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Kevin Carey, ‘The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere’

The End of College:

Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere

By Kevin Carey

Riverbed Books

268 pages, $27.95

By William L. Morris


“Excellent Sheep” by William Deresiewicz sent a warning shot across the bow of higher education in America. Now “The End of College” sends a volley amidships. It predicts that our beautiful college campuses may soon resemble the Roman Forum, Stonehenge and the Mayan ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula filled only with uncomprehending tourists.

“The End of College” is several books in one. It starts out like a house on fire showing how a college graduate (the author) can now take an advanced course outside his area of expertise at MIT without going to class or paying tuition and get a B+ and full credit for it. Then he cools down and gives an inspired history of education from the beginning that is worth the price of the book by itself. When he gets to the American era, he shows how important education was from the beginning and that it was never intended to teach an aristocracy because we didn’t have one.

These schools were run mostly by ministers who were free during the week. But they failed to address the fundamental problem that haunts higher education to this day: Should they embrace the British model of liberal arts education or the German model of research?

Deresiewicz deals with this issue too but in a slapdash way, concluding only that students should either go to state schools that are both relatively inexpensive and not focused on money-making professions or go to one of the few small liberal arts colleges that still reward real teaching.

Carey focuses on a critical moment when a nonminister became the president of Harvard. As a young chemistry teacher at Harvard during the Civil War, Charles William Eliot was passed over for advancement. He went to Europe where he became well-acquainted with the German research model of education.

When he returned home, he was met with a push for higher education to teach the practical courses that were desperately needed to industrialize the Northeast and settle the West. Toward that end, land-grant colleges were cropping up in every state. He joined the faculty of MIT, one of the first schools organized to fill this new need. He wrote an article in the Atlantic that pointed out that higher education in America was not preparing young men for the modern world. And it was obvious he knew what he was talking about.

So at the age of 35, Eliot was named president of Harvard where he served for 40 years. He developed what Carey calls the “hybrid university.” He merged the liberal arts model and the research model with the model that satisfied the craze for engineering and other practical courses. “Instead of choosing [Eliot] decided to do all three things at once.”

He made a bachelor’s degree a requirement for Harvard’s graduate programs. Other universities quickly followed because it created a huge market for college degrees that their colleges happily provided.

Then Eliot replaced the core curriculum with an elective system. This sounds progressive but anyone who’s gone through it knows how disorienting it can be. But it worked because “the more departments a university built and scholars it employed, the more electives it could offer” at the college level.

A few teachers like William James and Jacques Barzun wrote eloquently about how this hybrid college wasn’t accomplishing anything. Their pleas were ignored.

One educator, Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, tried to fix the system. “The most striking thing about higher education in America,” he said, “is the confusion that besets it.”

The University of Chicago taught the Great Books curriculum borrowed from Columbia and cut through the bureaucracy and implemented tests that students could take whenever they were ready. But unfortunately his ideas did not last, though the University of Chicago is still one of the few major American universities that “retains a semblance of a core of liberal arts curriculum.”

In a capitalist society waste is a sign something is seriously wrong. The enormous cost of maintaining the hybrid college system is producing cracks in higher education’s facade like those in the House of Usher. At the same time digital technology has reached the point where distance learning combined with boot camps for student interactions can provide all the benefits of the hybrid system with little of the cost.

Carey writes about the birth of the Internet and distance learning almost as well as Walter Isaacson did in his recent book, “The Innovators.” Carey understands the digital revolution because his father was involved in the early stages of the development of the Internet.

He explains how a Stanford professor started this disruption almost by accident. He was a professor at Stanford but he also was involved with the entrepreneurial businesses that are part of the Stanford community. Like many prestigious universities Stanford was enthusiastic about offering its best courses online but was adamant about not giving credit for attending these courses.

But the administration must have been fundraising because it was asleep at the switch when the professor offered credit for passing the tests at the end of the course for all students whether registered at Stanford or not. When the university found out, it laid down the law – withdraw credit or else. Unfortunately threats didn’t faze a professor making more money in business than he was teaching. He quit the university. Other teachers followed his lead and now there are similar movements on college campuses and off.

If you go to websites like Udacity and Coursera you will see how far those distance-learning courses for credit have come. For something a little simpler and not for credit, go to Kahn Academy’s website.

But what about campus life? Students learn just as much from other students as they learn from their teachers. They need something more than websites.

Carey suggests the future of higher education might be similar to what has been done at the recently formed University of Minnesota Rochester in association with the Mayo Clinic.

Instead of spending billions of dollars to build another hybrid university, … [it] rented cheap space in an abandoned mall … for offices and classrooms. It leased a few floors in a nearby apartment building for students to live in and memberships at the YMCA for exercise. It re-created … a traditional campus library where students sit … with their laptops and left out the other 95 percent of the building, including the books.

“Instead of hundreds of degree programs, the university offered … a bachelor of science in health sciences and one in health professions … Students take a defined curriculum for the first two years. The professors charged with teaching chemistry, biology, statistics, philosophy and creative writing coordinate their courses … so the various concepts interlock … There are no lecture halls … the classrooms [hold] thirty people at most … [The] tuition is $13,000 per student [no books or no extra dorm fees – the real money-maker for colleges] plus a fraction of what the state spends [on] traditional institutions.”

Unless colleges and universities make radical changes, Carey predicts they will be replaced by online learning websites in conjunction with learning campuses that don’t need professional sports to fund their school’s coffers or rich alumni to build new buildings. These new learning places will connect serious students to real teachers, not teacher assistants or scholars who hardly know the language they are lecturing in.

All the buzz about “no student left behind” and getting rid of bad teachers and teaching more math and science in the existing hybrid systems will be a distant memory.

The graduate schools can go on being whatever they want but they shouldn’t pretend to educate college-age kids when they don’t. Of course if they follow the advice of William James, Jacques Barzun and Robert Maynard Hutchins, they will survive and prosper. But cutting off major sources of revenue has never been a good business model.

To a former high school teacher who saw the college race cast its baleful influence over my courses increasingly year after year with their SAT and AP requirements (which I tried to ignore) and their insatiable thirst for students spreading themselves too thin, this book is sweet revenge.

William L. Morris is a former private secondary school teacher and a frequent Buffalo News book reviewer.