Most people no longer feel the need to visit a large, stone building for hours every week, submit to the authority of a cleric, and listen to some garbled Latin or Hebrew in order to connect to a higher power. I have to wonder if organized higher education could someday go the way of organized religion – not to disappear, by any means, not even to diminish in absolute size, but to cede its place at the very height of human thought and center of daily action.
True, university reform is necessary, the institution having become, in Christopher Olaf Blum’s words, “a chance collection of individuals building their careers.” But when would be reformers are unaware of the academic challenges to secularization theory, that the Catholic Mass is no longer exclusively in Latin, or that Hebrew might actually be worth learning, then there is cause for hesitation. Books such as these inadvertently reveal that universities have failed to pass on much of substance. (That “garbled Latin” verb, tradere, comes to mind.) I can’t speak to the details of DIY U’s Edpunk strategy because paragraphs like the ones above, or the book’s beginning by dismissing colonial colleges in toto, caused me to lose interest. I can say that reform does not come from pressing forward into digital oblivion, but from returning to (ehem) the original ideal, an ideal that can now be digitally enhanced.
Any student worth their salt will supplement formal instruction with some of the resources mentioned in books like DIY U. But they are just that – supplements (and the best of such supplements, sorry to say, require University affiliation to access). Saying, as some do, that wikipedia, iTunes U or the superb Great Courses series have outmoded the collegiate, residential ideal is like saying the internet’s proliferation of recipes has outmoded eating. Colleges still can be, in Blum’s words, “a kind of fellowship, even a friendship, whose characteristic activity [is] to ‘rejoice in the truth’ (gaudium de veritate).” I know because I teach at one. But the thing about friendship is you can’t do it yourself.
Matthew Milliner is Assistant Professor of art history at Wheaton College. You can follow him on twitter.