August 25, 2003

20, 000 Leagues Under

I’m going to make a Jules Verne prediction for the future. In the next 10 to 15 years, many of the mid-level colleges are going close and reopen as cyber schools. The University of Phoenix has been very successful at it. The technical colleges have already started shifted their courses from the classroom to the monitor. It’s much more profitable. No campus upkeep. Less faculty. Large classes. Students also like it, because they can fit their courses into their work schedule.

In twenty years, a traditional college education with dorm rooms and intramural sports will only be for the very rich. Harvard will always be Harvard. Yale will always be Yale. But Fairleigh Dickinson University in Paramus, New Jersey is going to shut their doors and put in some high speed internet cables. The rich will have their schools, but everyone else will telecommute.

-- Laura, "Wilted Ivy"

These Days, I am so immersed in early Modern Books that I'm tempted to capitalize every Noun and every other Adjective, and to adorn my Text with Italics that are seemingly applied at Random.

Anyway, I'm not really here. But if I were here, I would comment on this latest Gem by Laura at Apt11D. Instead, I will simply say, in Classic blogger Fashion, Read the whole Thing.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at August 25, 2003 05:27 PM

May I just Remark that Typography in the Colonial Style giveth Fits to those Markup Geeks who believe that Every Typographical Distinction can be Explained Logically.


Posted by: Dorothea Salo at August 25, 2003 05:49 PM

As someone who teaches at a university that has a substantial internet based DL program (which I teach in), I would argue that this prediction is well off the mark and reminds me of the predictions a few years ago that services like would destroy "brick and mortar" businesses. It simply was not the case, nor will it be the case that internet based learning will replace, in any substantial fashion, "real" schools. Rather, it will thrive in its ability to tap into new markets, such as persons in mobile professions, or folks in the military.

The only schools that will suffer, or have to adapt, are night-schools/schools which are aimed at "non-traditional" students.

If you look at attempts by many schools to launch University of Phoenix type programs, one will find that they have not been very sucessful, as they have taken a "if you build it, they will come" perspective. It hasn't worked. Univ Phoenix taps substantially into the working professional market, and Troy State's program, as is the case with the Univ of Marlyand, taps substantially into people in the military who may be moved at a moment's notice.

Posted by: Steven at August 25, 2003 06:07 PM

"Brick and mortar" bookstores have been enormously impacted by Amazon. A friend of mine does 80% of his business online now, and he's going to close his storefront and move. Between Borders, B&N, and on-line, only a few small independent bookstores do well, usually (I think) if they have a sort of specialized cult clientele of some kind.

So some of those predictions were right.

Posted by: zizka at August 25, 2003 06:57 PM

IA, Laurence Sterne can help you with punctuation and sentence structure.

Posted by: zizka at August 25, 2003 06:58 PM

There is no doubt that Amazon has found a niche in the marketplace, and further I am not saying there has been no effect on the actual bookstores. However, they have hardly been put out of business (and there were many who predicted such). Quite the contrary the last several years have seen the blossoming of mega-book stores like B&N, Borders, Books-a-Million and so forth.

I am not arguing that there will be changes, I am contending that the prediction that many mid-level college will close is incorrect.

Posted by: Steven at August 25, 2003 07:57 PM

I suppose it's futile to point out that a college education is already only for the rich? Only around a quarter of over-25 adults have college degrees, and I'm gonna go out on a limb and guess it's not the poorest quarter.

Posted by: E. Naeher at August 25, 2003 09:52 PM

I'll take E. Naeher up on the challenge and posit also that there's probably more than a quarter who "attended" college. Federal financial aid, the GI Bill and scholarships have helped a lot of middle class folks go to college. They didn't all necessarily graduate, but that's another issue.

Posted by: bryan at August 25, 2003 10:16 PM

I agree with Steve. Phoenix is bringing an 'education' to those who did not have the time, money or credentials to seek their degrees in traditional schools. For the most part, Phoenix is 'bottom feeding'. Phoenix is successful because some employers (who pay for the credit in some cases) and Phoenix students are often indifferent to the 'brand' of the school and care only about the degree name, e.g., MBA. Keep costs low and education can be very profitable to the school.

