Revolution and Reformation in Higher Education: Anya Kamenetz’s DIY U

It’s a sign of the fast changing times in higher education that I just finished reading Anya Kamenetz’s DIY U and it already feels just a little bit dated–not terribly so, since it is a kind of futurist fiction about higher education written in 2010–and I feel frustrated at the notion that great new ideas and books to consider are solving yesterdays problems by the time I get around to them.  The shelf life for this kind of thing seems to be about a year and 2010 seems like an eon ago in both publishing and in higher education.  This is too bad because I actually think there is some important ethical thinking about higher education going on in the book that gets obscured both by the speed of the author and the speed with which the educational times are leaving even this book behind.

A few examples: the term MOOC, all the rage since the new cooperative ventures of Harvard, MIT YAle, Stanford and others, is barely mentioned as such–there are a couple of notes about it, but the notion that Ivy League schools would start en-mass to give their educational content away for free isn’t given much attention in this book (indeed, institutions of higher education seem largely to be the problem rather than a part of innovative solutions in Kamenetz’s view).  Similarly, the recent scandals and shennanigans in the for-profit sector barely rate a mention in for Kamenetz, and yet their pervasiveness at the present moment casts an inespcapable pall over the idea that that the for-profits are the best or even a good way forward.  Kamenetz offers a few gestures of critique at the for-profit educational industry, but seems more enamored of the innovations they can offer.  I’m less sanguine about the creative destruction of capitalism when it comes to education, and that shades my own reception of the book.

Overall I liked this book a great deal, but I do think the rosy and largely uncritical view of the present suggests a few problems.  The book catalogues the florid variety of things going on in higher education, championing every change or possibility that’s out there on an equal plane without too much discrimination.  There are a few gestures here and there toward critical thinking about these new possibilities, but mostly things fall into the following rough equations:

Current higher education system = exclusionary + hierarchical + expensive + tradition centered = bad

Anything new = good (or at least potential good)

On some level this strikes me as a convert’s story.  Kamenetz went to Yale College, for goodness sake, not Kaplan University.  So it may be that she is a kind of Martin Luther, or at least his publicist.  One well imagines Kamenetz in the reformation glorifying every sect that came down the pike as good because it wasn’t the catholic church and was returning power to the people.  Or the believer who wakes one morning to realize she believes nothing that her parents church believes, and so is fascinated and wildly attracted to the notion that some people out there worship turnips.

Not sure if anyone actually worships turnips, but you get the point;  its difficult in the midst of a reformation to discriminate and figure out who is Martin Luther, Menno Simons, John Calvin, or William Tyndale, and who is just a the latest crackpot televangelist hocking his wares.  Moreover, it takes a lot of discrimination–and probably more distance than we can afford right now–to figure out which parts of Luther, Simons, Calvin and Tyndale were the things worth keeping and which were, well, more like the crackpot televangelists of their own day.  Are Phoenix, Kaplan, and other for profits really helping poorer students in a way that the bad and exclusive traditional university is not, or are they really fleecing most of them in the name of hope and prosperity–something a good many televangelists and other American Hucksters are well known for?

This book is not where we’ll get that kind of analysis and considered attention about what we really ought to do next, where we ought to put what weight and influence we have.  And I admit, to some degree that’s asking this book to be something it isn’t We need books like this that are more provocations and manifestos than reflective analyses.  We also have to have someone that writes the revolution from the inside with all the enthusiasms that entails.

But that means this is a fast book, subject to the strengths and weaknesses that speed provides, one weakness being a little bit of factual sloppiness and a penchant for hasty and oversimplified analysis that sells well to the journalistic ear.  For instance Kamenetz uses a recurrent metaphor of the higher educational institution being a church that the contemporary world increasingly doesn’t need, and she draws an analogy by saying that statistics show that church attendance has dropped from 40 to 25 percent.  The problem is that the article she cites actually says that regular church attendance has remained consistently at 25 percent for the past couple of decades and has declined only slightly since 1950.  Other studies peg that number at 40 percent.  No study I know of (I’m not an expert)–and certainly not the one that Kamenetz cites–suggests its dropped from 40 to 25 percent.

