Three Cheers for Half a Book!

In my review of Higher Education? by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, I suggested that the similarities between the thinking of that book’s politically left authors and my own (libertarians are often  but misleadingly placed on the political right) indicated the possibility of a convergence. The waste and inefficiency of our higher education system is now so manifest that it’s taking fire from all sides.

Another recent (March 2010) book that illustrates this analytical convergence is DIY U by Anya Kamenetz, who labels herself a progressive. The subtitle, “Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education” conveys the phenomenon that interests her—the ways that people are trying to get around the very expensive but often inefficient institutions that Americans rely on for their postsecondary education.

Now that’s a venerable, liberal (in its true sense) concern. Ordinary people are frequently harmed because they’re compelled to deal with well-connected firms and organizations that have used their political clout to lock themselves in. Monarchs of old sold monopoly rights to produce and market consumer goods. Today we have educational cartels that rake in vast amounts of money because government policy channels students to them. Kamenetz understands that existing educational institutions love the status quo that favors them; she wants to see dramatic changes that would benefit vast numbers of students.

Let’s look first at the strength of DIY U. Its core is, Kamenetz writes, “the power of sharing ideas freely.” Her big idea is that it ought to be a lot easier and less expensive for people to do that. The main obstacle is our encrusted educational institutions that are far more interested in their own welfare than that of learners.

“What edupunk—DIY education if you will—promises is an evolution from expensive institutions to expansive networks; it aims to fulfill the promise of universal education, but only by leaving the university behind,” she writes.

That kind of radical iconoclasm has a long history. Kamenetz cites Ivan Illich, whose 1971 book Deschooling Society remains popular in education-reform circles. Illich argued that compulsory schools “alienate students from their own curiosity and ability by ‘teaching the need to be taught.’”

A much earlier educational radical was Joseph Priestley, who is mainly known for his scientific work. He also wrote on many other subjects, including education. In this recent column, Sheldon Richman quoted Priestley: “From new, and seemingly irregular methods of education, perhaps something extraordinary and uncommonly great may spring. At least there would be a fair chance for such productions; and if something odd and eccentric should arise from this unbounded liberty of education, the various business of human life may afford proper spheres for such eccentric geniuses.”

In other words, what we need in education is the free market’s discovery process to find ways of improving upon or replacing our current, highly inefficient institutions.

It seems clear that “progressive” Kamenetz and classical liberal Priestley are in complete agreement. The route to more student-friendly modes of education is to let competition rip.

The latter half of DIY U is about the many ways in which innovators (“edupreneurs”) are trying to give students new and better options. Established educational institutions want to sell students a big (and usually very expensive) bundle of education and credentials, but innovators are trying to unbundle those services and sell them separately at much lower cost–or even giving them away.

For example, there is Western Governors University, an online university that costs students less than $6,000 per year. WGU was formed in 1999 and instead of simply following the usual procedure of organizing academic departments in the traditional fields, officials convened a council of employers and asked, “What is it that graduates you’re hiring can’t do that you wish they could?”

Western Governors University is quite mainstream compared with many other developments, however. In her chapter “Independent Study,” Kamenetz dives into a deep pool of educational ferment. For example, there is The School of Everything, a site the brings together educational buyers and sellers: “Learners can find teachers, paid or unpaid, or study partners on any topic they want.” Similarly, Craigslist has a “classes” section in hundreds of cities.

Have you heard of Peer2Peer University? I hadn’t. It’s an online network for learners that began in the spring of 2009 with ten pilot courses.  Not an entire curriculum—just ten courses. But there is no reason why motivated learners can’t get some of what they want at one place and the rest of what they want elsewhere. The concept appears to work, as evidenced by the fact that there are now at least 30 courses.

All of this is about unbundling. If you walk into a grocery store wanting just one or two items, you can get just those items. If you want just one of two items of education, you shouldn’t have to buy a whole cart-full of courses. Kamenetz likes the idea that individuals should be able to customize education to suit their particular needs and desires. So do I.

One big problem, though—in a society that has become credential-crazed, how do people who get their education in unstructured, informal ways (I thought of writing “non-traditional” but when you think about it, this idea is very traditional, going back to the ancient Greeks) show that they have a base of knowledge? College degrees don’t necessarily betoken any learning, but they’re better than trying to explain that you got a lot out of the various topics you studied online when the employer insists on a B.A.

“Accreditation and assessment, the source of the ‘sheepskin effect’” she writes, “is proving the toughest nut to crack.” Innovation may crack it, though. Today, students can compile and publish a portfolio to demonstrate their knowledge and capabilities by using free software like WordPress and Drupal. Since the college degree is no longer a very useful screening mechanism, if a few employers would start saying to applicants, “Don’t show us where you’ve taken courses, but instead show us evidence that you’ve learned something that would be useful here,” the dam may break quickly.

Notice what is absent in this vision of the future of higher education. It involves no government subsidies, regulations, or even institutions. What makes it work is voluntary cooperation and the free market’s fabled discovery process. Students will learn more at far less cost. Laissez-faire will produce enormous benefits if existing institutions don’t strangle the educational freedom movement in the cradle.

So what’s not to like about the book?

I almost gave up on it because the first two chapters are heavily laden with  “progressive” tropes about education and the economy. Kamenetz writes, for example, “Since the 1970s, our educational attainment has stalled while the rest of the world is roaring ahead.” As I have often argued, education is not a matter of international competition, like Olympic medals counts. It doesn’t do the United States any harm that quite a few young people are choosing not to get college degrees. We already have many grads working in low-skill jobs. Our ability to compete internationally won’t be improved by producing more.

Far worse than that is Kamenetz’s support for egalitarian daydreams such as affirmative action based on socio-economic status and the notion that we need to “fix the economy” through more progressive taxation, laws to promote unionism, and so on. Why tarnish a book extolling greater educational freedom with writing that advocates increased coercion and institutional rigidity elsewhere?

What is enlightening, even exciting, about DIY U greatly outweighs those blemishes, which have nothing to do with the book’s theme. Read it, warts and all!