This is a summary of chapter four of Fareed Zakaria’s book, In Defense of A Liberal Education. It is entitled “The Natural Aristocracy”. It is based on a phrase used by the storied founder of the United States of America, Thomas Jefferson. There is a fundamental difference between the teaching and learning of facts such as names, dates, formulae, and vocabulary on the one hand, and the more basic, utilitarian, fundamental approach of critical thinking. Indeed, learning to think is a profoundly valuable asset we would do well to inculcate in our children, and Franklin and Jefferson believed it would also make America special and virtuous. That it would lead to a natural aristocracy growing in the new land. Let’s learn about the two “founding fathers” and this incredible experiment, this “republic of virtue” they helped craft. In this chapter, education in general is discussed, as is online education.
Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from Zakaria’s book. As well, it is recommended you buy the book, and this summary is only meant to whet your appetite for the real thing.
“Benjamin Franklin is the most important statesman never to have been president.” It’s amazing to think of him working closely with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, those towering giants of the colonial era, to create a declaration of independence from England that would be just perfect. Eventually, Jefferson claimed authorship to the Declaration of Independence, but it was originally a joint effort. Then, he was the elder statesman at the Constitutional Convention in 1783 – I think 82 years old! That was an astounding amount of longevity for the 18th century!
“He represents an American archetype, perhaps the American archetype – the self-made man.” It’s true, Franklin was not formally educated. Not wanting to go into his father’s business, printing, he set out on his own. His father did generate some wonderful and lofty characteristics and habits in his son, the youngest of eight. Franklin probably appreciated Jefferson’s idea of a natural aristocracy (and was as philosophical as he turned out to be) due to the influence of his father, the village wise man.
“It turns out to that Franklin had a surprisingly broad view of the kind of education individuals need in order to flourish. In 1749 he published a pamphlet…in which he outlined his plans for a new academy in the colony. Franklin believed that education should help people navigate the real world as they entered careers in politics as they entered careers in politics, law, business, and other fields. At the same time, he wanted young men to gain exposure to ‘the great outlines of knowledge’”, Zakaria writes. “The purpose of their education would be to produce true merit, which meant joining ability with the inclination to serve ‘mankind, one’s country, friends, and family.’”
“A great part of the miseries of mankind are brought upon them by the false estimates they have made of the value of things.”
“The subjects Franklin suggested they study were broad and diverse: arithmetic, astronomy, geography, religion, agriculture, and history along many dimensions…. In particular, he stressed the importance of the study of English over Latin and Greek,” the author points out. Franklin felt the written word was more effective than oratory. Indeed, “The school Franklin envisioned in the middle of the 18th-century largely resembles what we understand a liberal arts college to be today.” This is all pointing in the direction of “a natural aristocracy,” as Jefferson would call it.
… when his academy opened in Philadelphia in 1751, “an old guard of pious educators blocked his efforts at reform.” They apparently weren’t a huge proponent of a natural aristocracy. The conservatives must have been more in favor of a hereditary one, as was Europe. Eventually, his academy became the University of Pennsylvania, which has become “one of the world’s most distinguished liberal arts schools.”
“Benjamin Franklin likely wanted others to obtain a more general education then he himself had received, because he realized his own success was a result of an intense and broad-ranging curiosity. He was fascinated by everything he saw around him, from dolphins to lunar eclipses, and he experimented with ideas from electricity to refrigeration.” This is where Zakaria finds support for the use of the term “self-made” man. That says to me that Ben didn’t have the financial backing of, say, a Donald Trump or some European trust fund recipient. As I mentioned, there were eight children in the family (one son died) and his father, though wise and sought out by townspeople for his counsel, was a self-employed printer.
