One rural future: the fall of the countryside

Over the holidays some of us discussed a thoughtful and gloomy New York Times piece on rural America. For me this crystallized some ideas about the future of rural America.

A key point for me was one of the article’s conclusions: that as the rural population declines, one of the best things the nation can do is accelerate the movement of people from the countryside to cities. Not how to stabilize that population or even to expand it, but a kind of embrace of decline.

So let’s start with a cluster of rural trends:

  • Demographics: older, whiter than suburban and urban America.
  • Economics: poorer. Agriculture obviously more important, and that increasingly operated at scale by large enterprises.
  • Technology: some use of advanced tech. Otherwise, relatively behind in infrastructure. Also, given an aging population, tending to be less likely to use digital tech than the rest of America. In some ways closer to tv than the web.
  • Politics: in rural areas, more conservative. Nationally, there’s a Republic sense that the heartland is precious, but not necessarily supported well by government policies. On the Democratic side, a sense that rural America is either irrelevant to strategy or is simply a lost cause.
  • Education: lower degree levels than suburban/urban America.
  • Environment: increasingly impacted by global climate change. That’s like the rest of the world, of course, but rural areas are more challenged in some ways. Their businesses depend more clearly on nature (think ag as well as tourism). Their politics currently tend towards rejecting anthropogenic climate change even exists, so local and even regional mitigation efforts are less likely to gain traction.

These trends reinforce each other at times. Technological enterprises demand many highly educated workers, and so they draw resources and people into cities and away from the country. A growing experience of racial homogeneity encourages white racism, which in turn discourages nonwhites from moving into the countryside. Declining infrastructure – broadband internet, electrical grid, roads – further discourages investment, which then leads to lower resources for infrastructure maintenance, and so on. (In my new book I call trend clusters metatrends. The term is obvious, but seems rarely used.)

Now let’s extend these trends, assuming for the sake of a blog post that they’ll generally continue. What does rural America look like by 2035?

I call this scenario “The fall of the countryside” as it is a decline narrative. I also want readers to hear the seasonal reference, as it points to a winter to come. It is one scenario, by no means excluding other futures. Quite the contrary. If I have time, I’ll share an alternative.

Abandoned motel, upstate New York.

Imagine a much smaller rural population. There are fewer people in rural counties than in 2019 and earlier, even as the rest of the country’s population slowly grows. This means fewer people per rural house (think lone individuals) and more untenanted buildings. The latter recall the Rust Belt.

It’s also an even older population than it is now. Indeed, a popular cultural imagination of the countryside is as a retirement zone, the place where people go who no longer work. The combination of aging and shrinking demographics could shrink, merge, and close K-12 schools. That, in turn, with make rural areas even less appealing to younger families, which accelerates the aging and depopulation trends.

The more active economic realm within the countryside is divided into five areas. First, big ag, worked by a small number of people, often immigrants, and a good amount of automation. Scale and automation enabled food to be produced by relatively few people, actually tiny working staff numbers in historical context. Second, health care is very economically significant, as an older population tends to consumer more of it. So hospitals, clinics, dentistries, medical supply stores, etc., are key players in the rural economy.

Third, retirement sites of all kinds can be seen, from memory centers to gated communities. Fourth: tourism, which may become more exciting as the majority of Americans have so little experience of the countryside. Fifth, a service sector which supports the preceding four categories – i.e., food service, tech support, transportation. Given compensation trends in these areas, economic inequality will likely be high.

An abandoned school.
Abandoned school in Illinois.

There are now rural ghost towns, eerily empty counties. People tour these for thrills, much like visitors descend upon the ruins of Detroit today. Glamping occurs for the wealthy. There are also rural pioneers who set out to revitalize rural America, learning new skills. Some few suburban and urban people, horrified of what digital technology has become, migrate to the low-tech countryside. Nonfiction and fiction stories of thrillingly empty and/or retro rural America are popular.

Dotted throughout the rural landscape are connectivity islands. These are nodes well connected to the world through a combination of investment, a population cluster, improved infrastructure, and drones. They may be anchored on an affluent population, an ag business enter, a medical center, or a campus.

Speaking of which, education: the K-12 sector shrinks, as noted above. Locally serving public higher education retools to focus on an older student body, while some campuses fail who cannot make this transition. Some nationally- and internationally oriented colleges and universities struggle to maintain student numbers, as the rural location becomes viewed as a net downside. Those that do well serve as anchors to the immediate regions. To the extent that states continue to believe that education is a way to save rural areas from collapse, they will offer some level of support to that end.

Some institutions will shift curricula to address the changing rural situation. We could expect more classes on local traditions, including handicrafts, folklore, history, and construction (the image here is from the Foxfire book series, which everyone in education should know). We should also see a greater emphasis on the full range of allied health, with an eye towards gerontology.

Politically, rural resentment of the rest of America could possibly burst out into dissent or unrest. Already several political leaders, notably Trump, have tapped into this sense of having been left behind economically and culturally. Racism and religious reaction are some patterns that could expand. These could become self-reinforcing if suburbs and cities view these politics with horror and disdain.

Alternatively, a reactionary rural world may sustain itself demographically by attracting suburban and urban conservatives, which in turn exacerbates the country-side divide even further. But in this scenario that dynamic fails to materialize, as few conservatives in practice choose to leave behind suburban and urban amenities.

