courses with hundreds enrolled.
Some MOOCs feature lectures by professors at Ivy League and other top research universities. The assumption that the most-esteemed researchers give the best lectures certainly makes great advertising, but the quality standard that I set for undergrad education comes from an Intro to Philosophy class taught by Professor Robert Joyce at St. John’s, who is now retired. Rather than lecture on the great speculations of the ages, Professor Joyce wanted his students to experience philosophy. To accomplish this, he plunged us into the Socratic Method. He might begin a session by asking "What do you think of capital punishment?"
I would say, "I’m against it. Taking another person’s life is wrong."
Professor Joyce would reply, "Why do you believe that?"
I would say, "I don’t know. It just is."
Professor Joyce would ask, "What if a criminal kills a relative of yours? Doesn’t justice require that murderer to die?"
“No. An eye for an eye isn’t always right.”
Professor Joyce would persist. “Why do you believe that?”
“I don’t know.”
These exercises made me realize that I couldn’t defend easily what I accepted as self-evident truths. Could students in a MOOC have a comparable experience? I have a hard time imagining it, but perhaps my pro-MOOC colleagues have found a digital substitute for Professor Joyce’s one-on-one attention and cheerful intensity as he looked a person in the eye and asked repeatedly, "Why do you believe that?"
In high school I believed multiple-choice tests were great because I could guess which isolated factoids would appear on them. When the first Intro to Philosophy exam loomed on the horizon, however, I thought our in-class exercises unlikely sources for multiple-choice questions. We had read several Socratic dialogues, but would Professor Joyce ask me to match the names of befuddled Athenians with the titles of dialogues? I doubted it.
To prepare for the first test, I organized a study group that spent a couple of hours tossing around speculations about how Professor Joyce thought and what he might ask. I concede that a MOOC could provide an experience similar to my study group, especially if the thousands of enrollees were divided into close-knit groups of a couple hundred.
That first Intro to Philosophy test offered not a single multiple-choice question.
No true/false or matching, either. Instead, it required me to construct a dialogue between myself and Socrates, a dialogue asking him to reconsider a belief about forms or ideas existing in a realm separate from earthly matter. From the study group session I’d developed a Dr. Seuss-like image of pink and blue cotton-candy words such as VIRTUE and TRUTH floating in the air above Socrates and his buddies, but the test required me to argue against that image. I dreamed up something about people constructing ideas by contrasting one experience in life to another. I proposed that alternative, but because the professor admired Socrates, I let the ancient Athenian talk me out of it. That shift in direction might confound a computer program for scanning and grading 100,000 essays, but a human being judged my blue book. Fortunately, my answer connected with Professor Joyce’s idea of an A.
According to Ronald Legon, executive director of the Quality Matters Program, first-generation MOOCs often rely on multiple-choice tests, but he thinks second-generation MOOCs will “incorporate many of the best practices of distance learning.” I hope that MOOCs improve, but because of the sheer number of students, I fear that many second-generation MOOCs will follow the easy route mapped by the first generation. I also confess that I create exams entirely of essay questions for my own classes, but I might change if someone shows me how to make multiple-choice tests that lead students to construct knowledge involving multiple abstractions.
Legon and others wrestle with the issue of students getting meaningful guidance from an instructor. I have yet to see a proposed model that handles this issue well, especially given that real classes — not picture-perfect imaginary ones — frequently face unanticipated problems. I recall that Professor Joyce once assigned a book that assumed the reader had a large disposable income and cosmopolitan experiences far removed from my small-town Minnesotan background. These assumptions angered me so much that I threw the book against the wall of my dorm room. In class the next day other students voiced similar frustrations with the reading. Professor Joyce set aside his planned lesson and encouraged us to look beyond the specific details and find worthwhile principles behind the discourse. Because the instructor knew and understood his class, he could change the course to match our needs.
I have a hard time envisioning a MOOC designed for the millions that could respond to the needs of students in a specific class and change direction for a teachable moment. Of course, I also have a hard time imagining the algorithms the National Security Agency uses to locate the terrorist messages among the millions of private communications it spies upon, so perhaps someone has developed equally useful algorithms to identify the students among the MOOC multitudes that need to have a lesson created on the spot.
