Back to School
A reclamation project for higher ed.
Sep 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 04 • By DAVID GELERNTER
This school-reopening season ought to be a time of deep pondering and self-examination for conservatives and everyone else who cares about the future of this nation and the world. It’s time to notice how little we have done about the most powerful, dangerous, reactionary force in America today: the schools establishment, and the hundred or so purebred, pedigreed universities that trot forward at the head of the ongoing black comedy called American education.
Congrats—sorry your degree is such a joke.
There are simple things we can do and are not doing. There are difficult but important things we are wholly ignoring—we conservatives and liberals who care about the future of this country and of Western civilization, which is today in (just about) America’s sole keeping.
Since the cultural revolution culminating in the 1970s, the left has run nearly all of the nation’s most influential, prestigious universities. Their alumni, in turn, run American culture—the broadcast networks, newspapers, the legal and many other professions, Hollywood, book publishing, and, most important, the massive, insensate, crush-everything-in-your-path mega-glacier known as the U.S. federal bureaucracy—and even more important than that, the education establishment charged with indoctrinating our children from kindergarten up. Conservative organizations and individuals have a few outstanding education projects underway—bravo!—but not enough. Not even close. We must do more:
(1) For every college in the nation, we need software that connects all conservatives and dissenters on campus into a single ongoing conversation. Today such groups are nearly always small minorities—but they lack the coherence and neighborliness small minorities ought to have, because they are scattered and hidden like diamonds in the ragweed. All but the strongest-willed dissenters can be discouraged and silenced by the sheer density of fire they encounter in class and on campus. They need support.
Every on-campus dissident or conservative—student, faculty, staff—is a “member” of a single stream (roughly like a blog, feed, Twitter stream, chatstream) and is invited to post news, to comment, or just to watch the discussion flow. Whether a professor attacked you for heresy in class or merely talked nonsense, trashed religion, salaamed before Obama, or used “Bush” as a laugh line, you owe it to yourself, to your colleagues, and to the truth to let people know. If you’re faced with a tough question—such as whether great literature or art exists, whether there’s any music to speak of outside the inexhaustible rock tradition, whether white men have any achievements worth naming or have always been the bums and freeloaders we know them for today, whether the reality of man-made global warming is acknowledged by 100.0 percent of all sane scientists in the universe or is merely sacred writ—you need to talk things over with your colleagues. The stream helps draw the small dissident community together. And eventually, local streams become part of larger streams. The technology is thoroughly understood. It ought to be deployed and in use right now.
Where is it written that conservatives can never introduce new social-network software?
(2) We need authoritative online survey courses in the core humanities taught by recognized authorities, in a standard (and intelligent!) format. Basic requirements for an online course, usually ignored today though easily achieved with well-designed software: It must be possible to unfold or unwrap the course systematically, top-down, so a potential student understands its goals, its broad structure, and then the topics to be covered. It should be simple to slot online courses into a digital tray or rack so they can be compared directly, or a semester’s work racked up and considered as a unit. It must be simple for students to repeat or skip whatever sub-segments they choose. Above all, it must be easy for students to stop a lecture at any point to ask a question. Some Internet course-suppliers will provide teaching assistants online around the clock to write answers; other times, students will have to wait a few hours. Either way, questions and answers will accumulate online from year to year over the life of the course, into a rich commentary on every important issue in every lecture. Imagine the Vilna edition of the Talmud, with the lecture in the center and commentary accumulating around the perimeter like the growth rings of a Sequoia.
Where is it written that conservatives can never lead the technology parade?
(3) And we need to start developing a new way of turning a college education into a valuable, negotiable commodity without going through the obsolete certification process. It’s easy to picture how this will work. If a major thinker with an international reputation were to review a student’s college record and pronounce it “a satisfactory education” and sign a letter to that effect, that letter would be as good as any diploma in the world. The world’s best scholars have other things to do with their time; but they might be persuaded to accept a few students every year, with whom they’d consult, whose progress they’d keep an eye on. Distinguished people outside academia might do the same. But think tanks would probably play the major role. Many U.S. think tanks are qualified to oversee a group of students every year. At first, only the best and bravest students would undertake this sort of degree, and only the bravest organizations would hire them. But this is so obviously the future that the trend will be impossible to resist.
Where is it written that conservatives can’t lead the online education revolution?
This is the future: The Internet can be an international gossip machine, or it can be a switchboard for connecting pairs or groups who could never otherwise have come together. The most important aspect of the university of the near future is not the Internet per se; it’s the distribution of university functions throughout the educated population. Engineers and industrial scientists, retired schoolteachers, journalists, combat veterans, economists, housewives, MDs, diplomats, businessmen, musicians, and many thousands of others across the globe are potential teachers or (just as important) one-on-one tutors in science, mathematics and engineering, music and the arts, and—the university’s most important mission—in how to read and write like a grown-up. Some humanities fields will continue to require heavy assistance from academia. Some areas in the social sciences will disappear. And easily 90 percent (maybe 95) of existing U.S. colleges and universities could be gone within 15 years.
Modern universities are such grotesque failures that we have started to hear a natural, healthy response from certain critics: Abolish college! Let people learn on the job. It’s a valuable line of thought, because it forces us to come to grips with the reason college education exists in this country to begin with. Not to train people for jobs or make them economically useful; but to create a responsible, informed, dutiful citizenry that values this nation and Western civilization sufficiently to protect and sustain them. And of course colleges must teach the skills and facts, the verbs and nouns, that students need when they encounter the worlds of art, scholarship, science, and society at large. They must fill in the blanks left by incompetent grade and high schools, especially in history and English. And they must teach the mathematics required to do physics, chemistry, engineering, or computing, the chemistry you need to be a physician or biologist, and the other unglamorous technical skills that keep the mighty American research machine inching forward. No one is going to pick up intermediate calculus or basic organic chemistry on the job.
If conservative groups don’t see this future, build it, put their stamp on it—the stamp of no ideology but Americanism, no mission except searching out and teaching genuine 24-carat truth—they will have no right to complain. Let them prepare now to keep quiet as American culture gutters lower every year, as per-capita years-of-education, leftist tendencies, and gross ignorance in the population at large continue to shoot up in a blistering geyser, and the line of Obamacrats and Clintoonians stretches outward to the horizon—until America as a first-rate spiritual and temporal power is gone forever.
Instead, let’s act.
David Gelernter is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a professor of computer science at Yale.
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