The technology gap may crystallize into a proudly retro culture. Rural people celebrate their gas-fueled, entirely human-driven cars in opposition to suburban and urban autonomous electric vehicles. They increase their dislike of cyberculture and relish older media: tv, print newspapers, movies and plays in theaters, live music. Imagine a 75-year-old couple sitting in their classic 2005 sedan, parked to watch a drive-in movie. They munch on snacks made by local folks they know. Nearby a string band plays before the generator-powered projector flickers into life. Just beyond the parking lot is a vibrant forest, well stocked with life, and emitted all kinds of noises. Our couple prefers to focus on the food, the music, the one other car in the lot, and each other, anticipating the film, and proudly bereft of mobile phones and smart glasses.

(thanks to Laura Gibbs for one link; abandoned motel photo by Alex Wrightabandoned school photo by Randy von Liski)

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My new class is about educational technology

I will be teaching a new class starting in about a week. It’s a graduate seminar on educational technology for Georgetown University’s master’s program in learning, teaching, and design, hosted by the CNDLS program, the same fine group that hosted my fall class on the future of technology (previously, previously, previously).

This is enormously exciting for me. For one, I’ve been working in ed tech since the 1990s, so the class is an opportunity to share what I’ve learned. For another, I love teaching, and am looking forward to this new class and more students.

Here’s the class catalog description:  

This class explores the intersection of education and technology, based on this question: how can colleges and universities best use digital tools to improve learning?  We begin with a survey of ed-tech’s state of the art, building an understanding of how the field currently works while developing an awareness of its history.  Next we explore a series of major and emerging topics, including: social justice, technology, and education; access and equity; the relationship between pedagogy and technology; asynchronous and synchronous technologies; globalization versus the local; assessment; campus support structures and sustainability; student agency.  Technologies addressed include the learning management system (LMS), mobile devices, podcasting, video, automation, social media, open education resources (OER), and gaming. 

The structure of the class will combine discussion, hands-on work, and presentations. Every week will include the use of a different technology. Students will help contribute to the syllabus by selecting and presenting on readings. Throughout the semester each student will be expected to develop an educational technology intellectual project, which they will develop through class participation, a mid-term project, and a final creative work.  That concluding project will take the form of either an instance of a learning technology, a detailed course plan, a research paper (as a first step towards publication), or another digital object, following the instructor’s approval.

Other stuff: I’m going to teach this as some kind of hybrid, depending on my physical location. So there will be asynchronous work, then synchronous either by video or in person, based on where I am. If my plans succeed, at least half of classes will include me on the same physical plane and location as my students.

The syllabus: right now it’s a kind of two dimensional thing. The x axis (time) is by tech, with each week (roughly) focusing on a different digital thing: video, LMS, audio, mobile, etc. The y axis is ideas and themes, which connect throughout.

Social justice: this is a keen concern for students in this program.

Student democracy: I’m continuing my approach of centering the class on student agency, needs, and interests. As before, that means they control parts of the syllabus, shape our tech use, drive conversation (and I lecture rarely), and shape our agendas.

What do you all think? Any requests?

Posted in teaching | 19 Comments

Futures thinking with Bruce Sterling

In October Bruce Sterling gave a good talk about futuring at the Long Now Foundation. If you don’t know Sterling, he’s an important science fiction writer, nonfiction writer, and futurist. If you don’t know Long Now, they are a group focused on getting us to think in terms of longer timescales than we normally do.

As always, I enjoyed Sterling’s speech, and want to share it with you all. I’ll summarize the highlights below.

First, Sterling argues that futures thinking always involves a particular audience, a shared community that agrees to value a certain aspect of futuring. “To be futuristic is to perform the futuristic for somebody. It’s an act of communication from somebody to an audience.” Futures thinking without participating in a speech community is only a form of diary writing.

Sterling then recommends would-be futurists fit themselves into one of Stewart Brand’s Pace layers. Brand’s model separates different flows of time into strata based on the kind of things they deal with:

Pace layers

Starting from the top, the fastest later, that of fashion, Sterling cites Karl Lagerfeld as an example. Lagerfeld has the uncanny ability to anticipate changes in fashion. Under the less frantic commerce layer appear futurists who advise businesses and investors.

Within the governance layer Sterling reaches back for the example of Vannevar Bush. (I was surprised that he cited Science: The Endless Frontier, not “As We May Think.”) For infrastructure, engineers as well as those who do military planning.

In the cultural layer appears writers, which is how Sterling brings himself in, arguing for the importance of novels. He also recommends thinking in terms of the longue durée, citing Fernand Braudel. There’s a strange observation about the durability of the classics, which sidesteps both the instability of canons and the importance of popular culture.

Nature level: here Sterling breaks from Brand’s model, briefly arguing that nature is now too chaotic and capable of changing quickly. Sterling repeated his favorite aphoristic glimpse of the rest of the 21st century: old people in big cities, afraid of the sky.

Wrapping up this presentation, Sterling asks us to consider what the main benefit of being a futurist is. In his view the advantages are not political power nor a reputation for brilliance. Instead,

The major benefit is that when seemingly weird stuff happens you’re rather less weirded out than other people. You kinda saw it coming. You can even console them.

The rest of the presentation veers into considerations on Italian history, based on Sterling’s work on two European projects.

Overall, I think this how-to framing makes sense at a basic level. Sterling isn’t talking about forecasting methods – in fact, he sets aside scenarios and Delphi. This is a both a more fundamental model (the importance of futuring within a given community) and a bit of professional advice (picking out a pace layer to work within).