And while only 25% of Americans currently have degrees, about 65%-70% of high school graduates are going on to some sort of postsecondary education. And more are going back at age 25. There simply are not enough seats for them all in the short run. And states that made large financial commitments to state schools when the Internet boom brought in massive state tax revenues are now finding that corporate and personal profits were what paid for those new buildings, now unstaffed.

And while the contrast of NYU tuition and average American income is disturbing, it is not very representative. Last figures I vaguely recall is that more than 65% of college seats cost students less than $6,000 a year in tuition. And leaving school with debt still represents the best investment a person can make in the US. I taught at a school where students driving brand new pick up trucks would drop out of school because $1,000 a semester tuition was 'too much'. vis-a-vis 4350 a month truck payments. Sticking to vehicular images, Mercedes Benz does not characterize the auto industry, nor does NYU represent the higher ed world.

Posted by: Peter at August 25, 2003 10:33 PM

Your tax dollars at work:

Posted by: ogged at August 25, 2003 10:59 PM

A lot of them WERE put out of business. I don't have numbers, but little hole-in-the-wall neighborhood bookstores can't make it any more, and the small bookstores which do survive have to completely change their operation.

The success of B&N and Borders hardly weakens my point. Powells, which is surviving, had to go national and completely reorganize, at the cost of alienating a lot of the faithful staff which helped make it a great place.

Posted by: zizka at August 25, 2003 11:50 PM

College education is harder to pay for than it used to be. It isn't staying the same, and it used to be easier for kids from unrich families to get one. The dot-com money had pretty much nothing to do with it. A college education with a lot of debt is a good investment for some, but a bad one for many. If you average a $200,000/ yr. B.S. in with a $20,000 / yr. BA, it looks pretty good.

Peter -- sorry, truck-payment anecdotes are not allowed on this board.

I am convinced that there is going to be some sort of shakedown in post-HS ed, though I don't know how much DL will be the story.

Posted by: zizka at August 26, 2003 12:05 AM

But small, local bookstores have been going out of business for many a year now. Waldenbooks and B.Dalton at the mall did in a great number; B&N and the other chain superstores did in many more; Amazon was aiding and abetting.

What that mainly means is that the business of retailing books has been changing constantly for the last quarter century (before that I'm not as familiar with it). Booksellers who, for whatever reasons, did not adapt to these changes did not stay in business. It's sad but true that selling something you love does not make you immune to business and competition. (Restaurants and clothiers trying to operate today the way they did in 1971 probably wouldn't stay in business either.)

Booksellers have to answer a difficult question: why should anyone come to the store, rather than buying online? Powell's has apparently come up with a good answer: you don't have to - you can buy any of the titles onlilne - but you might want to. Tattered Cover in Denver has reacted similarly; Politics & Prose in DC likewise but on a smaller scale. There's even a dandy little store in the nearly-dead downtown of Natchez, Mississippi. Independents can make it, but it takes business savvy, not just a love of books.

Posted by: Doug at August 26, 2003 05:33 AM

One important point has already been made, and that's that in the past 20 years, quite a few colleges and universities *did* go out of business.

Now I don't quite think Laura's prediction will come to pass, but I think there is a scenario looming on the horizon that entails drastic change. The recent stories about cuts at public universities and the degree to which it is becoming difficult to graduate in four years are the first major sign that what I would predict may come to pass.

What I think is going to happen is that the research university in its present form is going to be unsustainable, and that the crisis of unsustainability is going to hit the public universities first and the private ones second. In some ways, as this blog has amply demonstrated, the crisis is well underway already. What is specifically unsustainable about it is the proposition that all faculty at a research university are committed to research and deserve support for it while also being committed to the education of undergraduates.

Faculty and administrators have aligned at most such institutions to leverage the continuation of this impossible dream by turning to adjuncts and contract faculty to teach undergraduates. But that was buoyed up at public institutions by state support and by research monies coming in, especially on the science side. It cannot continue.