It is always much harder to “make it” when a person doesn’t have the advantage of a legacy admission to college or seed money to get started (remember then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney suggesting to a member of the audience at a town hall meeting that in order to start a business, the man ought to ask his father for a loan?). “Applying data gathered across several decades throughout the world, Thomas Piketty argued that when income derived from capital exceeds income derived from work, inequality necessarily widens. Or, in non-economics speak: The easiest way to get rich isn’t to make a lot of money, it’s to have a lot of assets in the first place. Better yet to inherit it”
“Happiness consists more in small conveniences or pleasures that occur every day, than in great pieces of good fortune that happen but seldom to a person in the course of their life.”
“While he was always trying to make stuff, Franklin was also philosophizing and imagining in the abstract.” Though he had no formal education, his curiosity, moxie, and the penchant for philosophy and theory his father inculcated in him, earned him honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, And Oxford. He really had a fecund mind and it was a time during which a self-starter and innovative person could go far (well, innovative and curious white men, that is).
Are you familiar with Poor Richard’s Almanack? It is a publication by Franklin under the pseudonym of “Poor Richard.” Starting in 1732, it sold 10,000 copies a year for many years. Truly a marvelous success. One can see in the quotes that comprise the book the building material for this philosophy of a natural aristocracy, in that it is wisdom, prudence, innovation, hard work, and other “positive values” which can propel the sagacious colonist to success. “People will accept your idea more readily if you tell them Benjamin Franklin said it first,” quipped
Wikipedia notes that “It is chiefly remembered, however, for being a repository of Franklin’s aphorisms and proverbs, many of which live on in American English. These maxims typically counsel thrift and courtesy, with a dash of cynicism.” One can certainly see the narrowness of mind that a person from the 18th century would have, but it is a neat pamphlet that sheds light on the character and mind of the man. An example of his short, pithy quotes is: “He that lives upon hope will die fasting.” Yep, short, sweet, and cynical.
“If Franklin saw education as the path to service for mankind, his great contemporary Thomas Jefferson made a more urgent connection: a liberal education would ensure the survival of democracy,” Zakaria boasts! Wow. That’s high praise. It’s obvious that he was the kind of man who was thoughtful and wise enough to be on board with the idea of a natural aristocracy – one based purely on merit and character.
“The noblest question in the world is: What good may I do in it?”
“In 1778, Thomas Jefferson presented to the Virginia legislature ‘A Bill for More General Diffusion of Knowledge,’ in which he argued that all forms of government could degenerate into tyranny. The best way of preventing this, he wrote, is ‘to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large.’” This is very aspirational. Jefferson’s apparent intention was such that if the people had access to education and true journalism, history could enlighten them, to function as “an especially effective bulwark, allowing the people to learn how to defeat tyranny….” Ideally, this is true. “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,” Mark Twain said a few decades later.
I think conservatives could really get behind this, because if a free press is “The Fourth Estate,” it can empower the citizenry to use their literacy and activism to be aware of potential usurpations and infringements by its governors. As Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University said, “This would create a virtuous cycle of learning and a citizenry thoughtful enough to protect itself from government overreach.” Well, great. Now we have something liberals and conservatives can agree on: the power of proper and well-funded education and a responsible, diversified, and open media.
“The period of 1700-1776 was graced by probably the most philosophically inclined generation in U.S. history. The period was marked by little formal schooling and a highly educated population. As Edmund Burke noted, the colonists were avid readers, particularly on the subject of law,” believes professor emeritus of Georgetown University, psychologist
“Montesquieu, on the reading list of most of the founders [of the United States], had argued that different forms of government call for different dispositions and perspectives on the part of those governed. Those living under tyranny must develop the character of fearlessness; those living under monarchs, the character of honor; but those living within a republic, the character of virtue itself.”
Zakaria honors Jefferson highly with this paragraph: “Over the course of his political career, Jefferson advocated a number of measures to spread education far and wide, including publically funding schools and the establishment of a national university in Washington.” Jefferson was indeed a “man of letters,” and a polymath. His solarium or library in his house at Monticello was supposed to be quite awe-inspiring. He founded the University of Virginia, and donated (and bequeathed) his impressive number of books to it. One thing he never, did, though, was fight for the abolition of slavery – or even free his slaves in his will. Quite a conundrum for students of politics and ethics to grapple with. Another of history’s great minds, Aristotle, was not much better about slavery, but he also had not had the 1900 years of history to read, understand, and accept, as Jefferson was privy to.