The most important lesson I learned from Intro to Philosophy surprised me. At lunch one day with friends from my study group, I asserted an opinion about some current issue. As I did so, I involuntarily imagined Professor Joyce asking, "Why do you believe that?" I told my friends and even did an imitation of the man, which got a good laugh. I discovered, however, that the professor’s voice couldn’t be laughed away. In fact, the voice stayed with me throughout my formal education, and to this day, about once a week I imagine my Intro to Philosophy instructor saying, "Why do you believe that?"
I associate the voice in my head so closely with the flesh-and-blood individual that I cannot imagine a MOOC having a similar lifelong effect, but I give the MOOCs a pass on this one because they haven’t been around long enough for anyone to determine their long-term influence. Fortunately, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding a MOOC Research Initiative.
MOOCs are becoming acceptable in higher education because people richer and more powerful than I am declare them to be good. I still expect MOOCs to devalue the worth of degrees, but having performed the Socratic self-examination that Professor Joyce taught me, I have a better understanding of why I believe what I do.
Brent Chesley is a professor of English at Aquinas College, in Michigan.
There would be no America if Thomas Jefferson cared more about beans and viticulture than the truth that all men are created equal, if John Adams cared more about the legality of contracts for debt than liberty, if Benjamin Franklin cared more about inventing and marketing new technologies than the pursuit of happiness. America arose on a foundation of ideas, dialogue, values, and aspirations that still stand today at the heart of a strong liberal — and liberating -- education.
America is an idea, not just a land or an institution. America is not based, as many countries are, on territory, language, religious sectarianism, class, ethnic history, tribal dominance, blood, or culture. Our founders read carefully and thought deeply about ideas of freedom, equality, justice, and democracy. And so should all Americans, through studies in the humanities and arts.
Yet many Americans seem not to be thinking at all about the need for dedicated liberal education in order to preserve, protect, and advance America’s courageous experiment. Too many leaders — on all parts of the political spectrum — think technical training and job skills are the way to prosperity and security. They are dismissive of the potential power of engaging diverse ideas and thinking through deep immersion in the arts and humanities. Their theory seems to be that we can be successful in the pursuit of happiness, economic justice, and entrepreneurial prosperity without the necessity of thinking and imagining — that we no longer need to examine ideas and values, but only economic results and graduates' financial "return on investment."
And so we see everywhere the present relentless dismissal and marginalization of the humanities and arts -- fundamental fields of study that, by any thoughtful reckoning, provide indispensable resources for enduring prosperity and strong, democratic republics.
These developments are crippling. As Thomas Jefferson warned, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." He knew — and we need to recognize — that studies in the arts and humanities, across both school and college, help secure the future of freedom by fostering capacities essential to self-governance.
Read The Federalist Papers, and you will understand that politics is the resolution of legitimate conflicting interests, and that the goal of governing is to mitigate the violence of factions formed against the common good and the rights of individuals. Questions about these topics abound in our society (and every society). The leaking of the National Security Agency’s glut of information about Americans invites a deep discussion of liberty and security in a democratic republic that knows itself at risk from enemies. The fevered questions surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin and the prosecution of George Zimmerman take us back to core questions of justice, liberty, and community. Yet when we lack the preparation to talk about serious problems and events as our founders could, the deliberations necessary to self-governance too readily devolve into rants and factions.
A new proposal to further deplete the humanities and arts has arrived with fresh and startling evidence that studies our founders saw as fundamental now are considered expendable. The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations recommends that federal funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities be reduced by 49 percent in fiscal year 2014. The committee recommends a comparable slashing for the National Endowment for the Arts. In its report to accompany the budget resolution for fiscal year 2014, the House Committee on the Budget states that federal subsidies for NEH and NEA (and other public programs) "can no longer be justified" because "the activities and content they fund are generally enjoyed by people of higher income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens."
This conclusion that the arts and humanities are luxuries for those with disposable income misunderstands fundamentally the life of a democratic republic that derives its strength from ideas and values more powerful than factions based on differences in wealth and class. Democracy requires the muscle of ideas and values that we learn to flex in grappling with core texts in the humanities and arts -- our greatest ally in the pursuit of economic and social justice. A liberal education rich in such studies empowers citizens to lead change and solve problems collaboratively and imaginatively with people whose perspectives, histories, and world views may be very different from their own. Democracy and a creative economy depend on these capabilities and falter when they are lacking.