So here's what I think will happen: successful research universities will retool entirely around research that brings in outside support, shucking off most of the humanities and anything else where the outside money is sparse and the public salience of the knowledge produced is poor. They won't be involved, mostly, in the business of teaching undergraduates--they'll be more like XeroxPARC or maybe more like MIT and CalTech basically, research institutions that accept a limited number of 18-22 year olds as apprentices. There will be a small number of people working in the humanities at these institutions, but only those prepared to work with the sciences, who have an applied mindset, who can give the people working there a wider, more humane sense of what they're doing, so that the research institutions don't become pure technical schools. I don't think this is an entirely bad outcome.

The other path will to become a full-time teaching institution where some modicum of independent scholarship is encouraged but is not seen as the central raison d'etre of the institution.

Those institutions that refuse to go one way or the other will either be fabulously rich (Harvard) and able to do it all as a result--or they'll go out of business.

I don't think that college will be only the province of the very rich, but the nature of academic life is going to change a lot, and the nature of the education students receive will change also. Possibly for the better in some ways. The sad thing, I think, would be to lose that one monograph in every five or ten that really is a scholarly joy, that has no profit or market logic to it, but whose erudition and pleasure in knowledge makes a lasting contribution. I don't know that we'll lose much if we lose the other nine monographs on the same fashionable theoretically massaged subjects--but this evolution would be a crude way to move towards the reformation of knowledge production, and probably a lot that is precious will get lost in the transition.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at August 26, 2003 08:46 AM

Doug -- I'm not sure what your point is anymore. You seemed to think that the talk about Amazon revolutionizing retailing was all hot air. I pointed out that it wasn't: the old style small bookstore is going extinct, and the ones that survive are following the Amazon model. (I gave an example of my friend who is getting rid of his storefront entirely, and Powell has very painfully retooled on Amazon lines.) The fact that bookstores were already having problems for a different reason (chains) doesn't negate that point.

We're really arguing about an analogy you made on the way to your main point, which is that distance-learning isn't going to change anything either, the same way that Amazon didn't change anything. By and large, I think that in making your points you rely excessively on assertion.

Burke's scenario is the kind of thing I'm expecting. Distance-learning will be only a small part of the story.

I think that something that hasn't been stressed enough is the degree to which hostility to the humanities is part of the story. Beyond raving fundamentalists, liberal arts courses are customarily referred to as "bullshit" by many, since they a) have no immediate practical application b) do not, as majors, usually lead to well-paying jobs, and c) do not consist of finding definite, unique right answers. (The last of these was also Descartes' and Plato's criticism, of course).

Know-nothings and fundamentalists aside, there are a lot of people out there, well-educated in professional and technical fields, who despise the humanities. This was true before post-modernism came along, though PM (and PC) have certainly enhanced that mood. So reconfiguring education more on a tech basis is what I expect.

Burke's concept of research universities admitting promising students directly from high school rings a bell too. The gradient between the pretty good math and science students, and the best ones, is very steep. For example, the SAT's test math at three levels, yet 10% of the testees at the highest level get perfect scores. (A friend of my son's was hired by Microsoft when he was 16 for a high-level position). Admissions directors at Harvard-type places say that 10% of their admissions are automatic, often involving kids with adult accomplishments while still in HS. People with more than just a 1600 SAT and straight A's.

Posted by: zizka at August 26, 2003 11:04 AM

For any of you who might be curious, I did a very unofficial tabulation of 2000 Census educational attainment by age group, to see if there significant differences in the widely cited 25% figure by generation.

What I found is that the 25% figure is pretty stable across the 25-35, 35-45, 45-55 age cohorts. So is the ~30% figure for 'some college but no Bachelor's degree'. Not surprisingly, the rate of bachelor's degrees is smaller in the pre-baby-boom age cohorts (approximately 17%).

In terms of enrollment, only 2.5% of the over-35 population is enrolled in college or graduate school, compared to 60% and 45% of 18-24 year old women and men, respectively. However, approximately 1/5th of those enrolled in college or graduate school are 35 or over, because the over 35 age cohort is so large relative to the 18-24 cohort.