“By law a man is free and another slave. But by nature there is no difference between them. That’s why such a relationship is not just but, rather, violent”
Well, that was a digression. On page 111 it appears that that Jon Meacham holds the third president of the United States in high regard: the university was “so thoroughly the work of his hands that it was to become known simply as ‘Mr. Jefferson’s'”. Both the practical and the philosphical were extolled in this marvelous creation: “to train statesmen and professionals, to expound on the principles of freedom, to teach methods of agriculture, and to enlarge the minds and morals of the young. I am not sure if the irony of a slave-holder lecturing students about freedom was lost on Fareed, or if he didn’t feel it appropriate to opine about such matters in this particular context.
His proposed curriculum was more academic than Franklin’s, with a good deal of math and science, as well as modern and ancient languages, law and history, writing and grammar,” Zakaria provides. It was also noted that a) it was not a religious institution, with the library, not the chapel, being the focal point of the layout! My kind of design! As well, b) electives were highly regarded, compared to Harvard and Yale and those colleges.
“Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson shared the view that education was a way to ensure that the new Republic would be a place of merit, where birth, the bloodlines, and hereditary privilege would not count for much. Franklin was a self-made man, and throughout his life he extolled the virtues of those who had risen through hard work, talent, and skill”
“There is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talent. There is also an artificial aristocracy started on wealth and birth without either virtue or talent. The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction that trusts the government of society. And the meaning of this is that a democracy functions well when it manages somehow to take account of its own natural aristocracy and puts men of virtue and talent into public office.”
On page 112, Zakaria finally introduces the concept this chapter is about: “Jefferson’s ‘natural aristocracy’ was based strictly on merit, to be refreshed constantly, as opposed to an ‘unnatural aristocracy,’ based on birth, wealth, and privilege.” The modern philosopher Alain de Botton adds this: “In his autobiography, Thomas Jefferson avowed that his own energies had been directed towards creating ‘an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent’ to replace the old culture of privilege and, in many cases, brute stupidity.” Zakaria: “Unless there are aggressive efforts to compensate for the advantages of wealth, including attendance at private schools and participation in luxury extracurricular pursuits, the American elite educational system runs the risk, in Thomas Jefferson’s terms, of creating an unnatural aristocracy.” Well put, gentlemen.
“What shall we say of the Idle Aristocracy, the owners of the soil of England; whose recognized function is that of handsomely consuming the rents of England and shooting the partridges of England?”
Jefferson intended the new country to be the benefactor of “those talents which nature had sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use, if not sought out and cultivated.” Philosopher John Rawls uses an economy of words, but the eloquence comes through: “The fundamental idea in the concept of justice is fairness.” Modern-day economist and Nobel Prize winner, Joseph Stiglitz, has this to add: “Modern capitalism has become a complex game, and those who win at it have to have more than a little smarts. But those who win at it often possess less admirable characteristics as well: the ability to skirt the law, or to shape the law in their own favor; the willingness to take advantage of others, even the poor; and play unfair when necessary.” Alas, nowadays, Jefferson’s natural aristocracy ideal has morphed into oligarchy and plutocracy, and the citizens are much more ignorant and miseducated than I assume the Founders would have approved of.
Here is a very complex but pithy proposition by one of the founding fathers of liberal education,: “To the defenders of democracy, ancient or modern, aristocracy and oligarchy stand together, at least negatively, in their denial of the principle of equality. To the defenders of aristocracy, oligarchy is as far removed as democracy, since both oligarchy and democracy neglect or underestimate the importance of virtue in organizing the state.”
“There are two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live.”