Unfortunately, my own work sits in both the culture and governance layers. On the one hand (or layer) I study the many ways and signals being sent by human behavior within education, how we conduct research and teach classes. On the other, I work closely with colleges, universities, governments, and nonprofits on how to structure their educational services: a slower pace to be sure. Then I also work with some businesses, which takes me to the commerce layer. And I track developments in deeper technology, which brings us to infrastructure. I think demographics is in that layer as well. On reflection, I’m not a good example of Sterling’s pace layer futurist model after all.

(thanks to Hugh Blackmer)

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Looking back on 2018 from this blog

It is now a ritual for any digital site to offer a year-end retrospective. The usual patterns involve summarizing a site’s big issues and their highlights, adding a footnote either glum or cautiously optimistic about the year to come. Sometimes the authors offer tentative predictions for the new year.

I’m not going to do that today, partly because I find most such content to be uninteresting. Partly because my readers don’t seem to want that from me. (I’ve done year-end summaries before.) So instead today I’ll reflect on this blog’s progress in 2018 and add a personal note at the end. (I wrote up a different batch of thoughts for my kind Patreon supporters. Join them if you haven’t already!)

Blogging has long been a part of my professional practice. I’m not going to list the benefits here, as I and many others have already done so. I just want to mention that this blog plays a key part in my work, alongside the FTTE report, consultations, the Future Trends Forum, workshops, and speaking engagements. The blog continues to be a way for me to share my research and my questions. And each of these intertwines with the others – I blog about a workshop, clients ask me to dig into an issue which I explore here, a topic noted in a blog post appears in a speech, etc.

A key detail: blogging is, for me, a conversation. I post in part to request feedback from you, dear readers. In return you are quite generous in answering. Your responses help shape and improve my work, for which I am always grateful. These conversations inform my other offerings, from FTTE on. Thank you all for taking the time to think and write with me.

Speaker of you readers, where did you come from? Around the world, it seems –

Where blog readers came from worldwide in 2018.

-but mostly from the US, followed by Anglophonic nations.

Looking through the WordPress Jetpack tool I can find some more interesting stats. Jetpack generated material for a model of my average post in 2018: running 901 words apiece, with five comments on each one. The year-end totals were also interesting: 180,101 words, or almost exactly twice the length of the book I just turned in to my publisher. I’ve been writing so much for so long that I can’t tell if that’s a lot.

200 posts total for the year, which is lower than what I’d hoped for (one post per business day, or 260 or so), but does represent a substantial flow of content. 1008 comments, which is a fine bounty.

Post “likes” were interesting. Over the past near-decade they ran very low: 0 (2011), 0 (2012), 2 (2013), 1 (2014), 0 (2015), 3 (2016), 5 (2017), then… 236 for 2018?! I’m not sure where that last came from. Maybe a software change is at work, or WordPress users just got excited.

The most popular post of 2018? One about a queen sacrifice, my most depressing topic.

More people follow this blog through WordPress’ syndication mechanism (1244) than by email (547).

All of this is made possible by the heroic, ninja-like work of Reclaim Hosting. Bravo to that awesome team! Everyone should host their content there!

Looking ahead, I will continue this blog, and aim for that 260 post number. (And will install the WordPress Classic editor plugin, because the new Gutenberg post engine is a serious step backwards in usability. Gutenberg makes my writing life harder, straight up, with not a single advantage. If I get time I will write a full complaint. Harrumph.) I also want to comment more and link to other people’s blogs. I’ve fallen out of that habit.


On a personal note, I want to add something about real estate. Some of you know that my wife and I spent much of 2018 trying to sell our house. At this point I can only say that it has been one of the most painful, expensive, frustrating, debilitating, anxiety-fueling, and depressing processes we have ever experienced. It reminds us both of going through the American medical system for major surgery in its combination of low information, high bureaucracy, shocking errors, and gnawing dread. Like the medical experience, it has taught us o distrust nearly everyone and everything.

And yet the general American view of home-buying and house-selling seems to be one glorious and easy fulfillment. That’s the impression I get from public discourse across social media, magazines, and what I’ve seen of television. Yet when I mention that our experience is radically different, and worse, people come out of the woodwork to agree. They tell horrible stories of improverishment, personal ruin, epic stress, and disaster.

Why is there such a gap? Is the vile nature of homeselling in America our unspoken reality, covered up by cheerful media? Or is this now just a rural problem, as the cities and suburbs become ever more desireable? Perhaps the experience is broken out into some other segmentation?

Enough on that. 2018 will end in a few hours. 2019 looms ahead. Let me thank you all for your readership, which is one of the best gifts people can offer each other. All best wishes for 2019!

Posted in About | 9 Comments

Twitter and Tear Gas: concluding our book club’s reading

For two months our online bookclub has been reading Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest.  With this post we conclude by discussing its epilogue, “The Uncertain Climb,” and reflecting on the book as a whole.

In this post I’ll briefly summarize the text, then add some reflections and questions.  You can participate by writing comments here, or through whichever other means you like (Twitter comments, annotations, etc.).

If you’d like to check out other moments of our discussion of this book, you can find all blog posts and their associated comments filed under


“The Uncertain Climb” summarizes the strengths offered by social media to dissident movements, as well as the rising problems presented by the same technology.  The chapter builds on some of these, such as drawing our attention back to how social media enables homophily (268) and how “the tyranny of structurelessness has merged with the tyranny of the platforms.” (272)  It also addresses the fake news term as applied to techniques already in play in  Twitter and Tear Gas (264).  The epilogue concludes with notes about newer technologies, like Loomio (276), a theme of persistent activism, and the importance of continuing to question these technologies and practices.