Posted by: Matilde at August 26, 2003 12:09 PM

Not all education can be accomplished over a comm circuit. This is true of laboratory sciences, and true to a large extent of arts and music; also of rhetoric in the classical sense.

It's interesting that the universities have largely been deemphasizing all of the above areas in favor of studies consisting of pure symbol manipulation. If they were consciously trying to position themselves as poorly as possible vis-a-vis emerging Internet competitors, this would have been the right course to follow.

Posted by: David Foster at August 26, 2003 12:26 PM

How did I come up with my dire prediction about the use of technology in higher ed.? Where's my evidence?

1. Cost-Benefit Analysis by Administrators
While doing research on vouchers in OH, I interviewed the guy who single handedly push it through the legislature. A guy with a lot of political connections. We mostly talked about vouchers, but he also told me that he planned to get classes on the computers at OSU, where he was on the board. He thought it would be very cost efficient.
While doing research on technology programs in WI, I interviewed several administrators and teachers in technical colleges. There were working the kinks out of the program, but they were very satisfied and so were the students. Soon all there courses were going to be on line.

2. Pressures from the students.
As an adjunct at CUNY (NYC's public education system), I saw a lot of students who had been admitted to Cornell, NYU, and Columbia, but had to go to CUNY because they couldn't afford tuition at those schools. In fact, they were even struggling to pay the few thousand for tuition at CUNY and the thousands more for room and board. Their working class parents couldn't help them, so they were all working in addition to a full course load. One great student I had a couple of years ago would bartend all night and then show up for my 8:30 class.
These students don't care about our research. They want their degree as quickly and cheaply as possible. They need to get out there and make a decent living.
These are the students that are going to demand internet classes.

Posted by: Laura at August 26, 2003 01:01 PM

For the record, I love Amazon.

I was a devoted Amazon customer in graduate school in rural Appalachia, where local independent booksellers consisted only of a local Christian bookstore which catered to students and alumni of Jerry Falwell's local religious college.

Amazon has a great product - where else can a need for obscure used copies of econometrics panel regression texts, Nine Inch Nails CDs and (southern-banned) gay magazines be met - unless I happen to live in NYC, San Francisco, or DC? Amazon is a godsend for the exiled urbanite.

However, it seems to me that Amazon is much stronger competition for a storefront bookstore than online education is a strong competitor for university education. Amazon is to a storefront bookstore what an online DVD 'rental' company would be to Blockbuster and independent video stores. On the other hand, online education is a bit more like online camp. Many of the 'services' provided by a university are goods not easily transmitted via a modem cable: forging an independent identity from family and background, companionship of likeminded peers, mentoring, college friends and experiences apart from educational ones, etc.

But it's not an easy thing to forecast, because it begs a difficult question: what kind of 'good' is a university education? For older students with jobs who aren't interested in the 'camp' qualities of university life, I think online training will continue to be popular. I'm less sure that young college students will consider online education a good substitute for a college experience.

Posted by: Matilde at August 26, 2003 01:13 PM

I was trying to think of a commonality between the two topics being discussed via this thread (bookselling/buying and higher education offering/acquiring).
But I haven't been able to get my brain around the differences in economics--Amazon continues to wow investors as the company continues to not make a profit--which makes it really hard for independent bookstores that aren't able to run that way to compete.
I think the situation is different for institutions of higher learning--while state support continues to decrease, state universities and colleges do still cobble together funding to offer their programs from research grants, state funds, alumni and friend campaigns, and tuition. It won't be so easy for on-line institutions to do an Amazon and function while not making money, unless they, like Amazon convince the investor class to support them. The model for investor supported educational endeavors has not worked too well at grade school and high school level, though it has worked for "trade" schools, and it's not clear to me why it would begin to work in a wide-spread way for bachelor degrees.
Perhaps what is more likely is that certain majors will disappear, and on-site schooling will be focussed on the majors students want, not the majors universities want to offer....

