The Dystopia of Distance Learning

Reading Zephyr Teachout’s dire warning in her article in this morning’s Washington Post (it appeared in Slate earlier in the week) that online education will eventually take over almost all of higher education if we don’t do something about it — now — I couldn’t help but remember my experience visiting the IBM pavilion at the World’s Fair in Flushing, NY, in 1964. Ms. Teachout, associate professor of law at Fordham, is knowledgeable, and clearly worried about the future of higher education. She’s also very smart. Nevertheless, she would do well to remember that predictions about where human beings are headed are inherently problematic.

In 1964, I was a young girl longing to see Michelangelo’s Pieta (sorry, I can’t figure out how to insert accents in this blog), which had been shipped with great fanfare from the Vatican to Flushing for the World’s Fair. I got to see it — bathed in blue light, protected by bulletproof glass, viewed from a slowly moving conveyer belt. Hardly perfect conditions, but I was thrilled. Afterwards, my parents dragged me over to see the IBM pavilion.

Back then, the three letters, “IBM” stood for the future. I remember waiting on line for what seemed like an eternity, after which we shuffled into an auditorium to watch a short film celebrating — well, duh, IBM. While we watched the film, one of those stentorian voices that sounded like God and IBM rolled into one assured us that in the not-to-distant future we’d all be riding about in little capsules that would hover a foot over the ground, swallow tiny white pills for dinner, possess vacuum cleaners that would quietly clean the house on their own, live without disease, and be forever smiling in our tight and tiny nuclear families in our tight and forever wonderfull problem-free America. (The voice didn’t exactly say all this, but the implications were clear.)

Surprise, this turned out to be wrong. As wrong as Ms. Teachout’s warning inevitably must be. Predictions about the way things will be in 50 years — or even five, or one, for that matter — are seldom right. Moreover, in modern times they tend to reflect a particularly modern curse: A tendency to forget the Ecclesiastian truth that time and chance happeneth to all.

But if Ms. Teachout is right that higher ed is heading toward a world where higher ed is mostly distance learning — what are its advocates waiting for? Why not cut to the chase and work to turn on-site secondary education into distance learning, or even abolish grammar schools in favor of computers in the home? If we want our kids to end up sitting alone in isolated little rooms when they’re 18 and 20, staring at computer screens instead of facing other real human beings, thinking in a way that turns thought into nothing but bits of information, why not start training them earlier? We could insert them into comfortable little cocoons in their homes from the age of, oh, say seven.

Those who embrace distance learning as a reasonable substitute for students going to college argue their case in the name of efficiency and productivity. In permitting business goals to become education goals, educators have permitted the business world to have a say in how we educate the young. And make no mistake about it: They believe that whatever is best for business is best for human beings.

I say to hell with efficiency and productivity if it means any more distance learning than we already have. What’s the point of living if we all turn into robots? People need to watch Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece, Metropolis. There human beings were about as efficient and productive as one could possibly imagine. For distance learning advocates who don’t know this film, or insist they don’t have the time to watch it, I have another suggestion: Google the word, “dystopia.”

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