Warpping up Richard DeMillo’s Revolution in Higher Education

Revolution in Higher Education, coverAfter finishing the last scheduled chapter of Richard DeMillo’s Revolution in Higher Education, I belatedly realized there was an unread portion.  The book concludes with an epilogue, and I wanted to touch on it before adding some summative comments.

The epilogue is quite simple.  It describes a meeting of MOOC evangelists, several university leaders, and the press at the Carnegie Corporation’s offices.

[T]he stories tumbled on to the table – stories of success, shifting motivations, surprising alliances, and unexpected defeats.  [Georgia Tech provost Rafael] Bras was struck by the intensity of feeling surrounding the social contract [cf last chapter]. (Kindle location 5692)

It’s not clear where this revolution (capital R Revolution for DeMillo) is headed.  And then the book ends on a plaintive, moving note.

Sebastian [Thrun]’s voice, so quiet you had to strain to hear: “I have a dream that we will truly democratize education… Great universities compete on how many people they exclude… If the measure of success suddenly shifts to inclusiveness, it would change the face of humanity.” (5699)

This works no matter which side you’re on.  If you sympathize with this Revolution, or with MOOCs, this is a moving affirmation.  If, on the other hand, you see them as misguided, it’s a sad confession of failure.  A fine way to end the book, I think, given its likely audiences.

So, to sum up:

Revolutionizing American higher education by increasing accessibility to it is the book’s central theme.  This appears in a narrative framework.  Protagonists seek to achieve this goal, including visionary academic leaders and creative entrepreneurs. The MOOC movement (or moment) is one tool for accomplishing this.  Antagonists, such as accrediting agencies and the AAUP, seek to retard or openly block change.

This theme leads DeMillo to a very welcome take on the variety of higher education institutions, and to avoiding the disease of Harvard worship.  The author takes care to celebrate public institutions and community colleges.  For example, I enjoyed the way he implies that land grant universities helped inspire Harvard to reform its curriculum (4361).

Revolution is a very wide-ranging book, well informed, touching on an ambitious range of topics.  DeMillo dives into neuroscience, the history of college rankings, macroeconomics, details of governance, international differences, institutional differences, bad forecasting, technology platforms and more, quite accessibly and with confidence.  One downside is that these don’t all cohere.  The science of learning element, for example, while powerful, drops out of the book’s second half.  The importance of economic sustainability is crucial early on, then quiet afterwards. Discussions with present-day leaders and practitioners don’t necessarily draw on the historical analyses.  Several threads just drop, like a call for increasing faculty productivity.

This is an unpredictable book.  It doesn’t adhere to many political frameworks we’re accustomed to.  DeMillo can slam institutions for elitism, then make a case for reducing (tenured) faculty governance power.  He decries defunding public education, but doesn’t call for increasing it at either state or federal levels.  He emphasizes the transformative powers of technology, then ultimately locates the locus of change within campuses.    DeMillo could be read as strongly pro-technology, but he also criticizes some online learning implementations.  “Gains through big data, artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies do not solve the Scaling Problem.” (2597)

The text celebrates some entrepreneurs and businesses (MOOC people, Minerva) while mocking others (US News).  It slams campus strategic plans, but allows for unusual and interesting ones (here).  There are hints of support for conservatives (ex: approval of ACTA) alongside a strong current of economic populism with strong left-wing resonance.  And yet there’s a willingness to go beyond the state: “the Revolution would enable higher education to directly reach people around the world, bypassing governments and states, if necessary.” (5621)  And he makes this unusual argument in today’s debates over corporatizing education: that campuses are neither businesses nor nonprofits, but bureaucracies (2760).

Revolution is often a pleasure to read.  The book contains many pithy and passionate passages. “if you were determined to design a method that would discourage [learning], you would invent the college lecture hall and its fifty-minute lectures….” (1428) “Faculty governance is a contradiction – a blend of shared responsibility and entitlement that drenches many academic conversations.” (4848)  “The academy hierarchy is held together by the veneration of outward symbols of status [and] slavish adoption of bureaucracies” (3038).  “The system [of American higher ed] is only viable because of the prevalence of subsidies: state appropriations in the case of public universities, and earnings from endowments and gifts in the case of private institutions.” (2927)

I am concerned about the book’s utility, beyond its roles as historical survey and present-day critique.  There’s a quick argument against organizing adjuncts, after which the casualization of academic labor disappears.  Since adjuncts are now the leading segment of American faculty, how can Revolution address them and that changed labor force?  The willingness to bypass governments doesn’t help us reshape state policies.  Arguing that teachers cannot engage with student lives outside the classroom seems to push for depoliticizing education, or at least educators; is that what DeMillo wants?  Ultimately the reader is left with the narrative frame, encouraged to support the protagonists and resist their antagonists.  I’m not sure what actions educators can take in that struggle.

I’d like to thank everyone who participated in this reading.  People contributed thoughts via comments on this blog, including Vanessa Vail, George Lorezno, David Allard, and especially Jenny Colvin, We also heard from folks via Twitter, sometimes by Facebook, and email.  Paul McConaughy generously shared his very detailed reading notes with me.

If you come to this post after our reading and would like to partake, please be welcome.  Every post is available here, under the tag demillorevolution.  Comment away; I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Tomorrow Richard DeMillo and I will discuss the book on video.  See the next post!

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2 Responses to Warpping up Richard DeMillo’s Revolution in Higher Education

  1. Pingback: New visions/strategies/items re: higher education

  2. Pingback: AAUP censures a college for its queen sacrifice | Bryan Alexander

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