Posted by: sappho at August 26, 2003 03:04 PM

Whether it's the scenario suggested by Laura, or the one proposed by Timothy Burke, or some variation of either or both, the point (which Burke makes) is that the current system is not sustainable. Drastic change is already underway, and there's no reason to believe it won't continue.

What I find frustrating is the ostrich syndrome that characterizes the reponse (or lack of response) of too many faculty and professional associations. At best, we see a recognition of the crisis, with a good deal of hand-wringing and some timid and ineffectual suggestions/proposals all based on the idea that the academy c. late 1950s to early 1970s is the norm, and that somehow or other we must return to that norm. I just don't think this is possible. The old social bargain has broken down, and I doubt the university/faculty can renegotiate a new social contract with its various publics and constituencies based on the terms of that older contract.

If change is inevitable, wouldn't it make more sense to try and strike a new deal based on new terms, rather than desperately cling to a system that is slowly but surely being abolished? Which is to say, I agree with Burke's point that it needn't be all doom or gloom, there might be room for a good, or a good enough, outcome. But this won't happen so long as faculty and faculty associations stubbornly resist the demands for change that are coming from so many quarters outside the academy -- stubbornly resist, I should add, in the name of ideals and practices that they are in fact no longer able to support and defend.

The sad thing, I think, would be to lose that one monograph in every five or ten that really is a scholarly joy, that has no profit or market logic to it, but whose erudition and pleasure in knowledge makes a lasting contribution. I don't know that we'll lose much if we lose the other nine monographs on the same fashionable theoretically massaged subjects--but this evolution would be a crude way to move towards the reformation of knowledge production, and probably a lot that is precious will get lost in the transition.

I definitely agree with this. But as several people have pointed out, the public doesn't much care about humanities research and would like to see more emphasis on teaching. Is there a way to recover the teaching mission (ie, make a faculty position in the humanities more about teaching than research) while also leaving room for some research and scholarship? And is it possible at the same to to strike a new deal which says, If teaching should be the central mission, then we will agree to meet the public's demand for more teaching rather than research, in exchange for which the public must agree that teaching should be a full-time salaried occupation?

I don't know if it would be possible to make a new deal. But it seems to me that these are kinds of questions faculty and faculty associations should be willing to address.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at August 26, 2003 05:33 PM

The current issue of _Wired_ has an article on the wild international success of MIT's putting its course materials online. So... some hard-to-calculate number of good jobs & status may be lost in the US; some also-hard-to-calculate number of people in really poor regions or countries (Vietnam) get mathematical educations that are enormously better than they would otherwise have expected to find. To paraphrase Neal Stephenson, "the Invisible Hand spread the wealth of the world into a thin layer of what a Pakistani bricklayer called prosperity".

It isn't likely to replace a real, hands-on MIT education, so it isn't really skin off MIT's nose. On the other hand, they're putting money into making their knowledge the birthright of the world.

Earlier article on the subject:,1284,42841,00.html

with quote:

"You can't tell a tenured professor, 'Put all your stuff online,'" he said. "When it comes time to deliver, some people will say 'I spent a lot of time on this, I don't want to give it away.'"

The appetite for humanities courses isn't going to be as desperate, but I know it exists. OTOH, one of the things it would need online is the equivalent of a good seminar leader. Sort of like a comments-thread moderator, maybe.

Posted by: clew at August 26, 2003 08:07 PM


Modern typography has certainly decayed a good deal from the Augustan Age, when every Gentelmen and Lady of Good Breeding, knew how to punctuate properly. Now, your modern educated writer can barely muster the energy to capitalize the first word of every sentence and the Brand Names, like Keebler Crackers, or Harvard University. What a Wealth of Expressiveness we have lost!

Posted by: The Happy Tutor at August 26, 2003 09:35 PM

What's hilarious about the idea that open sourcing your syllabi is "giving it away" and that this is somehow objectionable is that the professoriate in the humanities and the social sciences give away almost everything they write, to journals and publishers who compensate the authors minimally if at all.