I wonder if Tufecki’s critique of Occupy applies to the gilets jaunes movement, which might be stalling out as of this writing.  The Macron administration must be having a hard time negotiating with the movement, as they lack a clear leader, should Macron be interested in doing so.

The book seems to conclude on a mixed or skeptical note, after opening chapters with home and optimism.


  1. Have you used Loomio?  Are there any other tools from the past two years that you would recommend?
  2. What do you make of the role played by libraries and digital literacy in the book as a whole?
  3. Earlier the book argues that humans join protest movements because of our “desire for nonmarket human connections, participation, voice, agency, community, and diversity.” (112)  Beyond the gilets jaunes, are there any other new movements appearing to meet that desire?
  4. Several weeks ago Joe Murphy asked if we should consider online activism skills as necessary for education.  Now that the book is done, what do you think?
  5. If social media giants have replaced television as “gatekeep[ers] for access to the public sphere…” (134), will rising criticism of those giants lead to a new way of organizing the public sphere?  Or will people pick one platform to avoid the others?

And that’s the end of our reading!  What did you make of the book’s end and the work as a whole?

Coming up: we’ll determine the next title our book club will explore.

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An update on American demographics

The Census Bureau just released new data on America’s population and how it has changed over the past few years.  It’s vital material for the future, especially for what’s next with education.

In the report you can see evidence of major trends continuing to work.  Populations continue to flow towards the west and parts of the south, while the midwest and northeast fall behind or shrink.  Total population grows, but much more slowly, and buoyed by immigration.

Here’s the breakdown by state.  Lighter states are losing population or have stabilized, while darker ones are gaining:

Certain states are people magnets:

Nevada and Idaho topped the list with a growth of about 2.1 percent each in the last year alone. They were followed by Utah (1.9 percent), Arizona (1.7 percent), Florida and Washington (1.5 percent each)… Texas had the largest numeric growth, adding 379,128 people. The state grew both from more births than deaths and from net gain in movers from within and outside the United States. Florida had the highest level of net domestic migration at 132,602.

Meanwhile, some states are flat out losing population:

Population declined in nine states and Puerto Rico. The nine states were: New York (down 48,510), Illinois (45,116), West Virginia (11,216), Louisiana (10,840), Hawaii (3,712), Mississippi (3,133), Alaska (2,348), Connecticut (1,215) and Wyoming (1,197).

Puerto Rico has also lost population, both due to the horrendous storms as well as continued out-migration.

As for total population, it grew, but barely.  The Wall Street Journal observes:

The numbers, which cover the year ended July 1, show the country’s population rose by 0.6% to 327.2 million people. That was the lowest rate since 1937 in data going back to 1901, according to William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.

Immigration looms large:

As birthrates have dropped and death rates risen, immigration’s role in the nation’s continuing population growth has expanded. Last year, it accounted for 48% of the country’s growth, up from 35% in 2011. Accounting for arrivals and departures, the Census Bureau estimated that the country gained 979,000 people from abroad last year, close to the annual average of 1 million in recent years. The figure accounts for both legal and unauthorized immigration, as well as the movement of Americans moving abroad and back.

I expect some readers will object with shrugs and yawns, because none of these developments are strange.  The shift of people away from the midwest and northeast has been going on for decades.  The slowing of population growth has been apparent since the 1970s.  As a kid growing up in New York (1967-1979) I heard many times the desire of older people to leave for Florida.  Put another way, the sun belt is still warm, the north country is still cold, and the rust belt remains rusty.

Don’t let this report’s lack of eye-opening surprise dissuade you.  This is what a trend looks like in mid-course, or from the inside.  This data is a reminder that the population shifts between American states are continuing.  Without colorful anecdotes or shocking headlines we can lose track of their reality.

So what does this report mean for education?  Several things.

First, it reminds us of America’s following the developed world’s trajectory of lowering birthrates.  Which immediately impacts primary schools, then secondary schools, then colleges and universities that serve traditional-age undergraduates, then all of post-secondary education.

Second, the Census reminds us of one role played by immigration, keeping America’s population rising.  The report gives us a glimpse into one future.  If immigration drops (because of Trump, because of violence, because of political chaos, etc.) then we see our total population growth drop even further.  Imagine an America with a stable population, or one where the numbers start to recede.

Third, commonly discussed notions of population based on party politics don’t apply too well to the Census reality.  If we think of Republicans as the party of declining rural states and Democrats as representing urban boom areas, that doesn’t help us understand the leading growth states: Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Nevada, Texas, Utah, and Washington.  That’s a grab bag of politics, with red, blue, and even purple.  Ditto for the states most rapidly losing people.  We have to approach these demographic trends by going beyond red versus blue.

Fourth, the geography of population shifts matters very much to the majority of American higher education.  The clear majority of colleges and universities draw students regionally or locally.  Those institutions located in the low or no growth areas are facing the end of business models predicated on growing numbers.  Those experiencing declines – Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, West Virginia, Wyoming – are getting hit even harder.  Campuses in growth areas may get to enjoy growth spurts of their own.  Institutions with national reach or ambitions will have to market themselves increasingly to the growth areas, or court decline.