“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
“Inequality is everywhere at the bottom of faction, for, in general, faction arises from men’s striving for what is equal.”
For Jefferson, even more than for Hamilton, an educated citizenry, forming a public ever watchful of the actions of government was an essential precondition of a free society.” Fareed Zakaria is in relative agreement: “For Thomas Jefferson, there was one step crucial to creating a genuine natural aristocracy. The poor and rich had to have equal access to a good education. That’s why, despite being something of a libertarian, he repeatedly proposed that the state pay for universal primary education as well as fund education at later stages.” He points out that the goal in Jefferson’s mind was to provide good, solid, free public education so that the United States wasn’t subject to rule by an elite “that would recycle itself through a network of private institutions that entrenched their advantages.” You know, like we have today.
It’s not easy or inexpensive to educate the young. Often thought as conservative, this statement by John Adams comes across as fairly leftist: “There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.” Bravo, President Adams. Genius and freethinker Albert Einstein said this, and I couldn’t agree more: “Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.” I do think, however, that we need excellent, free education that is not hostage to the state or the community in which it is located. Though local can be good, if one thing is clear from seeing schools in poor neighborhoods or the populace being alarmingly willing to support Roy Moore for Senate in the state of Alabama in late 2017, it is that local can also mean provincial, benighted, and segregated.
“The Commons” is something we seem to be losing, and it is not helpful if we are trying to maintain (rekindle?) a natural aristocracy – a fairly egalitarian and truly meritocratic system. “Over the last century, the market has been destroying the commons at an accelerating pace. The belief was that happiness and the good life lay always in the direction of more property and more stuff. The result has been environmental degradation, social breakdown, and so much unhappiness….” I don’t want to blanket the whole government that way, but it’s getting scary. Everything is for the wealthy. This used to be a lovely country, but everything is sliding.”
“Only about two-thirds of American teenagers (and just half of all black, Latino, and American Indian teens) graduate with a regular diploma four years after they enter high school. Now the worse news: Of those who graduate, only about half read well enough to succeed in college”
This insight by author David Korten illustrates the schism that seems to have resulted from not holding the aspiration of a society where the rich in society still have to have meaningful contact with the other two social classes: “The wealthy can afford to fly over the congestion and pollution in their private jets and helicopters, live in the most luxurious and secure communities, work in penthouse suites in grand office towers, enjoy the finest designer clothing and gourmet foods, and vacation in the most pristine of the world’s remaining wilderness areas. In their eyes, life for the human species surely has never been so good. They are well paid to be blind to the real consequences of their money-world service and suffer no consequences of the depletion of real wealth.”
“Today we once again have a sharp social divide between people who live in the ‘respectable’ meritocracy and those who live beyond it. In one world almost everybody you meet has at least been to college, and people have very little contact with features that are sometimes a part of the other world: prison, meth, payday loans, a flowering of nonmarriage family forms.”
Economist Joseph Stieglitz writes that: “Everyone possesses self-interests in a narrow sense: I want what’s good for me right now! Self-interest ‘properly understood’ is different. It means appreciating that paying attention to everyone else’s self-interest—in other words, to the common welfare — is in fact a precondition for one’s own ultimate well-being.” He notes that Tocqueville referred to this spirit of thought as “a mark of American pragmatism.” He hits it out of the park with this communistic viewpoint: “The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live. Throughout history, this has been something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn. Often, however, they learn it too late.” Professor Stiglitz also points out that there are two visions of society, and he believes that “this second vision is the only one that is consistent with our heritage and our values.” The first vision is about “the haves” and “the have-nots,” one of gated communities and working poor. He refers to the alternative with the following: “The other vision of a society where the gap between the haves and the have-nots has been narrowed, where there is a sense of shared destiny, a common commitment to opportunity and fairness, where the words ‘liberty and justice for all’ actually mean what they seem to mean….”
