Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson recently ruffled professorial feathers with an impassioned anti-academic screed. His call for "destructive" reforms in higher education smacks of Freudian slippage. (Good ideas, according to the ruling tech paradigm, are "disruptive"—their "destructive" effects only implied.)
But he meant it when he said students should watch more YouTube and attend fewer classes:
We've got the internet—you have so much information available. Why do you have to keep paying different lecturers to teach the same course? You get one solid lecturer and put it up online and have everybody available to that knowledge for a whole lot cheaper. But that doesn't play very well to tenured professors in the higher education cartel. So again, we need destructive technology for our higher education system.
Echoing anti-college headliners Scott Walker, Rick Santorum, and Peter Thiel, Johnson disparages the academic habits that clot colleges—clearly a scam—and favors job-focused certification programs to replace liberal arts majors.
Storefront high-tech professional schools are cropping up, start-up style. They're small-footprint physical plants where post-grads can take reasonably priced classes in coding, design and data. They fill in risk-averse academia's blind spots and, perhaps, bridge the gap to a new order in higher education—just as Johnson envisions.
One such pop-up professional school, one of the first, is General Assembly. Its founder Jake Schwartz—a Yale and Wharton grad, an "excellent sheep" who split from the flock—recently addressed an audience of mainly professors and administrators at an occasionally awkward Georgetown conference on innovation in higher education. "[A college] credit is just a euphemism for a giant chunk wad of cash that the university gets to collect for doing something. And if you bring that [system] down, there will be problems. Structural problems, massive fixed structural problems particularly when you're dealing with physical plants, tenured professors–" just there, the panel moderator jumped in. Sounds awfully "destructive," doesn't he?
But afterward, when I asked Schwartz whether it felt weird to advocate a violent paradigm shift at a school with one of the most classical curricula around, Schwartz told me that his own Jesuit education in the Pacific Northwest put him on an open-minded path, and prepared him to rock the boat start-up-wise, far better than the narrower Ivy League track he took from there.
His point, not a new one, seems to be that learning for learning's sake trains the mind's imaginative worldview—which if it's worth anything, might pop out a disruptive start-up or two.
We can target the professoriate for its corrupting investment in the status quo, but let's bear in mind a more efficient future for higher ed might in fact depend on some significant preservation of the same old order.