What they really mean is, "I won't get any reputation capital from putting my work online". Well, reputation capital from whom? Ah, from certain kinds of bigwigs in your own discipline. Reputation capital from thousands of people abroad hungry for educational guidance doesn't really matter. I find it especially bitter when I hear this song-and-dance from colleagues on the left, because open sourcing their syllabi and some of their publications would be one of the first, best things they could do in terms of striking a blow against global inequity. Yet one more thing that is ultimately unsustainable about contemporary academic life, but in this case, not so much budgetary but postural.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at August 26, 2003 09:43 PM

"What a Wealth of Expressiveness we have lost!"

Alas, that's not all we have lost. Okay, at the end of the day I'm all about the 21st century: votes for women, vitamin D-enriched milk for children, liberty and equality for everyone. But occasionally I permit myself to indulge in a "world we have lost" moment.

I'm editing a reprint of an 18th-century text, which has me reading fragments from Shaftesbury, Butler and many others as I attempt to chase down my author's footnotes. So here's something we have lost:

First, There is a natural principle of benevolence in man; which is in some degree to society, what self-love is to the individual. (Butler, Sermon I)

Beautiful, eh? Concise, elegant, wise, humane.

No one could write such a sentence any more.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at August 26, 2003 09:56 PM

"Yet one more thing that is ultimately unsustainable about contemporary academic life, but in this case, not so much budgetary but postural."

Agreed. But this is one area where I think we can confidently predict that academics are simply going to have to adjust and adapt -- at a certain point, holding out against new forms of the dissemination of knowledge will be like clinging to the practice of writing mss. by hand in opposition to the invention of the printing press.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at August 26, 2003 10:08 PM

What's hilarious about the idea that open sourcing your syllabi is "giving it away" and that this is somehow objectionable is that the professoriate in the humanities and the social sciences give away almost everything they write, to journals and publishers who compensate the authors minimally if at all.

Yes. I actually find it useful to put my syllabi online (fewer student requests for new copies, ability to market my course-making abilities to search committees being but two of the perks) and have long wondered why my reviews, etc., written with loving care are sequestered by the journals but without pay for the reviewer.

Posted by: Rana at August 26, 2003 10:31 PM

The distance-learning innovation to education methodology isn't all that new, is it? I mean, isn't that what the correspondence school model is all about? obtaining an education via the internet, then, is simply a new twist on an old idea. Whether this new twist poses much of a threat to non-first tier schools seems to me to be improbable - unless someone can explain to me how a computer-based education is materially superior to one obtained via the mails. But it seems to me that the distance-learning "challenge" to the midlevel schools has been made and - largely - lost.

I think IA is onto something when she writes:

"And is it possible at the same to to strike a new deal which says, If teaching should be the central mission, then we will agree to meet the public's demand for more teaching rather than research, in exchange for which the public must agree that teaching should be a full-time salaried occupation?"

However, I think that the demand being made by the public is not a change of emphasis from research to teaching, but rather from providing a "well-rounded" education (whatever that means) to an education that provides practical value in the job marketplace by providing the holder of that education with a competitive edge at hiring/promotion time. Teachers that satisfy that demand, I predict, will never want for well-paid employment whether they research or not.

A few weeks ago, "60 minutes" did a story about I.I.T., the India Institute of Technology, which has been astoundingly successful at producing graduates so competent at high-tech and related engineering that they are in high demand by employers throughout the internet world (especially, but by no means exclusively, the U.S.) - even though they have virtually no education in the humanities. And all done with traditional classroom instruction, hard work, and virtually no distance-learning. A discerning mind might find a lesson here.

The problem is this: the paying public does not see much value in an education that is not directly reflected in a better job and/or a better paycheck. And absent that value, they are increasingly unwilling to lay out the hard coin. Consequently, those who do not teach technical job skills - as perceived by the public - find slack demand for their services.

The challenge for teachers of "softer" subjects, then, is to persuade the public of the job market value of what they teach. Either that, or adapt to a continuing decline in the status and compensation for the dwindling number of teaching positions in their chosen discipline.

Posted by: Bill Richards at August 27, 2003 12:15 AM

I think Bill R. is probably on track here. I think that suggests that only the rich will be able to afford the humanities, and here we are, back in the era of belles lettres being the province of the few who can benefit by them.