Anthony Carnevale has written that “The education system is an increasingly powerful mechanism for the intergenerational reproduction of privilege.” This is interesting to compare to this conclusion drawn by economist Thomas Piketty in his huge (both in size and in impact) book Capital in the 21st Century: “Goldin and Katz have no doubt that increased wage inequality in the United States is due to a failure to invest sufficiently in higher education. More precisely, too many people failed to receive the necessary training, in part because families could not afford the high cost of tuition. In order to reverse this trend, they conclude, the United States should invest heavily in education so that as many people as possible can attend college.” And in this statement, Piketty seems quite divergent in opinion from education expert Anthony Carnevale: “In the long run, the best way to reduce inequalities with respect to labor as well as to increase the average productivity of the labor force and the overall growth of the economy is surely to invest in education. If the purchasing power of wages increased fivefold in a century, it was because the improved skills of the workforce, coupled with technological progress, increased output per head fivefold. Over the long run, education and technology are the decisive determinants of wage levels.”
“What would these founding fathers make of America today?” Zakaria asks on page 114? He notes that Thomas Edsall showed in the New York Times that 74% of the students in elite colleges and universities (which now cost $50-$65,000 a YEAR) come from the top income quartile. That is, three-quarters of the students at the Ivy League and other superb schools such as Cornell, Johns Hopkins, and NYU, have parents who make a good $100,000 a year or more (the top quartile refers to the wealthiest 25% of income earners). In contrast, guess how many students at such schools — even with their massive endowments and oftentimes generous need-based scholarships — are from the poorest 25% of the families? Three percent. 3. Tres. Not good.
As well, he points out that students from the most well-to-do families perform better as well: they are “almost twice as likely to get college degrees as students with similar high scores from families in the bottom quartile.” That is really astounding. Also, SAT scores, extracurricular activity engagement, and grades are correlated with family income. That is, kids are more college-ready and attractive to admissions officers when they have the benefits that money brings. This is unequal access to education, and it has massive impacts on children born into such circumstances.
“In a meritocratic world in which prestigious and well-paid jobs could be secured only through native intelligence and ability, money began to look like a sound signifier of character. The rich were not only wealthier, it seems; they might also be plain better.”
“Hungry people cannot be good at learning or producing anything, except perhaps violence.”
In the two decades from 1950 to 1970, the diminution of inequality was due to some degree to the market, but, as Joseph Stiglitz points out, “… even more to government policies, such as the increased access to higher education provided by the G.I. Bill and the highly progressive tax system and acted during World War II.” Was this just happenstance? How did we get from where we were in the post-World War II era to where we are today? Obviously it is a multifactorial phenomenon. But here is a thought I quite favor: “It’s not that the radical right doesn’t care about clean air, and clean water, and beauty and wild places. They’re just not concerned that the rest of us don’t have the same access to it all as they do,”
Fifty or sixty years ago, the middle class in America was not so disadvantaged and under pressure. Education was much more achievable. The natural aristocracy was closer to manifestation than it is today. “In the decades following the Second World War, the GI Bill gave a whole new group of Americans access to the best colleges, and tuition was affordable even for the middle class. Most importantly, public universities were booming,” Zakaria writes.
Indeed, he points out that in 1960, a California resident was entitled to go to any of the campuses that comprised the University of California for free. No tuition. No cost. Nada. All the way through graduate school! Times have sure changed; though at least four or five of the “UCs” as they are called are in the top fifty universities in the countrybetter than ever it now costs over $13,000 per year for in-state tuition. Heck, when I went to the UC it was $5,000. He lauds UC Berkeley as a top school at a proportionally low price, and that “most state universities face even deeper pressures than Berkeley, which occupies a special place in the public eye and can raise private funds as well.”
