Many have suggested that the recent fall of newspapers–and many group the move online with a “fail,” which I think is unfortunate–presages the fall of universities. Like newspapers, many universities exist largely because of some imputed and traditional reputational inertia. And like newspapers, they are in the profession of informing. So it’s not surprising to see things like this recent Chronicle article arguing that universities (at least as we know them) are facing challenges similar to those of newspapers.
I’ve recently posted something complaining that the university provided little that couldn’t be had from a local Panera Bread. That was meant, in some small part, as a “modest proposal.” Ideally, the university is very much a place, somewhere that encourages the life of the mind, home for a special kind of intentional community. The question is not whether universities of today will end: they will, either with a whimper or a bang. The question is what comes next.
Some suggest that Kaplan and Walden will replace them, or that corporate universities will. Unfortunately, many of these are the same folks who think universities should only teach the “useful arts.” The reason online-only universities like Kaplan and Walden do not have better reputations–and let’s be clear here, they simply do not–is not merely that they are online. Rather it is because few have managed to escape the idea that online education tends to be training, rather than some broader form of enlightenment.
There is nothing wrong with training; training is necessary and important. Learning particular skills represents an important resource for any individual to draw on. But that is not enough on its own. You can learn, by rote, all of the grammatical rules there are to know, but that doesn’t allow you to tell a story. A large part of what results from a good university education is not predictable and nor should it be. We want to allow people to do things that they didn’t know they could, and that we didn’t know they could. Kaplan may very well provide outstanding opportunities for training, and should be applauded for that. But there will remain a need for people who have been engaged in an intellectually challenging conversation, and so far, universities are one of the few places this can be found consistently.