We call ours a bubble, and I suspect many college campuses feel similarly. It is a word that implies the careful cultivation of a tiny utopian environment; it connotes incubation of talent and ideas: A place where both are kept warm and encouraged to grow. At Stanford, ours has a unique, almost undeniable perfection: Sun-drenched, Spanish-roofed, sculpted, manicured - a resort-like beauty made all the more embracing by a particular blend of clichéd-but-true California attitudes (at Stanford, one finds a home in the space between carefree and can-do). For any Stanford graduate, whatever succeeds the years on The Farm has an impossible act to follow. But is a ticket to that act worth its quarter-million-dollar price tag?
There is a financial crisis in American higher education. With unemployment steady at 8.2% and student loan debt greater than credit card debt, the cost of a four-year degree has never been more unjustifiably high nor its merits more unclear. For many families or students contemplating willingly entering into staggering debt, the decision has come down to a simple economic matter of pitting cost against benefit - and with the former increasingly outweighing the latter, universities have been forced to seek out avenues for change.
Last week alone, three authors - David Bornstein at The New York Times , Kevin Redmon for Prospect , and Dianne Lynch for this very publication - wrote lauding the trend toward Internet education. For a fraction of the cost of the full tuition, institutes like Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford offer lecture courses called MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course) through various personalized engines (edX at Harvard and MIT; Coursera at Stanford, Princeton, and Duke; in Silicon Valley, start-ups like Khan Academy and Academic Earth outsource their own freelance faculty). For now, you can't get a Harvard, Stanford, or Khan Academy diploma online, but the implication in the current dialogue is that that step is on the fast-approaching horizon. Not only is an Internet education more financially appealing, but to resist the trend is to stand stubbornly against an oncoming tide (if you've watched a YouTube demo or a TED talk recently, you know that online learning is here). Furthermore, Lynch notes, there has been a fundamental shift in the way we learn: Due to the Internet, "assumptions about knowledge are (now) grounded not in acquisition but in access." If we can Google anything from the Gettysburg Address to the Higgs boson, why bother committing any of it to either memory or context?
My trouble with online education, then, isn't that it blithely shrugs off the luxurious intangibles of that utopian college existence - wasted afternoons and vague experiments in growing up - but rather that the supporting arguments for the idea, hinging as they do on numbers and reach (the ability to lecture to 200,000 rather that 200), assume that online education is not only more fiscally and socially logical but also equal-to (if not better-than) a traditional, in-person education. The notion that a student might learn just as well through a computer screen entirely disregards the minutiae of teaching and the value of mentoring; it assumes that all there is to learning is absorbing the words of another. The best classes at Stanford are not lectures but small discussions, where ten to fifteen students work with one another (under the coaching of a professor) to debunk readings and generate ideas; my most treasured moments at Stanford are hours spent in mentors' always-open offices. The professor is not a regurgitator of facts but a guiding force, steering conversation down channels worth traveling. The good ones have a knack for making students think they've learned something all on their own, and the reward for that journey is a kind of knowledge that sticks. These professors transform the consumption of knowledge from a selfish endeavor (one that demands teach me this or look what I can do!) into a team effort with roots in duty and gratitude. Teachers - not degrees - are the gems of a college campus, and I worry that the push for online education places too much emphasis on the end result.
It is true that there are few things more discriminatory than a college education, with its exclusionary price tag, reliance on the absurd biases of standardized tests, and inability to reconcile grades from the best and worst high schools in the world. But the solution is not the Internet. Keep our colleges - it's possible: In New York State, for example, a number of schools run state government-subsidized opportunity programs whose scholarships make possible college educations for those students whose socioeconomic backgrounds all but forbid one. Full disclosure: My mother has worked for a number of years for an opportunity program at a small liberal arts college, and I have grown up watching her and her generous staff quite literally change lives and, consequently, communities. These programs believe in both the power of education and educators, and work to make each available to those to whom the system works to exclude - a pool that grows larger each day the economy does not improve and prices refuse to yield. They prove that the system can be fixed. Through government funding and charitable endowments - and with a redirecting of the same creative thought and innovation fueling the start-up culture - we can make education work again.
Because - what is the point of a college education, after all? If the point is to leave school and make your own tiny existence better, than I suppose an Internet education is fine. High school teenagers will become college graduates without any changes to their natural adolescent selfishness. But if the point - however quixotic - is to train future generations to make our country and world a better place, then we cannot lose sight of the importance of our teachers. So lets bring kids to college - not the other way around.