These population trends could well change in the medium and especially long term.  Fears of climate change may dissuade people from moving to parts of the sun belt, such as those close to desertification or flooding, while the frozen north might seem a bit less daunting.  The rust belt’s plummeting real estate prices may lure in people willing to risk subzero nights for manageable mortgages and rents.  There is also the possibility of a cultural drive to get Americans making more babies, as I’ve noted.

Otherwise, keep watching these demographic trends.  They are deep, powerful, and very well documented.

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On liberal education surviving the 21st century

Over the past week many people have asked me to comment on Adam Harris’ recent Atlantic article, “The Liberal Arts May Not Survive the 21st Century.”  Often they asked me to respond to the title or the conclusions they drew from the piece, rather than to what Harris actually wrote.

So let me explain.

(And let me also preface this with a confession of bias.  I like Adam Harris’ writing, especially because he conducted a very generous interview with me.)

First, “The Liberal Arts May Not Survive the 21st Century” is a strange title, and one I’d bet applied by an Atlantic editor, rather than Harris.  The article isn’t about the liberal arts per se but about the case of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point campus and its decision to end some majors.  This may seem familiar to you, dear readers, as I’ve been writing about it from time to time.  Liberal education appears as one theme, but we only leave this Wisconsin case for a single, final sentence:

The national conversation around higher education is shifting, raising doubts about whether the liberal arts—as we have come to know them—are built to survive a tech-hungry economy.

And that’s a great question.  However, it brings me to a second point.  Much depends on what we mean by “liberal arts” or “liberal education.”

I don’t mean to be pedantic.  I mean that people have very different models of higher education based on what they have in mind when they say “liberal arts” or “liberal education.”  You can tease out those models with a few questions.  And now we must digress.  We’ll return to Harris, I promise.

So what is liberal education? Back in 2006 my colleague, friend, and heroine Jo Ellen Parker outlined those models with typical clarity and nuance.  She gave a talk on this topic, based on her experience working throughout liberal education, then published an article at the Academic Commons.  Let me summarize quickly – but I strongly recommend her article.

Learning for its own sake: this is an undergraduate experience free of professional expectations.  Students (and faculty members) follow their curiosity where it leads them without worrying if a new topic will cost them a job.  They are like the inquiring reader using Vannevar Bush’s Memex (also published in the Atlantic, back in 1945), moving from topic to topic depending on the unique contours and contents of their mind.

A kind of pedagogy: liberal education involves a certain way of teaching.  Parker describes it as “operating from a pedagogical methodology that emphasizes active learning, faculty/student collaboration, independent inquiry, and critical thinking.”  More,

The defining characteristics of liberal education in this logic are not disciplines but practices — practices like group study, undergraduate research, faculty mentoring, student presentations, and other forms of active learning…

Civic engagement and political activism: this is the liberal arts as school for intervening in a society, or for becoming a well prepared member of the polis.  Jo Ellen Parker finds this to be in part a curricular style:

In terms of curriculum, this approach tends to value the development of skills specifically believed to be central to effective citizenship — literacy, numeracy, sometimes public speaking, scientific and statistical literacy, familiarity with social and political science, and critical thinking. It tends to value curricular engagement with current social and political issues alongside the extracurricular development of ethical reflection and socially responsible character traits in students, seeing student life as an educational sphere in its own right in which leadership, rhetorical, and community-building skills can be practiced.

The liberal arts college: now we’re talking about a very specific sort of American campus, one of maybe 80 to 300 or so, depending on one’s criteria and attachment to rankings.  These are the Bryn Mawrs and Vassars, the Williamses and Middleburies.  

Sometimes this model can include other institutions that do liberal education.  Think about how large universities can set up small mini-colleges on campus that aim to function like liberal arts colleges.  My own alma mater offers a good example of this.  The University of Michigan is a massive, public research university, but for decades it has maintained its Residential College as an internal liberal arts entity.  Or consider West Point, which teaches in some of the ways outlined above.  The American Association of Colleges and Universities has hundreds of member institutions, each joining to proclaim their support of liberal education.

Let me add two more senses to the list.

Interdisciplinary study: the term “liberal arts” is inherently plural.  It does not lodge in a single academic department or major, but instead assumes a multiplicity of fields.  There’s a hint of learning for its own sake here, as it allows students to trace ideas across intellectual boundaries.  There’s also the acknowledgement that students are better prepared for the world once they learn how to navigate across those boundaries, especially as workers are increasingly likely to have two or more very different jobs in the course of adult life.  This sense of liberal education opposes itself to the preprofessional degree or the shaping of an undergraduate experience so that it largely focuses on a single major.

The humanities: listen carefully to the academic fields a speaker mentions when they refer to liberal education.  They will usually mention humanistic fields.  Do they then add the sciences?  Do they include the quantitatively intensive social sciences, such as economics?  Oftentimes they will not, and you can deduce that for the speaker the liberal arts, or liberal education, means the humanities.  (You can press this still more closely to get a sense of which humanities, and then the speaker’s politics usually appear quite clearly, especially given their tone.  Conservatives will often praise history and religion but disdain women’s studies, for example.)

We can go further and tease out still more meanings and variations.  We could talk about the role of religion, for example, or delve into the history of how America invented the liberal arts college.  I’m always fond of the Latin roots for liberal arts, as in the arts (skills, knowledge) needed by a free person.  But let’s pause there.

I find that outside the academy the humanities sense is a popular one.  Within the academy, we’re all over the map, including within liberal arts colleges and universities.

