The Magazine

Back to School

A reclamation project for higher ed.

Sep 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 04 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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(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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