Oh, the humanities.

Posted by: Chris at August 27, 2003 01:29 AM

A few weeks ago, "60 minutes" did a story about I.I.T., the India Institute of Technology, which has been astoundingly successful at producing graduates so competent at high-tech and related engineering that they are in high demand by employers throughout the internet world (especially, but by no means exclusively, the U.S.) - even though they have virtually no education in the humanities. And all done with traditional classroom instruction, hard work, and virtually no distance-learning. A discerning mind might find a lesson here.

I'm not so sure, myself. This system sounds quite similar to the English model -- in which you begin to specialize very early in life (ISTR it's in the equivalent of American early high school, perhaps). Students attend university for 3 years, taking few or no classes outside their major.

What this does is produce a highly specialized worker in fewer years than the American system does. And yet the English aren't exactly widely reputed for their research; when an English friend of mine in chemistry (now starting to pursue her Ph.D.) did a year in business (an internship), she came to the US and worked for an American business.

The problem with a highly specialized and focused course of study is that there is actual value to a well-rounded education. If you look at the major advances in technology, for instance, over the last century or so, nearly all of them required someone who was familiar with multiple fields. Being extremely narrowly focused may make you highly capable within your area of knowledge, but it handicaps you when it comes to new research and innovation, especially when knowledge external to your field is involved.

Innovation often entails looking at a problem from a slightly different perspective, or using a new analogy to frame it. This kind of thing is much easier with a wider base of knowledge.

This is supported by India. If you look at the kind of computer-related jobs being exported (and currently causing a certain amount of panic in the industry), they're generally fairly standard programming jobs. Indian tech workers are highly skilled, but we're not seeing any real innovation coming out of them. Like vocational training, focused education prepares you quite well for rote tasks and for being "on the curve" -- it doesn't at all prepare you to get ahead of the curve and do something new.

This is, IMO, where the opportunities lie for the American system. There's no way American workers will be able to compete on price for rote or standard tasks with the rest of the world for a long time. But the largest amount of innovation is still coming out of our people. I know our educational system gets blasted right and left because our students don't score as well on tests, and at the high school level and below there may be real problems. But at the university level, I think our system is pretty good (course- and major-wise; I'm not talking about structural issues like tenure, adjunctification, etc).

Posted by: Eric at August 27, 2003 09:17 AM

My India-educated coworkers at Microsoft were very well-read - doubly impressive, since I could only banter with them in English, and they were probably well-stocked in at least one other language.

...Nor were they confined to the least imaginative jobs in Microsoft. Yeah, MSFT, innovation, straight line; Research there is a great group, though. Nationally, exporting the boring jobs is as much about exporting the ones that can be micromanaged from here as exporting the ones that can be done abroad. Familiar story: tiny class of new-knowledge producers, medium quantity of administrators, big contingent class of accepted-knowledge appliers.

Anyhow. The Indian programmers had been fiercely selected from an enormous population, with several bottlenecks, as far as I know; they were the ones who could get through (apparently) the equivalent of a BA background before college and a really good undergraduate tech degree in college.

Posted by: clew at August 27, 2003 08:37 PM

I'm not claiming that *no* Indians get well-rounded educations in their own country, nor that a well-rounded education is an absolute prerequisite for innovation. I have no doubt that the top half a percent of a given profession (which pretty adequately describes the kinds of Indian programmers who come over here) will be exceptional in many way.

But a system like India's will, I think, tend to produce fewer workers capable of cross-field work and consistent innovation. Obviously there will be many exceptions, and a place like Microsoft (I don't hold the all-too-common view that MS never innovates, by the way) is going to snatch up as many of the exceptional people -- from home and abroad -- as they can.

Posted by: Eric at August 28, 2003 08:25 AM

I think that in Asia a lot of people with strong cultural interests, either from parental pressure or from common sense, get credentials in technical fields too. As I remember, both Arundhati Roy and Vikram Seth have tech training. When I was teaching in Taiwan some of my students seemed to be going that way.