Now we can at last loop back to the Adam Harris article.  The Stevens Point campus is not a classic liberal arts college in the usual sense, but is an AAC&U member.  It may teach according to Parker’s pedagogical models; the Atlantic article doesn’t address these.

Instead, “The Liberal Arts May Not Survive the 21st Century” seems to be about mostly interdisciplinary study and the humanities.  Those are the majors to be cut: “six liberal-arts majors, including geography, geology, French, German, two- and three-dimensional art, and history…”    The last four are humanities, and the first one – geography – might tread in that domain to the extent classes involve cultural geography.  

The article goes on to focus on history, and in opposition appears the sciences.  For example, “[b]y that point, administrators had already broken down the number of students enrolled as majors in each department—at least those aside from the STEM fields, Willis said.”  Added to the sciences are professional tracks.  The two combine in opposition to the liberal arts – i.e., the humanities:

The changes would reflect “a national move among students towards career pathways,” administrators argued. The proposal planned to add majors in chemical engineering, computer-information systems, conservation-law enforcement, finance, fire science, graphic design, management, and marketing. By focusing more on fields that led directly to careers, the school could better provide what businesses wanted—and students, in theory, would have an easier time finding jobs and career success.

To be fair, the administration wasn’t talking about ending humanities instruction, but canceling several majors.  Those units – history, geography, etc. – would still teach.  Indeed, the strategic language framed the Stevens Point shift as a synthesis rather than deletion:

“We remain committed to ensuring every student who graduates from UW-Stevens Point is thoroughly grounded in the liberal arts, as well as prepared for a successful career path,” Bernie Patterson, the institution’s chancellor, said in a message to the campus. 

So will liberal education in the Stevens Point sense survive the 21st century?

If the core sense here is “the humanities,” then it seems likely it will do so.  The humanities seems likely to keep shrinking in terms of student interest for a variety of reasons, as I’ve noted.  Adam Harris mentions the perception that the humanities have little economic benefit, which is certainly one major rationale for enrollment decline.  I’m not sure how much farther these “liberal arts” will shrink before the year 2100.  We can imagine different forms of consolidation, some already practiced, such as merging English and comparative literature.

Personally, I have a hard time shaking the idea that the humanities will in many instances become service departments.  That is, they won’t offer as many majors as they used to, but will instead devote themselves to general education, to the core curriculum.  Harris’ article references this at one point:

even if the state were to miraculously open the coffers for state institutions, [Greg Summers, the provost and vice chancellor at Stevens Point] said he would likely still eliminate the history major and others in favor of more focus on stem fields bolstered by a broader general-education curriculum.

This is an important distinction.  It doesn’t mean colleges won’t teach history.  It means they will teach it entirely to nonmajors.  Students will be exposed to the topics, if somewhat less often in the aggregate, depending on how a given institution structures its core curriculum.

A “liberal education” bounceback for the humanities is possible if some of the fields can change their reputation.  This may require a massive increase in public intellectual work, a political shift, and a cultural transformation.  

As for the other senses of “liberal education,” as Joe Ellen Parker laid them out?  There are so many factors driving these changes – and such a long time remaining in this century!  I can offer a few thoughts.

The pedagogical model is very powerful.  It is, however, expensive to offer as it typically does not scale well.  The ideal is a seminar, not a lecture hall.  This is one reason for its scarcity.  Now, adjuncts – the majority of American instructors – can teach this way, if their institutions support them.  Down the road is the possibility (perhaps not too likely, pace the historical work of Audrey Watters) that we can automate such pedagogy.  Unless we realize that, it will be hard to scale up this pedagogy beyond where it is now.

The politically engaged model is, of course, controversial.  Many campuses I’ve worked with are increasingly interested in offering social justice programs, while the American right wing fulminates against the very idea.  This model may persist as long as Generation Z continues its activist turn, and perhaps longer.  The idea that dealing with climate change requires unusually high levels of political knowledge and practice may also drive this educational model into greater practice as the planet heats and the waters rise.

The liberal arts college model: the common wisdom I’ve heard from public and private conversations is that the top tier of such colleges – Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore, Wellesley, Bowdoin, Carleton et al, according to the widely disliked and universally attended US News ranking – are invincible, given their endowments ($2.7 billion for Williams; $2.248 billion for Amherst), reputation, and alumni networks.  However, lower tier liberal arts colleges may face closure, merger, or transformation into a very different type of campus.   Geography may inflect this sharply, as those that are regional in the range of students they draw, rather than national or international, can get hit badly by demographic changes.  Similarly, the general turn towards cities and away from the countryside will not help most rurally-based campuses. 

Interdisciplinary studies: currently this academic mode is controversial.  On the one hand we have many academic leaders, funders, and researchers who celebrate the benefits of crossing between departments.  Indeed, many new departments emerge from such intersections.  On the other, academic disciplines remain strong, even fierce social constructs.  They are the training beds of faculty-to-be in graduate school and the departments that dispense promotions and punishments in employment.  They are the primary professional publication and development channels.  Disciplines, well, discipline.  I am not sure how the balance will tip over the next 71 years, but I would not be surprised to see the struggle persist, even as we develop new disciplines.

As for learning for its own sake?  I fear my answer may be darker than usual.  I am typing this under the influence of a battery of medications as my body struggles with a ferocious cold/sinus infection/some kind of rhinitis.  It is also just about the longest night of the year, up here in the colder parts of the northern hemisphere.  Darkness and gloom are, shall we say, very accessible moods for me.  So perhaps take this with a grain of salt, but: I think macroeconomics will take this kind of liberal education to the elite and restrict it there.

