Thomas Friedman’s Vision of Online Oligarchy

Thomas L. Friedman’s breathless New York Times column on the potential of massive open online courses envisioned remote villages in Egypt enthralled with lectures on Plato and nuclear physics, and thereby a large-scale democratization of what used to be the purview of the privileged few: higher education. Friedman did mention the online revolution’s potential disadvantages—“Yes,” he conceded, “only a small percentage complete all the work, and even they still tend to be from the middle and upper classes of their societies.” But the general tone of the piece betrayed giddy anticipation for the gleaming new delivery model of education that will arise from the rubble of the old Ivory Tower.

The blowback to Friedman’s piece in the professorsphere was considerable (and Richard Wolff’s rejoinder one of the best reads). And this has prompted Friedman to publish a second column in praise of the MOOC, one that doubles down on his earlier assertions with the added bonus of ad hominem insults to the professoriate.

The response to this newer column is even more heated (with John Warner at Inside Higher Ed quipping that “Thomas Friedman has as much credibility on education as I do on dunking a basketball”). And for good reason—the column is based on false premises, sure, but the worst thing about it is that it advocates for an academia that is even more oligarchic and stratified than it already is!

Somehow, in the service of making higher education free and available for everyone, we must whittle the professoriate down to the likes of superstars such as the Harvard professor Michael Sandel, who is now so big in South Korea that he is apparently forced to wear special shoes all the time. Everyone who does not have triple-tenure and the stage presence of a mid-1990s Garth Brooks will be the deserved victim of outsourcing to a more deserving “online competitor.”

I am not even going to address Friedman’s premise that my colleagues and I are not trained. After all, it is true that the five years most of us spend in teaching assistantships or with our own courses—and, in my case, the graduate seminars on second-language acquisition and the pedagogy conferences—do not result in an Official Certificate of Professoring. I had been under the impression that was called a “Ph.D.,” but what do I know? I have never appeared on Chinese television, and thus am currently wearing an unimpressive pair of beat-up galoshes that cost $21.

No, my main issue with Friedman is that the brave new world of democratized education (never mind that most remote villages in Egypt do not have high-speed Internet) is anything but. What Friedman proposes is nothing less than the creation of an über-oligarchy that is even more exclusive than the current state of academe—which is already elitist enough, thank you very much.

Today, about 70 percent of instruction at the postsecondary level in the United States is performed by non-tenure-track faculty, often adjuncts. These low-wage, benefit-free workers are—despite earned doctorates and publication records, and despite their majority status on most campuses—often treated as total nonentities by the handful of trendily shod full professors who make up what is left of today’s departments.

(This is not true of all senior faculty, and junior faculty are often quite sympathetic, themselves recent survivors of the same harrowing job market of which we are the casualties. Their situation is also no picnic these days, being forced as they are to serve on 20 committees and churn out a veritable torrent of publications that nobody, as a result of exactly this oversaturation, will ever read.)

This tide may indeed be changing, thanks in part to the increasing visibility of The Chronicle’s Adjunct Project, the leadership of the Modern Language Association under Michael Bérubé, and the tireless efforts to organize contingent labor in the face of brutal institutional opposition—for example, the recent case of Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh. But for now, the power in most American universities—the power to teach the Harvard justice course on Korean TV—rests in the hands of the privileged and lucky few.

What Friedman fails to understand or care about is that the astonishing and rich diversity of viewpoints available to today’s college student comes from the careful hiring, into what few tenure-track positions remain, of beginning professors who take intellectual risks. Their classroom presence might not yet have the swagger (or sneakers) of Sandel’s, but their potential—given that they beat out 300 of their closest friends for their jobs—is infinite, and they should not be forced to “compete” with some blowhard from Princeton if they happen to have a more subdued teaching style. One of the best professors I ever had spoke in such a boring monotone that I often had to bite my cheek to keep awake. But what he said was staggeringly brilliant, and those cheek scars were worth it.

Friedman’s vision seems to have no place in it for any professor who isn’t giving a TED talk. He seems quite gleeful in suggesting that all of us non-bigwigs are undeserving of our jobs.

Indeed, should this vision come true—should universities countrywide dismiss all faculty qualified to teach a course on justice because Prof. Mandel and his sneakers are “just so good”—this situation will worsen exponentially. For all of conservative America’s jawing about how the academy is run by frothy-mouthed Trotskyites, and for all of the academy’s self-congratulation for being a meritocracy, what we have instead is an educational feudal system.

Friedman, by suggesting that since most professors are unqualified and thus deserve to be replaced by the long-established “sages on stages” who really know what they’re doing, simply wants to skew the current faculty ratio (1.1 million to 400,000) even further—at the expense of contingent faculty, not to mention tenure-track faculty without the charisma of a megachurch preacher.

Friedman’s vision of the MOOC world does not even begin to approach the widespread democratization of higher education that he so adulates. It is merely a transmission of the American university of the 1950s through a 21st-century  medium. It is not just the perpetuation of the oligarchy, but the dramatic tightening of its ranks at just the wrong time.

Rebecca Schuman is a visiting assistant professor of German at Ohio State University.

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