The coronavirus pandemic has the potential to force a reckoning for many American institutions of higher education. Rising costs, declining demographics, and decreasing public trust are already serious problems with which university administrators are (or should be) concerned. Several institutions have already closed in recent years, with the rate of closures trebling in the last decade and one fifth of private colleges facing “fundamental stress” according to Moody’s Investor Services — and that was before the current public health and economic crisis. 

It seems inevitable that many more institutions will fold in the near future – now perhaps sooner than expected. The loss of income this spring and summer might be enough to sink colleges and universities that are already struggling to stay afloat. Even more may go under if students don’t come back in the fall.

Why wouldn’t students come back? One possibility is that our country’s pandemic response won’t permit it. Another is that they won’t be able to afford it, as they and their parents are hit hard economically by this crisis. Finally, some of them might not want to come back even if they could. They might choose to stay home out of fear, or they might decide to wait a year because they’re concerned that the fall semester could be interrupted like this one was. Or, as some speculate (and others hope), they might embrace online learning after their experiences this semester.

It’s too soon to say how bad the impact of this pandemic will be, or what will happen in the fall, but some technocratic educators and administrators are already urging us to make sure that this crisis doesn’t go to waste. In particular, proponents of online education, while admitting that instructional quality this semester won’t be great, argue that colleges and universities should use this opportunity to accelerate the trend toward virtual education. Some administrators are already preparing to do just that.

They make it all sound pretty attractive. It’s innovative, convenient, and cheaper. The pitch even sprinkles in some social justice arguments, suggesting that e-learning is more accessible to low-income and minority students. It’s the classic technocratic package: you benefit, they make money, and everyone gets to feel better about “making the world a better place.”

It’s too soon to say how bad the impact of this pandemic will be, or what will happen in the fall, but some technocratic educators and administrators are already urging us to make sure that this crisis doesn’t go to waste.

One problem with the technocrats’ arguments is that they aren’t persuasive on their own terms. Innovation isn’t always better — just ask the inventors of the ‘smokeless cigarette,’ or other products that have completely failed to resonate with their target markets. It’s not convenient for everyone to learn at home where finding space, time, and the requisite technology can be difficult. Online education done well (insofar as it can be) can be expensive to provide, and the return on investment for students might not be great since the educational quality and market value of most online programs is inferior to their in-person counterparts. Finally — for these and other reasons — online education might be just as, or even more, inaccessible to poorer Americans.

Their arguments are also problematic because they betray a failure to recognize the need for a deeper, more important, reckoning – one that centers on the question: what is the purpose of a college or university education?

There isn’t a universal answer to this question – different institutions exist for different purposes, and people go to them for a variety of reasons – but if you ask American students why they go to college, most will respond that they’re going in order to get a better job and make more money. Those are good answers, especially when higher education costs as much as it does. 

But they aren’t the only answers. For one thing, many young people go to college for the larger experience (self-discovery, independence, extracurricular activities, meeting new people), which is one reason why we should be skeptical of those who think this crisis will seriously accelerate the trend toward online learning. If anything, this semester of sitting at home and Zooming may make students long to return to campus (or head there for the first time) — and their parents, as much as they love their kids, might be ready to send them off too. 

But, more importantly, colleges and universities have historically served other purposes as well, notably liberal and civic education. In other words, they have helped to prepare their students to live good lives and to be good citizens, a mission that the online ed technocrats don’t seem to understand.

Liberal education, as the name suggests, is a liberating activity in which we reflect on what it means to be human and how we ought to live our lives. We inquire into the nature of things and seek truth and self-knowledge. We learn to think, and to create, and to communicate. It doesn’t just teach us skills but contributes to who we are as people. Such an education is worth pursuing for its own sake — as well as the economic and vocational benefits.

Civic education – the formation of good citizens – is also critical to personal development and the health of our republic. It involves teaching students about politics, including the principles and history of America, and also giving them opportunities to engage in constructive public dialogue. College is a training ground in this respect. The debates we have in college prepare us for the ones in which we’ll be involved afterward — in the workplace, in the family, and in the public sphere.

Technocratic online education is hostile to both liberal and civic education. It is driven by efficiency and geared toward conveying information and meeting requirements in pursuit of a credential, whereas liberal education is a leisurely activity characterized most fundamentally by questioning and contemplating in community with others, for its own sake.

Technocratic online education is hostile to both liberal and civic education.

As for civic education, anyone who’s spent time debating others online knows that it doesn’t bring out the best in people. Civic community depends on living together and cultivating personal connections, face-to-face. It also involves debating not just means but ends, i.e., not just how we can achieve our desired political ends, but which political ends we ought to desire. Notice, though, that the technocrats assume, for example, that their vision of social justice will be appealing to you. They’re not inviting you into a civic debate; they already have the answers. They’re just trying to find the most effective means to advance their purposes.

In sum, the technocratic vision behind the push for online higher education is illiberal at its core. Whereas liberal and civic education — like politics — are ongoing, open-ended activities that depend on (and promote) liberty, technocratic education confines us to predetermined goals and outcomes, specifically, those preferred by the technocrats themselves.

For many Americans, there were already good reasons – economic or otherwise – not to go to college. Now it seems likely that this crisis will compel many who would have gone to wait or reconsider. Thus, this will probably prove an economic reckoning for American higher education. 

It should also be a philosophical reckoning. As we consider more economical ways for colleges and universities to serve their purpose, we should also stop to ask what their purpose is and what it ought to be. Even if we decide that our colleges and universities are no longer the places to go for liberal or civic education (many still are), we should ask ourselves where we will go for such an education. Our happiness and the good of our republic depend on it.

Steven F. McGuire is the Interim Director of the Matthew J. Ryan Center for the Study of Free Institutions and the Public Good at Villanova University. @sfmcguire79

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