Consider that income and wealth inequality are rising, as my listeners and readers know well.  Gilens and Page helped usher in the return of the Gilded Age term oligarchy, and a general sense that American society’s inequalities are rising seems widespread, if unmet by mitigating policies.  At the same time our culture has deeply embraced market logic in much of life, viewing ourselves as our own CEOs engaged in continuous transactions with customers and other businesses.  As long as these two trends continue to flourish learning for its own sake will become scarce.  Increasingly only those who can afford to clear out several years purely for the free play of intellectual exploration will be able to do so.  The rest of the student body will have other priorities and options.

My thanks to Adam Harris for offering a provocative article.  It’s a fine historical document of this moment in American academic history.

Posted in future of education | 6 Comments

Twitter and Tear Gas: part five of our book club’s reading

Our online bookclub is reading Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest (our store via Amazon).  With this post we approach the end by discussing Chapters 8, “Signaling Power and Signaling to Power” and 9, “Governments Strike Back.”

In this post I’ll briefly summarize the text, then add some reflections and questions.  You can participate by writing comments here, or through whichever other means you like (Twitter comments, annotations, etc.).

If you’d like to check out other moments of our discussion of this book, you can find all blog posts and their associated comments filed under

Last week’s reading spurred a great observation from Amanda Sturgill.

Also since last week there’s been a lot of controversy and hot takes on the French yellow jackets movement, which continues to roil that nation and also mobilizes social media, in fine Tufekci style.  Here’s one argument that people overstate the role of Facebook.


Chapter 8 focuses on exploring social movements in terms of three signaling capacities they can exercise: narrative capacity, which creates and promulgates an alternative story about the world; disruptive capacity, which can intervene in a social or political process; electoral or institutional capacity, the ability to achieve political influence (192).  Most of the chapter dwells on the Occupy movement, assessing it as having succeeded in creating narrative capacity, but not disruptive capacity nor electoral impact.  Tufekci contrasts this with the Tea Party, which became much more influential (216-8).

Chapter 9, “Governments Strike Back,” explores ways that states can check dissident movements beyond censorship.  These include waiting out a protest without taking much action, censoring selected content that calls for social action or is geographically close to other content sources (235), flooding media spaces with distracting content (237), spreading disinformation about a topic (239),  seeking to marginalize a platform (241), and combining surveillance with leaked documents (251).  The chapter concludes by examining how the Turkish government used social media protest techniques to preserve itself against a 2016 coup attempt.(254-60)


A key takeaway: “Keep in mind that attention, not information per se, is the most crucial resource for a social movement.” (227)

I’m struck by how little a role is played by media, information, or digital literacy practices in the book.


  1. Can you apply the triple capacity model to other recent social movements, such as the gilets jaunes?
  2. This book went to press during the 2016 American presidential election.  To what extent did the Trump campaign and the subsequent administration make use of chapter 9’s techniques?
  3. Chapter 9 concludes on a positive note about Turkey’s ISPs and telecommunication companies.  What role might other nation’s firms play in enabling government repression?

Coming up next week: a bonus post on the book’s Epilogue.

And remember that all of our discussion can be found here.

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Considering a forecast that didn’t come to pass

Over the past decade various voices have predicted that American colleges and universities would face a wave of closures.  Clayton Christensen has been one of the most prominent, forecasting in 2013 with Michael Horn that “a host of struggling colleges and universities — the bottom 25 percent of every tier, we predict — will disappear or merge in the next 10 to 15 years.”

This week co-author Michael Horn revisited that prediction to see how it has fared.  tl;dr version: he thinks the idea remains sound, although the timeline may have been too short.

At the futures level, I approve of Michael’s reflection on this topic.  He’s doing something I and many other futurists practice, checking our previous work.  Seeing what we got right and where we erred is extremely useful for futuring.  We can correct and improve our analytical skills and information-gathering. 

Two personal notes before I proceed.  First, many of my audiences know I do this kind of thing in public.  Here’s an example of my getting something wrong and trying to figure out the miss.  Second, Michael Horn was a fine Future Trends Forum guest earlier this year.  Here’s the full recording:

On to the article.

To summarize: several times in the past Horn and Christensen have anticipated significant numbers of closures within American higher ed.  While closures and mergers have occurred since then, they haven’t done so in the much larger numbers H+C laid out.

The key problem facing colleges and universities isn’t disruption from outside or even internal forces, but the increasing stresses squeezing high ed’s business model.   As the author puts it, “the business model of traditional cerolleges and universities was broken.”  Horn lists rising costs, rising discount rates, budget deficits, and demographics, not to mention the competitive arms race (amenities, services, faculty).

So Horn maintains his diagnosis.  He just thinks the patient will enjoy a few more years of health.  “Our predictions may be off, but they are directionally correct.”  The die-off is still coming:

From 2004–2014, “Closures among four-year public and private not-for-profit colleges averaged five per year from 2004-14, while mergers averaged two to three,” according to Moody’s. Moody’s predicted in 2015 that that closure rate—out of 2,300 institutions—would triple by 2017, and the merger rate would double.

Assuming that were true, and say that the rate held steady for 15 years, that would take out roughly 13% of existing higher education institutions right there.

