Craft college

Flight of beer

Will machines take our jobs? It’s a perennial question, one posed regularly since the Industrial Revolution and probably since humans started making tools. Three recent articles focused my thinking about this question, generally, and how it applies to higher education, in particular.

First, Steven Wilf and Peter Siegleman make an important point in their article, “How Digital Technology Spawned Retro’s Revival

Most people probably think of digital technology as a radically transformative phenomenon that has swept away the past, in the same way the automobile destroyed the buggy-whip industry, or the printing press superseded the illuminated manuscript.

But the “enabling” aspects of digital technologies are equally worth celebrating. To be sure, computers and the rise of the Internet have decimated many old products and ways of doing business.

At the same time, they’ve facilitated the quirky and old-fashioned, allowing for the development of niche markets in specialized products.

Or, as they put it earlier in their piece, “We shouldn’t completely separate the return of the retro from the new.  In a way, the two are not substitutes, but complements.”  Craft beer, retro board games, and small-run printed books are all possible because of cheap, readily available digital technologies.

The second article was “Students Get Less With High-Tech Teaching,” by Ben Fink and Robin Brown.  They wrote in response to budget cuts to higher education in Connecticut, and the probability that colleges faced with declining resources will substitute technology for teachers.  Specifically,

Students at Central, Eastern, Western and Southern universities may soon be encouraged (if not outright required) to take online classes. But students at Yale learn to write in 15- to 20-student seminars, with teachers doing intimate, face-to-face work with them.

Why? Because that’s what works. Yale has access to every learning technology imaginable. Yet it knows how students learn best — not through labor-saving devices, but through lots of labor.

We all remember the teachers, parents, coaches and mentors who made us who we are. All the hours they spent with us — this was an investment of labor. Machines can’t do that. YouTube videos and online tutorials can teach us facts and figures, but they can’t teach us how to think.

Further, they point out that

The long-term solution requires building the popular will and providing the funds to offer every student the same labor-intensive education we now afford to the lucky few. But as long as our budget problems persist, so will the allure of labor-saving technologies. So our short-term advice is simply: Beware.

The third article is one I read via The Atlantic, “The Wrongheaded Belief That Every Business Should Scale Up,” by Antara Haldar.  She describes how small-scale businesses (think of coffee shops) and even small NGOs (think of the Grameen Bank) think that to do well they need to grow bigger and take advantage of scale economies.  Haldar writes,

Based on studies of human behavior in places ranging from blood banks to daycare centers, academics now recognize that the calculus is more complex: People act more responsibly in the context of personal relationships that are meaningful to them than in strictly commercial transactions. In fact, loyalty sometimes even trumps economic rationality: going that extra mile to get the perfect cup of coffee, or paying a loan back when the opportunity exists to default. This is what the shift from boutique to mass-manufactured cuts out.

What all of this tells me is that we need to change our story about higher education.

First, machines can’t teach students how to think so we need faculty who care deeply about carrying out this mission.  We can’t skimp on this or substitute for it using software programs.

Second, we can use digital technology to complement what scholars and teachers do well.  I can write an essay like this one and, instead of pinning it to the bulletin board outside my office or sending it to the local paper I can post it to the web and share it with anyone who is interested.  I can make videos with students about an arcane point in our course and then the students can share it among themselves.  We can write a bunch of stuff on the blackboard in class and then a student can snap a photo, send it to me, and then I’ll post it to our course website.  Let technology do well what it does and let instructors do what they’re good at.

Third, bigger isn’t better.  Liberal arts colleges, in particular, don’t need to scale up to survive.  Rather, we should think about planting more of them around the country.  For instance, at the margin this would be a better use of $400 million than giving it to Stanford.

Think of it this way: liberal arts colleges are to higher ed as craft beer is to Budweiser.  Craft beer is growing, and so should liberal arts education.