How did this come to pass? This was clearly part of the reason that California has grown tremendously and is now like the tenth largest economy in the world. Hollywood, Silicon Valley, the rich suburbs of San Diego and Santa Barbara, the mecca that is San Francisco, all the agricultureand the politicians and people let the jewels in the crown be stolen? “Once highways to the middle class, these schools are reeling from decades of reduced support from their state governments as well as rising costs.” Worsening the situation, “…an increasing number of rich out-of-state kids who can pay full tuition get relaxed admission criteria, special majors, inflated grades, and fancy facilities.” College tuition is up over 1,200 percent since 1978. That pretty much outpaces anything save for health care. The students who end up graduating often carry with them into their professional life a very burdensome debt. Student debt is never dischargeable in bankruptcy, incidentally.
“Across the entire University of California system, within five years of graduating, students from low-income families drew higher average salaries than both of their parents combined. Disadvantaged students who attend elite campuses outside California typically fare even better. Unfortunately, they are very few in number. Less than 1 percent of children from the bottom fifth of the income barrel go to an upper-echelon university. Indeed, more than half of the kids from America’s lowest economic rungs don’t attend any college. It should not be the case that my campus enrolls more Pell Grant students than does the entire Ivy League combined.”
Zakaria laments the low admission rates at top schools (10% or even less), and “the fact that elite schools provide many special preferences for legacies, underrepresented minorities, andin the most significant deviation from merit recruited athletes” diminishes and eschews “the idea of merit, of creating Jefferson’s natural aristocracy.” Another issue is the fact that admissions might be unfair: “at schools that are less reliant on nebulous admissions criteria such as ‘character’ and being ‘well-rounded,’ like Caltech and UC Berkeley,” the percentage of admissions who self-describe as Asian American is 30, 40, even 50 percent! What could explain the lower percentage of Asians at colleges and universities that are in the 10-15% range? Since it’s not that Asian students don’t want to go to Brown or Cornell, it seems it must be de facto quotas. I am about 50/50 in how I feel about that. The fact that in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, Jewish admissions were held to an artificially low level by the Ivy League Schools, at least according to Zakaria and author Jerome Karabel, is obviously a negative mark in my book.
None of this is good for an engineering or computer science major, but it can grossly affect the decision high school seniors and their parents face about whether to go to a liberal arts college or to major in it at a standard university. I think folks feel that they’ve got three balls and they have to hit the bullseye, so being conservative is wise. The horrendously expensive tuition “is at the heart of many of the concerns about the value of a liberal education.”
“A liberal education was affordable to a middle-class family in 1965. It is much less so today. That means families have to make trade-offs between spending money on an education and earmarking it for other things”
Page 120 he asks why the cost of tuition has risen so quickly. This is of great concern to the ability of the country (world?) to move toward that vaunted and lofty natural aristocracy Jefferson referred to centuries ago. One salient point is that because the current model of university education is one professor for x number of students, “…costs in education rise much faster than in the general economy, where automation and outsourcing can replace expensive labor in some way or the other.” He agrees with economists William Baumol and William Bowen that it is difficult to measure productivity in a field such as educationthat universities might have inefficient administrative systems, or they might be price insensitive when it comes to academic quality, spending whatever it takes to be the best. All of this is true,” he offers, “but it might also be that the entire system of education in the United States is a poorly designed mishmash, combining some of the worst elements of the market and the state.” Not unlike healthcare, and in both fields, it is hard to judge quality. He also fingers third-party payments from the government. It is absolutely true that loans on behalf of for-profit/second-rate schools such as the University of Phoenix has caused recruiters to bring in students despite their qualifications.
Zakaria claims it is “extremely complicated” to assess the quality of education. He notes that average entrance requirements are objective (validity notwithstanding), but they are “a measure of what colleges take in, not what they produce.” He asks what the best measure to judge improvement over timebasically the number one goal of a college or university, right?
“It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
In Academically Adrift, study authors used the Collegiate Learning Assessment and the results were not indicative of a natural aristocracy in full flower: 45% of the assessed students “showed no improvement in critical thinking in their first two years of college.” The same seems to hold true for the rest of a student’s academic career. What accounts for this dismal outcome? “As the book shows, in many colleges, students take easy courses with few assignments and little homework or reading.” I must say I am surprised to hear that as the number one explanation. Well, he doesn’t spend more than a couple sentences on that enigma.
