Where are the start-ups in the Liberal Arts?

Yesterday, George Mason University economists Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen announced MRU, a modular course design platform that they’ll be using to offer free and potentially paid courses in economics, online. I’ve learned a lot from their blog since I started reading during the run-up to the financial crisis, and I plan to at least look in on their first course on Developmental Economics. It’s not a massive open online course (MOOC for short), but it’s set up to enable them to produce MOOCs. Experiments in the MOOC future look increasingly promising. But where are the startup and experiments in radical de-digitization?

If you’re a college professor in the humanities, it’s hard not to see the recent flurry of for-profit and online education start-ups as a repudiation of your model for pedagogy. Even as the evidence accumulates that students are most likely to increase their critical thinking skills during an education that focuses on close reading, analytic writing, and high expectations, we see an increasing number of resources devoted to lecturing, a model for which the internet is only slightly better-suited than the VCR was.

At the same time, many in the humanities, myself included, have worried that what drives tuition is primarily administrative rent-seeking. We look at our salaries and at the salaries of the deans, and notice that we’ve been doing more work for less pay over the last few decades even while tuition skyrockets. Meanwhile, newly-minted PhDs flood the workforce looking for jobs. So why then do we continue to work for institutions that have been steering astray? It makes sense to talk about the oppression of the poor and poorly connected, but in what sense are the folks who literally dispense cultural capital capable of being oppressed by their labor conditions?

Oversupply of teachers and undersupply of institutional support for the right kind of teaching: looks like a recipe for a start-up!

The most fertile period for the development of new colleges in the US was the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War, when the 24 colonial colleges that existed before Independence were joined by more than 600 more. Many did not survive, but this was a period of intense educational experimentation and innovation. The land-grant universities aggregated and centralized much of this process. but colleges and universities were still being formed at a rapid clip: there are more than 4000 today. Yet how many new institutions are devoted to the liberal arts? The practices I associate with liberal arts teaching tend to be cultivated on old ivy-covered campuses rather than shiny new startups. Though many schools are called “liberal arts” they do not all make a full-time practice of that pedagogy. Perhaps the problem is demand: one of the oldest colleges, St. John’s, existed before the civil war, and today it adds just 250 new freshmen every year to its Great Books program. Shimer College in Chicago has 111 students total! But I think there’s room for growth (given the evidence and such a small base.)

For all the “massive” promise of MOOCs, they involve considerable capital and startup costs. Yet the teaching profession requires little more than books, paper, pens, and (maybe) trashcans. With folks embracing their own farming, canning, paper-making, and butchering, there ought to be some unmet demand for pedagogical nostalgia of the old schools: discussions under stoa, peripatetic dialogues, and sitting around a table puzzling out the meaning of a text. Maybe the next time one of these would-be online education innovators goes bust, we should give it a shot.

4 thoughts on “Where are the start-ups in the Liberal Arts?”

  1. Hi Joshua,

    I found this post through NewAPPS. In your post you wrote,

    “Even as the evidence accumulates that students are most likely to increase their critical thinking skills during an education that focuses on close reading, analytic writing, and high expectations, we see an increasing number of resources devoted to lecturing, a model for which the internet is only slightly better-suited than the VCR was.”

    Can you point me to the evidence that close reading, analytic writing, and high expectations improve students’ critical thinking skills? I know that the authors of Academically Adrift claim something similar to this (indeed, their whole book is evidence for it), but I was wondering if you had other studies in mind.

    Thanks!

    Rob

    1. Yes, this is based on the data in Academically Adrift. (Sorry, I forgot to link.) As I argue elsewhere, their evidence might well be flawed, but it’s the best evidence we have available.

  2. The model you suggest has more or less been pursued by the private for-profit New College of the Humanities in London, which is more or less an ersatz Oxbridge for wealthy students who failed to get into Oxbridge (its first cohort has just 20% students from state-funded schools). One of the problems with start-ups of any kind is that they require lots of capital to get going: teaching itself might be relatively cheap, but you’re going to need residential and classroom facilities – as far as I can tell, NCH is (still) trying to borrow its facilities from the University of London, which doesn’t seem all that amenable to it, just as Shimer uses the much larger Illinois Institute of Technology’s campus. And in education, the temptation will be to squeeze those costs out of students in the form of tuition. My feeling is that there are far fewer charitable organizations of the kind that would be willing to endow a liberal arts college than there were in the post-Civil War golden era.

    1. Very good points, all of them. The real-estate issue you describe even plagues established schools: I spent most of my time at George Washington University teaching in a sub-basement of a K Street office building. Yet in the US we’ve recently had a massive real estate crash, and mostly we don’t have quite the same price problems as London and Chicago.

      My use of startup language wasn’t an endorsement of for-profit colleges, by the way! Ideally, any liberal arts startup would be organized as a non-profit co-op, so that we could meaningfully return to a style of governance where the faculty are not subservient to administrators. Universities used to be important sites of workplace democracy, but I don’t know many that look that way today.

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