Another annoying instance is a recurrent statement that administrators of higher education institutions are committed to maintaining the status quo.  This is spoken like someone who never actually talked to an administrator, or perhaps is only speaking about Yale College which for the most part really doesn’t need to change.  Nearly every administrator I know of or have talked to is thinking furiously, sometimes frantically, and sometimes creatively, about how our institutions can change to meet the challenges we face and better serve the public with our various educational missions.  Unless it is the case that Kamenetz is arguing that institutions are simply for the status quo because they are institutions and unwilling to pass quietly in to the night.  But this would jejune.  It sounds good to the anti-institutional American ear, but its doubtful policy for advances in higher education.

These kinds of issues individually are small, but collectively they are annoying and to someone who is involved in the institutional side of higher education and is informed about the issues, they are glaring.  What it might mean is that the book won’t get the kind of attention in higher education institutions that it deserves.

Which is too bad since I think the book ought to be required reading for administrators, if only to debate its urgency.  What the book lacks in critical discrimination it makes up for with passionate and detailed pronouncement–a good sermon can be good for the academic soul.  For one thing, it might help us realize that the way things have always been done isn’t even the way things are being done now for an increasingly larger and larger share of the population.  Just as churches change–however slowly–in the face of historical movements and transformations, higher education is and will be changing as well.  Many of the ideas detailed in Kamenetz’s book help us see the extent to which those changes are occurring and lend new urgency to the question of what those changes mean for us in higher education.  There’s even a good deal available that could help us to think about how to best reform our own practices to meet our current highest ideals, rather than seeing this as a war of good and evil over the minds of the next generation.

I was especially drawn to Kamenetz’s notion of a community of practice–something she drew from Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger:

Such communities  are defined by shared engagement in a task and shared understanding of goals and means to reach them.  In the classic progression of a community of practice, an appentice presents herself to the community and takes on simple beginning tasks at the elbow of an expert.  Everyone is participating in real-world tasks, not academic exercises., so the learner’s actions have consequences right away.  This stage is known as “legitimate peripheral participation.’  As she progresses she continuosly reinforces her learning by teaching others as well.  In a community of practice it is understood that youare just as likely to learn from the mistakes of fellow beginners, or from people with just slightly more experience, as from wizened elders.  Virtual communities of practice are thriving on the internet, among bloggers, gamers, designers and programmers.  These groups have little choice but to teach each other–information technology has been changing so fast for the past few decades that traditional schools and curricula can’t keep up.”

This last, of course, if very true.  I think the question of time for learning and play in higher education is a big problem, as I pointed out a couple of weeks ago.  But even given that, I’m struck by the ways what she describes seems characteristic of the practice already of Digital Humanists as I understand the basics of this particular practice. Something like theHomer Multitext project that includes students from first year Greek classes to fourth year Greek majors is one instance of this.

Beyond this, I am struck by the ethical impulses entailed here and in much of Kamenetz’s work.  She points out that the original meanings of words we associate with universities had to do with something like this notion of community–university and college pointing to the notion of guild or community, a gathering of like-minded people pursuing a common vocation.

This ethical impulse in Kamenetz’s work is what I find most attractive and most usable.  She connects her manifesto to the work of Paul Freire and other catholic priest/intellectuals who were deeply invested in the notion of universal active and engaged education for what my church growing up called “the least of these.”  This is a notion that faculty at my faith-based institution can root themselves in and catch a vision for, and one that I think many other public-minded intellectuals could embrace regardless of the particulars of their beliefs.

What would it mean for us to take advantage of the latest innovations in technology, not because it could take save the institution money and not because it could save faculty time, but what if we could imagine it as a way of taking what we have to those who have need of it?

What if the world were really our classroom, not just the 30 students in front of us who can afford (or not afford) to be there?

What difference would it make to our practice, our politics, our thinking, teaching, and scholarship?

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