The contemporary dismissal of the humanities and arts weakens America domestically and also undermines brave people globally seeking to build effective self-governing republics based on the consent of the people. Those serious about these goals understand that the ideas of democracy and liberty are stronger than militaries or disbursals of cash. Free societies will not be achieved by technocratic means without a foundation in ideas and values. The humanities and arts are disciplines "basic to democracy" because, while all learning is important to civic inquiry and vitality, the humanities and arts play a distinctive role in developing knowledge and a temper of mind and heart that are indispensable to a free society.
Through the study of history we come to understand the roots, contexts, and complexities of issues we face as citizens. Studies in our democratic heritage confront us directly with fundamental questions about justice, freedom, obligation, equality, and democracy itself. Through philosophy and religion, we explore questions of meaning and value and come to understand the sources of our own and other peoples’ most profound commitments and concerns. Through literature, we develop empathy, imagination, and insight about the varieties of human experience and about shared hopes and frailties.
The combined study of history, literature, arts, and languages empowers us to engage cultures and communities different from our own, while regional and comparative studies hone the dialogue of democracy and economic opportunity at home and abroad. The study of the creative, visual, and performing arts brings us into direct contact with powerful expressions of the human spirit and develops our capacities for creativity, communication, and self-expression.
Together, the humanities and arts take us beyond the known to the realms of the possible. The night Martin Luther King was assassinated, Robert Kennedy quoted Aeschylus to an angry crowd gathered in Indianapolis. He respected the mostly poor and black Americans who came to hear him with a text and ideas revealing the human condition in ways that the House committee does not understand. Although 200 cities erupted into flames that night, Indianapolis did not. Arts and humanities inspire us to dream of things that never were, and ask: Why not? They cultivate, in sum, the kinds of imagination, creativity and inventiveness that give life and hope to a vigorous, flourishing entrepreneurial economy and a vibrant democracy.
The capacity of all Americans to thrive and succeed should be a national and patriotic priority. Far better to expand all students' engagement with the humanities and arts than to deceive less advantaged students with overwrought and shortsighted promises that narrow vocational training is their best choice in a fast-changing economy and all they really need.
But it is not enough just to ensure equitable access to study the arts and humanities. We also need to think deeply about how students engage these disciplines and especially about pedagogies that will most effectively develop their strengths for economic foresight, political empowerment, and the security of our country.
In recent months, there have been intense media and academic controversies over contested textbooks, both the Texas history text and Howard Zinn’s history of the American people. We believe that these debates help focus the question of whether ANY single text or textbook, whatever its merits, ought to serve as the dominant or exclusive lens through which students explore humanistic questions and topics. For democratic communities, no single story can ever be adequate. Our ability to say "we" legitimately comes only when we explore the many in the one, whether domestically or globally. E pluribus unum.
Students reap the full benefits of study in the arts and humanities only when they move beyond repeating a single voice or limiting their ideas to a single text or textbook. Students gain when they courageously engage with multiple voices and artifacts, classic and contemporary, Western and global. When the humanities and arts are studied in this way — exploring significant questions, both contemporary and enduring, through respectful engagement with differing insights, perspectives, and creative works — they build capacities that enable us to secure and enlarge the future of freedom and increase the wealth of America and the world.
Over several decades, our two organizations have enacted together the value of studying diverse primary texts and contested questions. Every summer, the Wye Seminars, co-sponsored by the Aspen Institute and by Association of American Colleges and Universities, provide rich opportunities for faculty and other academic leaders to explore fundamental questions about liberty, justice, equity, prosperity, and effective citizenship through a collaborative study of often conflicting texts, classic and contemporary. Both organizations have made this commitment to support faculty and academic leaders’ dialogue about citizens’ responsibilities in the American and global polity because we believe that democracy requires deep, thoughtful, and respectful engagement with legitimate difference. Faculty who have experienced this kind of liberal learning re-enact it with their students, to democracy’s benefit.
Our founders gave us a self-governing republic and challenged us to nurture and sustain it. It will be impossible meet this responsibility if the humanities and arts continue to be marginalized in our society or if these essential forms of learning are taught reductively, through the lens of a single text, a single view, or a single faction. These methods diminish the power of ideas and dialogue.
To abandon this common, foundational wisdom is to weaken America and democratic republics across the globe. Leaders who undervalue ideas, arts, and humanities open the door to plutocrats, despots, factions, violence and chaos — all of the ancient enemies of prosperity, freedom, and democracy.
Carol Geary Schneider is president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. David Townsend is senior advisor for seminars of the Aspen Institute, and director of Wye Seminars on Citizenship in the American and Global Polity. The views offered in this essay are the authors' own.