10/11/2012 01:13 pm ET Updated Dec 11, 2012

Hedging Our Bets

There are numbers of tech-savvy and generally adventurous professors just as there are numbers of tradition-respecting university trustees, but too many of the Hedgefunders want to reinvent the campus on the Internet while the Hedgehog faculty, rolling into a passive-aggressive ball with protruding quills, wants to sit stock-still. The Hedgefunders wildly undervalue up-close personal interaction, the excitement of pure thought, the crucial and ever-continuing event of self-discovery. The Hedgehogs, seeking to protect a deteriorating job market and threatened good life, so discount transformative changes occurring in the wider world that they will bring about the very fate they fear. Both groups know something is wrong in the world of higher ed, but neither is responding in a manner that would provide hope. Yet amidst their fallacies, each group provides values that can lead to an exciting solution.

The Hedgehogs remind us that universities have endured longer than almost any other social institution and that the knowledge they provide is a compendium of the best that has been thought and said since the beginning of recorded time. Matthew Arnold made that claim a century and a half ago, and its truth has not grown stale. The internet is an information trollop, an embarrassment of riches; any real organization of knowledge is rigorously selective, and the academic disciplines provide that. But a college education is also about strategies for thinking, about discovery and the capacity to clear away falsehoods. It provides graduates with techniques for analyzing whatever may come their way, however unexpected. This kind of education allows the self to expand from its tiny space and moment -- seventy inches, say, in the immensity of space and seven or eight decades in the eternity of time--to connect to the human totality, its past and future.

The professorial insistence on the big picture, along with the skepticism and logic that characterize intellectual maturity, guards against the giddy and protects the permanent in our experience. Real education, by which I mean the arts and sciences, is an immutable benefit not only to individual students but to the collective intelligence of a democracy. It is the antidote to talk radio because it requires the full embrace of a variety of perspectives as a requirement for reaching an earned conclusion. This kind of education, adamantly not just instrumental, a mere means, is nonetheless far more practical than a careerist education that trains one narrowly for jobs that will soon be outmoded while neglecting those skills that will never be -- clear and creative thinking and effective speaking and writing.

But the Hedgefunders, and others alert to the social changes wrought by innovations in how we communicate and how we learn and how we live, can lead us to a strategy for protecting these very values of the liberal arts tradition that a refusal to change will place in dire jeopardy. The new technology is just one way by which we can move higher ed out of an absurd, demeaning degree of petty competitions and into an era of rich collaboration. Worldliness, so often distrusted in academia, is academia's salvation.

Here's what technology can do. At every school, there is a conflict between the great importance of some fields and their popularity. Knowledge in a particular language, for instance, may be crucial for providing students with the cultural background and practical abilities to study and work internationally. But if very few students on any one campus require the language, the university finds itself in a quandary. It is unthinkable to promise a global education without a full spectrum of language instruction, yet it is also financially punishing to do so--punishing as well for professors and students in fields where too many students want in to too few courses.

This is so clearly a job for Skype and its variants. Especially for smaller institutions, bonding via technology for low-enrolling courses not only in the languages but in any important but sparsely populated field allows for breadth and depth. And while I argued last week for the irreplaceable value of in-person, up-close classes, if each student enrolled in just one tech-enabled class each semester, instructional costs could be dramatically reduced and the funds saved could both lower tuition and be partly redeployed to areas of the curriculum where student demand was going unmet. The overall result could be reduced cost, more good professorial jobs, and, most important, a better, more individualized learning experience for students.

Now take this example of institutions working with each other and start thinking of other forms of mutual benefit. This leads to a concept I'll sketch in my next blog, one that could constitute a renaissance in our own time: the Colleversity.