If one follows current conversations about technological changes in higher education — which it is a major part of my job to do — one quickly encounters a great deal of praise given to “disruption” and “disruptive innovation”. Massive online open courses and various other online innovations, we’re told, will overthrow the tired old models of education and usher in a marvelous new world far better for students than the sclerotic old habits of the deadwood professorial class.
So far, none of these technological trends has yet made big changes in the way higher education is done. Over the course of my lifetime, there have been only two trends in higher education that were genuinely disruptive innovations in a literal sense – that is, innovations that have genuinely disrupted the lives of the people who make up higher education. The first of these is adjunctification; the second is tuition increase. Those making the most important decisions about higher education in North America have seen fit to do two things above all: they have compensated faculty much less, and they have charged students much more. In other words, for the past forty years, disruptive innovations have been entirely for the worse.
The term “disruptive innovation” is currently used in a more specific way, one that does not refer to all innovations that disrupt lives and ways of doing things, but rather to specific kinds of economic products. The term in this sense is the product of a management professor named Clayton Christensen. (It is characteristic of management professors, in my experience, that for better and for worse they tend to think more like managers than like professors.) For Christensen, a disruptive innovation
transforms an existing market or sector by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability where complication and high cost are the status quo. Initially, a disruptive innovation is formed in a niche market that may appear unattractive or inconsequential to industry incumbents, but eventually the new product or idea completely redefines the industry.
This version of disruptive innovation sounds much nicer than the literal version I have discussed so far. Adjunctification doesn’t count as a disruptive innovation in this technical sense since it’s not formed in a niche market; tuition increase is a form of the high cost that disruptive innovation is supposed to disrupt. In the long run, however, I submit that in higher education, the effects of disruptive innovation in Christensen’s sense may prove even worse than these.
Let us first ask: On what grounds is it decided that “simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability” are the most important values in deciding what and how new generations will learn? The question is in a sense rhetorical, for grounds – reasons – are irrelevant in capitalist economics, where consumer preferences are typically treated as an unfathomable “black box”. Consumers do typically choose based on these factors, but their reasons for doing so are not the issue. When organizations depend on consumers’ money, what ultimately destroys them is not reasons why consumers stop spending that money, but the bare fact that consumers stop spending that money.
Yet to anyone who believes that a humanities education is worth anything, it should seem suspect that simplicity, convenience and accessibility should necessarily trump depth, accuracy, insight, truth. Few of the latter values appear in Christensen’s world, as far as I can see it. But it may well be his set of values – the former values – that will carry the day. And that will be a catastrophe. These are the same kind of values rewarded in the market economy outside the universities, and disruptive innovation allows them to take precedence over the universities as well. But such market values are tremendously corrupting to the mission of the university, especially to the humanities, whose worth has never been primarily economic. But the question extends beyond the humanities, too: if the next generation of scientists chooses its education based on simplicity, convenience and accessibility, what sort of science may we expect from it?
I have left affordability out of the last paragraph, because in this era it has indeed come to be genuinely important. In an era where punishing debt loads push American undergraduates into a lifetime of indentured servitude, cost must enter into all our calculations. But as noted above, punishing tuition costs are themselves an innovation, a relatively recent one. In 1972, even in constant dollars, an American college or university education, whether public or private, cost a third of what it does now.
Why did this happen? Not because faculty cost more – in the days of adjunct faculty they now cost much less. It is a complex process, but the most straightforward culprit is simple: government budget cuts. In an era of Reaganite capitalist economics, the government ax landed repeatedly on institutions of higher education. Both tuition increases and adjunctification came first out of public universities’ need – to do more with less in terms of number of students, and to do less with less in terms of quality of education. As far as I’ve been able to tell, this has even been the cause of the startling increase in the cost of private education: knowing that their lower-cost public universities were now charging more, they could raise their higher prices still further.
But if one is aware of this history, then it would seem that what higher education most needs is not disruptive innovation but the exact opposite – a reversal, a return to the past. Namely, a willingness for governments to pony up and pay the bulk of the costs of educating their citizenry.
Christensen’s site adds “It’s important to remember that disruption is a positive force.” To which I reply: the opposite. Rather, it is exactly the disruptions I have seen in my lifetime that make me increasingly happy to call myself a conservative, despite (or to some extent even because of) my left-wing economics. To praise the changes of revolution and shrug at the irrelevance of those left in its wake – this is the viewpoint of Lenin and Mao, but for goals significantly less lofty than theirs. It seems to me that most humanities faculty share my view – they are conservative in practice, if not in name, and that justifiably so.
I am of course all for innovations that allow educators to give students a traditional education more effectively. That is what I do for a living and I believe in it. But the term disruption, in either sense, seems to me more likely to categorize those innovations that do the opposite. As long as higher education is under threat of disruption by the imperatives of money-making, then for whatever good it will do, I am prepared, with William F. Buckley, to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop.”