Horn goes on to argue that certain campuses are in greater danger than others.  It’s the small schools we must worry about:

Forty percent of colleges and universities have fewer than 1,000 students. According to a 2016 report by Parthenon-EY titled “Strength in numbers,” 77% of colleges and universities—or 738 institutions—with fewer than 1,000 students exhibited at least three risk factors, such as a high discount rate, being dependent on tuition for more than 85% of revenue, or having an endowment that covers less than a third of expenses, that placed its survival in question. If all 738 somehow failed, then the 25% failure prediction that Christensen and I made would be surpassed—by nearly 200 institutions.

According to Jeff Selingo, since 2010, these institutions have shed the most students—a decline of 5%—compared to colleges and universities with more than 10,000 students, which have grown slightly, on average. As Selingo points out, there is little to no margin for error in these colleges. Losing just a few students wreaks havoc on the budget and, over time, has significant repercussions.

I have to say that all of this makes sense to me.  That shouldn’t surprise my readers, clients, and audiences, who know I’ve been making and sharing many of these points for years.

I’m interested in a few points that surface during Horn’s discussion, as well as those that don’t.

  1. Online learning (which we used to call “distance learning”) no longer plays the role of fierce disruptor in Horn’s vision.  It’s certainly there in the article (“enrollments in accredited colleges and universities have shrunk consistently since 2010, enrollment in online learning continues to rise“), but online learning looks more like part of the landscape rather than an invading barbarian.  No mention of MOOCs.
  2.  There isn’t any mention of increasing governmental support, either from states or the federal government.  Generally speaking that matches my understanding, although I admit exceptions (oil-rich states, blue states that are rich and committed enough to manage to divert some monies to public higher ed).
  3. International students don’t appear in the article.  American colleges and universities succeeded in growing that population over the past twenty years – at varying levels, depending on the institution, and not without challenges (for example), but overall numbers went up.  Until Trump and the current wave of school shootings, following which that curve bent downwards.  It’s possible that America will be able to rebuild this population and grow it even further, making up for domestic demographic shortfalls, once Trump leaves and his reputation fades.  This may take some time, however, and in that interim the number of shuttered campuses will rise.

Let me step back from the business analysis Michael does so well to look from different perspectives.  Beyond the question of economic sustainability lies a potential cultural shift. For the past three generations American culture has progressively ramped up its desire for people to get post-secondary schooling.  Larger and larger proportions of the population have gone to colleges and universities.  

We might break away from that tendency.  If enough people perceive the costs of college as too high, if they choose alternatives to higher ed, we may reverse course.  The new American idea might become that college is great for some people, but not for everyone.  This could unfold in several ways.  College is good for wealthy people, but not the working class.  University experience is great, but not for young, healthy folks who are good with their hands.  Or higher ed is a chancy risk.  

One more point to add: if online learning keeps up its rapid cycle of experimentation and improvement, aided by a robust population of instructional designers, that sector of higher ed could grow more rapidly.  Especially if digital learning’s reputation rises accordingly.

Combining these two last points – higher ed’s reputation for necessity changing, and online education’s reputation rising – could accelerate the Horn and Christensen scenario.

Thanks to Michael Horn for taking the time to revisit his forecasts.

(thanks to Michael Berman for the Twitter nudge)
Posted in future of education, futures | 6 Comments

A Boston liberal arts college will close

Newbury College, an American liberal arts campus in the Boston area, will close next year.

Newbury College

An announcement from the campus president appears directly on the college’s main page.  “[W]e intend to cease operations after the Spring 2019 semester.”

What is driving that radical decision?  My readers can guess the answer.   In president Chillo’s words: “financial challenges, the product of major changes in demographics and costs, are the driving factors behind our decision to close at the end of this academic year.”

About those finances: according to a Boston Globe report, “Newbury College has been struggling financially for the past few years. In its annual financial statements, it forecast a $2.8 million cash flow deficit for the fiscal year ending in 2018.”

My readers also know to check for enrollment, and will be unsurprised to find that it was not doing well.  Again, according to the Globe, “[e]nrollment has declined 24 percent over a five-year period, but [Newbury] depends on tuition for 74 percent of its revenue.”  Worse, according to a Globe article from earlier this year, “enrollment has declined 86 percent over the past 20 years.”

Newbury’s statement includes plans to help their current students:

We are working closely with the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education and we are in the process of formalizing agreements with area colleges and universities to ensure our students have the best opportunities to continue their studies and to earn their college degree. Closing plans will include options to complete comparable programs at other institutions, admissions events for other institutions to come to campus and meet our students, information about credit transfers and student records, question and answer briefings, contact information for transition advisors and counselors, as well as any changes to the academic calendar. We will be publishing more details of our closing plans shortly, and there will be regular updates as we move forward.

Let me close with several observations.

First, the state where Newbury resides is already taking policy steps to deal with more college closures.  “Since Mount Ida, state regulators, including the attorney general, have called for more oversight of schools to monitor them before they get to the point of desperation.”  Note that this is Massachusetts.  It’s a very wealthy state, either the 4th , 6th, or 7th richest in America.   It is the most educated state of all, except for DC, according to every single measure and list I Googled.  And they are closing colleges.

Second, once again we come back to the higher education business model depending on students for tuition and fees, and being clobbered once student numbers drop sufficiently.  Demographics, again, power the model and saps it when they change.  

Yes, I’m going to get to Michael Horn’s recent reflection on the predictions he and Clayton Christensen made about college closures.  But I just turned in a 90,000-word manuscript and am fighting a vile head cold, so I’ll have to follow up on that point in an upcoming post.

(thanks to Peter Shea)

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