He moves then on page 124 to the place where technology meets education. This could be a potential way to try to improve on the flagging idea of a natural aristocracythough it is not a panacea. Zakaria points out that little has changed since the pedagogical methods of the ancient Greeks: one teacher up front lecturing, students listening and taking notes, and occasional discussion. Clearly, multiple-choice exams are the bulk of the assessment, and it is not very scalable, standardized, or mutable. “Until now. Enter MOOCs….”
Let me quickly share his points about MOOCs. I will opine in italics.
- MOOC stands for “Massive Open Online Courses”
- Among other online systems of instruction that promise, or threaten, to change the way education is provided in the United States and around the world.
- Courses are taken online. Primarily videos are watched, and assignments are accomplished, and tests are taken. In some cases, students engage in virtual classroom discussions through structured chat rooms and bulletin boards.
- So far, rarely offer any official form of credit though that is likely to change over time.
- The idea behind them is simple. A course that could be taken by a few hundred people at a university is now available to tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, across the globe.
- By 2014, the two primary American MOOCs boasted nearly 10,o00,000 students!
- Coursera is the largest platform, and saw nearly two hundred countries taking nearly 600 classes a year, in many subjects! It reads like a list of the world’s most prestigious universities.
- MOOCs represent the most ambitious effort to widen access to education in history. And they have a lot of people at universities very worried.
- The “educational establishment” is, unsurprisingly, skeptical that this is a viable and usable method of imparting quality education. For example, at a conference Zakaria attended, All the college presidents on the panel expressed concerns and doubts about this new technology, assuring the audience (mainly, other college presidents) that a physical campus, in-class teaching, and the peer experience would always be essential and irreplaceable aspects of higher education. “Lots of people sign up, but most drop out,” the former president of one prestigious university complained.
- I see their point, but I also wonder if they are truly honoring the idea of a natural aristocracy, to be open to doing what is best for the citizenry. I suppose as a college president, one has some unique challenges and responsibilities which are more specific than fomenting this nebulous thing called natural aristocracy.
- Are not the completion rates for conventional colleges fairly low, too?
- I took such a course in an area I was quite interested in. The professor was highly prestigious, as was the institution. I never had any contact with the professor; he never even knew my name. But it was like eavesdropping on a great class by a great professor. In this case, because the class cost $1,500, I was able to interact with a teaching assistant and take their “sections.” Overall, I give it a B. Maybe a B+.
- Only one in five professors polled by Gallup believe that online classes could be as effective as the in-class experience.
- I think there is a difference between the kind of class I took and a more sophisticated, “online degree-track class” in which live interaction is viable. It wouldn’t be much different than Skype. That kind of class is like a hybrid, though, because it will be limited to 15, 25, maybe 50 students.
- Zakaria recounts the fact that he was a columnist at Newsweek when it was forced to transition from a printed magazine to a fully-online newszine. My suggestion to the audience about online education was that they keep in mind Newsweek’s fate. The Internet was transforming all industries in some way or another. The chance that it would leave education alone was highly unlikely and to fail to recognize that was not the way to plan for the future.
- MOOCs are neat because they are virtually limitless in the number of potential students, big-name universities are participating, and there is no barrier to entry. Recall that anyone, anywhere in the world, with any level of education, can sign up for a MOOC.
- Cousera reports that the dropout rate after the first week is very high, almost 40 percent. But then, of those students who stay with the course after the first week, nearly 50 percent complete it.
- An average of 2,529 students per class, which would be a five-fold expansion of even a large lecture course.
- Famed economist Robert Shiller led a MOOC in 2013, and had more students complete it than the cumulative number of students who had completed in any course he taught (and was a professor at Yale for 32 years!).