Probably that's what we all should have done.

Posted by: zizka at August 28, 2003 10:39 AM

I am an English Professor -- full-time but non-tenure track. That said, I confess that I have become incapable of advising any student to major in the subject. My typical advice, unknown to my superiors, to students who come to me to discuss whether to major in English is that they should either double major (in English and, say, Finance, or Econ, or Accounting, or, for the pre-law types, one of these or Poli. Sci.), or minor in English and major in one of these other fields. And in one instance, a woman came to me who was trying to decide between English and Spanish. My advice: double major in Spanish and Finance because fluency in Spanish, coupled to whatever business acumen she would acquire from a Finance major would make her very attractive to future employers.

Some might caution that this is the sign that it is time for me to abandon either English or academia altogether. Fair enough, and if I could find a way out that would lead me to some place better than driving a cab, Kinkos, or Borders I would take it. But I digress. How, in all good conscience, can I advise a student to major in a subject that at best has indirect vocational relevance, and will surely force her to justify herself before prospective employers? I do not believe I can.

What I can say, however, is that an English degree (or a History degree, for that matter) joined to one of the more practical majors may well contribute to a student's overall preparedness to function, and more importantly thrive, in any number of professional arenas. I grant that the intersections may be indirect, and at times they may be in tension with one another. The kinds of political awareness gained from studying, say, postcolonial theory and lit. may not go very well with working for Nestle, but that is probably for the student to work through.

My point here is that the professionalized and vocationalized current of the culture, and of the academy is not going to go away. There will be no return to a 1960's-style flowering of the humanities as an antidote to the mind numbing world of the "man in the grey flannel suit." In fact, the opposition between the 'man in the grey flannel suit' and 'Daisy the Hippie' is (potentially) no longer. Daisy may well be running a for-profit t-shirt business -- printing politically subversive and humerous slogans like "Free Parking: Imagine It" -- that would bring a smile to the "MINTGFS's" face.

Posted by: Chris at August 28, 2003 11:40 AM


It sounds to me as if you're giving very good advice. As everyone here knows, a humanities degree, by itself, outside of academia, is worth little. But coupled with practical skills or training, it can make someone very attractive to an employer. (What isn't said so often, but should be, is that someone with a humanities degree, without familiarity with the world of the artisan, economist, or businessman, likely won't have even an interesting "life of the mind," except in a very insular sense).

Posted by: ogged at August 28, 2003 06:52 PM

I spoke once for a few of the people in Microsoft Research. They are a seriously tough crowd. Intimidating. They are whip-smart, fiendishly smart. They are competitive almost to bellicosity. And they don't let anyone get away with BS.

(Which was okay, as what I was handing them was *not* BS and even they granted that. But even so, they pressed me on a few points.)

I do tend to think there are a few things in the culture there that work against good new ideas. *However*, it's got diddly-squat to do with the intellectual quality of their employees, which in my experience is nothing short of stellar.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at August 28, 2003 10:46 PM

When, Dorothea? It's remotely possible I was there.

Posted by: clew at September 2, 2003 06:21 PM

Um, lemme check my resume, I think the date is still on there... yup, that's what I thought, May 2001.

Do you know anybody who used to be in the Microsoft Reader group? That's where my MS buddies were. (I believe the group's been split up and reassigned since then.)

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at September 3, 2003 08:44 PM

Oh, well, I was gone by 2001. I know I went to some of Reader's talks while I was there; though I remember the lead's name as Bill Joy, which seems unlikely.

Apologetically dragging this back on topic, IIRC textbooks were pretty high on their list of books that could be improved by computer presentation - e.g. packing more ancillary articles and crossreferences in, where desirable. Everybody's Memex, the architectonics of knowledge, etc etc.

Posted by: clew at September 3, 2003 11:44 PM

Yeah, and that's still the hope, but there are some Really Viciously Hard Problems between here and there. Maybe possibly fixing one or two of them would be the sort of thing I'd want on my tombstone.

Bill Joy is the right name, I believe. I never actually met him that I remember.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at September 4, 2003 11:24 AM