- MOOCs will force teachers to do better since they will now be measured against the world’s best. This harkens back in a way to the kind of merit-based natural aristocracy that Jefferson promulgated. If one has the goods, one should be able to attend a class with very little impediment.
- The best colleges will face fewer challenges, partly because they offer a unique experience and largely because they are selling membership to a valuable private networking experience.
- Zakaria thinks that “big data” will help MOOCs provide a big nudge to institutions in regard to teaching innovation, student-specific mid-course corrections in the procession of the lessons, and refinement of the content. Essentially, like using statistics to better understand a phenomenon, having millions of students participate in MOOCs will allow for serious fine-tuning of the process and the classes. Properly analyzed, this information could produce a revolution in learning. …Big data could be an early detection system that allows for quick course corrections.
- I learn differently than you do, and ideally, we would all be taught in ways that are targeted to each of us specifically. That’s why, for most of human history, the very rich had their children taught by private tutors. …Until now, it had always been assumed that increasing the number of students could only be done at the cost of providing less personal attention to each individual.
- Khan Academy founder Salman Khan published a book entitled The One World Schoolhouse. He is a major success story in the field of online education.
- Zakaria points to the advent of “education for the masses:” Prussia, in the mid-1800s, used the factory of the era as a model. Yes, really. Students were bunched together by age and put on a virtual conveyor belt. Instruction was thrown at them, and they picked up whatever they could as they were pushed forward to graduation. Perhaps this is reminiscent of “diploma mills” at the secondary and post-secondary level, where students are passed almost out of mercy, rather than because they learned much content and facts let alone grew or improved in critical thinking.
- The greatest promise of MOOCs, and online learning in general, remains the original intent: expanding access. …The greatest impact of MOOCs will be in the developing world, where it will be possible for millions of to get educated who simply would not have otherwise.
- Half of students at Coursera report taking a class because of curiosity or “just for fun.”
- Whether the incredible potential for providing students with classes that could be considered part of a liberal education can be fulfilled by the online format is an open question. I said “elements” of a liberal education, as it might well be that residential colleges, classroom seminars, late-night discussions, and extracurricular activities are collectively essential to providing the complete experience.
- He points out that for the top 50 colleges and universities, perhaps all the trappings of a classical, broad, deep liberal education will be worth the $50,000-$100,000 a year that such elitism and excellence will cost in the future: the benefits of being admitted to a small club will justify a steep price. But that doesn’t mean that important aspects of this education cannot be provided to millions of people around the world at a fraction of the cost. I see this as a unique blending of Jefferson’s idea of natural aristocracy with a more traditional form of aristocracy made possible by being able to afford $65,000 a year for four years.
- My experience is probably unique, in that I am in the process of obtaining a graduate certificate in philosophy and ethics online from Harvard University Extension. In general, I am in agreement that for those who can afford it, go ahead and go off to Dartmouth or UCSD. For the other 99%, it can be very useful to enjoy the low-cost, high-quality classes if one can bring the stick-to-itiveness required to study online. It’s not easy.
- If the value of a liberal education is real in opening the mind, preparing people for the fast-changing world, and building a capacity for freedom then the fact that millions of people in China and India and Russia and Brazil will have access to it is cause for celebration.
- In the last paragraph, on page 134, Zakaria wonders about the fact that about half of the students who take an online class do so for a reason that is outside the realm of “specific professional purpose.” He asks: Why are all these people around the world signing up for courses in art history and psychology and physics? If it doesn’t help them to get a job, why do they want to know this stuff? The answer is provided in chapter five, “Knowledge and Power.” Now that sounds like a natural aristocracy in the making!
“Knowledge has outstripped character development, and the young today are given an education rather than an upbringing.”
This is the fourth of a series of chapter summaries from Fareed Zakaria’s book In Defense of a Liberal Education, and is primarily about natural aristocracy, educational access, meritocracy, and the democracy of education (MOOCs). The first summary in the 6-part series is accessible here.