M.I.T. Calls Academia's Bluff

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The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has begun the most revolutionary experiment in the history of education, stretching all the way back to the pharaohs. It now gives away its curriculum to anyone smart enough to learn it. It has posted its curriculum on-line for free. These days, this means a staggering 1900 courses. This number will grow.

This is proof to the academic world that MIT regards its program as the best, and dares any other institution to prove otherwise, where everyone can see and compare. The free site validates the MIT T-shirt: HARVARD: Because not everyone can get into MIT.”

MIT has publicly stiffed its main rival for the title of the best science university on earth. That rival is the California Institute of Technology. CalTech will forever play catch-up to MIT on-line. It will be “We, Too On-line University.”

Students around the world can see for themselves that MIT has what it takes to be the best. They can test drive the entire curriculum.

Top students all over the world still want to attend MIT. They want a diploma that has MIT’s name on it. The free site does not reduce demand for an MIT diploma. It increases it.

MIT has up-ended several millennia of higher education. Let me explain.

THE NATURE OF THIS REVOLUTIONARY EXPERIMENT

For as long as there have been priesthoods, there has been formal classroom education.

The Egyptian priests had classrooms, lectures, and students taking notes.

The Jews had schools where bright young men came to learn the Hebrew texts and memorize the oral tradition, which began being written down in the second century A.D. This oral tradition was written down centuries later: the Mishnah and the Talmud.

The Classical Greeks had academies. Plato and Aristotle taught young men the rudiments of philosophy.

The Greeks also had medical schools.

These programs were closed to most outsiders. A student had to be accepted. He also had to pay.

In most cases, the information was secret. The student was bound by an oath of secrecy. Here are the opening words of the original Hippocratic Oath.
I swear by Apollo Physician and Asclepius and Hygieia and Panaceia and all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will fulfill according to my ability and judgment this oath and this covenant:

To hold him who has taught me this art as equal to my parents and to live my life in partnership with him, and if he is in need of money to give him a share of mine, and to regard his offspring as equal to my brothers in male lineage and to teach them this art — if they desire to learn it — without fee and covenant; to give a share of precepts and oral instruction and all the other learning to my sons and to the sons of him who has instructed me and to pupils who have signed the covenant and have taken an oath according to the medical law, but no one else.

The training created a medical guild. The guild functioned as an oligopoly. It kept prices high by restricting access to the training.

This is what the college diploma has always done. It has created a guild that restricts entry by non-certified people. This keeps wages high.

To obtain the diploma, a person must pay money to the trainers. The trainers are located at one center or special regional centers. Journeying to the center adds costs. Quitting a full-time job back home also adds to the expense. Forcing students to attend pre-requisites adds to the cost. Everything is done to screen access to the knowledge.

So, the knowledge does not spread. This is the crucial function of the academic screening system, especially for practical knowledge: healing people and building things.

For the first time in the history of man, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has opened the gates to all comers. It has said, “You won’t get certified by us, but you can get the classroom knowledge. If you are smart enough to teach yourself, you will have the knowledge.”

MIT has now removed the most important layers of bureaucracy: the layers associated with classroom instruction.
1. The fee to obtain the training
2. The cost of journeying to a training center
3. The pre-requisite system
4. The cost of quitting your job

This has de-mystified the entire guild procedure. It says this: “If you are smart enough, you can master the initial content.”

This opens the door for the revival of the local apprenticeship system. Here is where a student masters the non-textbook basics of a field, which are at least as important as the textbook content.

Think of a written account of how to tie a shoelace. Then think of a parent’s training: apprenticeship.

There is one remaining price barrier: the high cost of textbooks. But Amazon, eBay, and the many on-line used book sellers let you buy older editions for $20 instead of $150. A textbook one edition behind is 99% effective in every undergraduate major.

The gatekeeping function of the academic guild is now under assault by one of the supreme gatekeepers: MIT.

REMOVING BUREAUCRACY

The next step in the liberation of society is the introduction of certification by examination without diplomas. There would no requirement to attend a school. Just pass the exam.

This terrifies every guild. Smart people could get in just by passing the guild’s entry-level exam.

The ultimate breakthrough would be a requirement that every certified member of a guild would be required to pass the guild’s entry exam every five years or else lose his official license to practice. That would mean the end of exams that screen for wage reasons rather than for technical reasons. The members would demand easier exams, so that they could pass. More students would pass. Wages would decline.

Finally, there would be a removal of state-chartered systems of professional licensing. It would not be illegal to sell any services at any price.

Combine these, and the bureaucratization of society would end.

If you think, “This is utopian,” consider this: MIT has removed the crucial initial layer, which imposes the greatest financial burden.

A student in India who understands English and who has access to the Web can get an MIT education.

If other universities imitate MIT, the world of higher education will be radically changed for the better.

$120,000 DEGREES FROM PODUNK COLLEGE

Let me tell you a story I know first-hand. It happened several years ago.

There is a tiny Christian college — then unaccredited — that has pretensions of being a first-rate Christian university for conservatives. The librarian put a book by a certain historian on its shelves. This scholar had written some unconventional books regarding certain controversial aspects of World War II. This book was not one of them.

Some bonehead faculty member came to him and told him to remove this book. He refused. She then told the administration. The librarian was ordered by the administration to remove the book, because a library-review committee was scheduled to visit the school. This team could revoke the library’s accreditation if certain kinds of books or authors with certain views were found on the shelves. The librarian quit, as he should have. The book was then removed.

The administration was bluffed by a bonehead faculty member into committing a preposterous assault on intellectual liberty — removing a book from the library — because of the administration’s utter terror in the presence of a committee of librarians.

There was a day when Christians chose death by lions rather than capitulating to the State. That day is long gone. This is the confession of Christian higher education: “Our government-accredited utmost for His highest.” Colleges are staffed by certified bureaucrats who have been trained by certified bureaucrats. They grew up in the fear of committees, and this fear never leaves them.

The losers? The students and their parents, who spend $120,000 to earn a degree (if the student graduates) from a low-prestige school that provides a third-rate education. In addition, the school raises another $15,000 a year per student from nave donors who don’t know how third-rate the place is.

There are accredited universities around the world that offer distance-learning programs where a student can earn a liberal arts degree at home in two or three years for $15,000. A student can pay his own way by working as an apprentice to a local businessman. This way, he or she learns a trade. But no. The parents send them off to college for $30,000 a year (after taxes).

Parents who send their children off to Podunk College are behind the technological curve.

First, about half of college freshmen don’t graduate, even after six years. Second, those who do graduate enter a job market in which only 20% of graduates can find a non-minimum wage job.

The graduates are four to six years older, minimally educated, have no full-time work experience, and have forfeited four to six years of income. I call this “formally certified stupidity.” What would you call it?

A college could easily provide free on-line guides to passing the Advanced Placement, CLEP, and DSST exams to quiz out of the first two years. Total cost: under $2,000 for the exams. That would save parents at least $60,000. The school would provide conservative guidelines for free on-line in PDF. It would also provide free YouTube or Blip.tv video courses.

If the school were interested in educating people, it would do all this. But Podunk College is interested in selling accredited degrees at above-market rates. It is not interested in educating people. This includes all of the “dedicated to furthering God’s kingdom” colleges. They are dedicated to furthering their little kingdoms at parents’ expense.

If they are really worth the money, they should prove this for free on-line. MIT has. Why not them?

Simple: because they are not worth the money. They know it. The parents don’t know it. The illusion must go on.

Could a college make its money by teaching upper division courses on-line for 25% of today’s tuition — $5,000 a year instead of $20,000 — with no room and board costs? Yes. Will any of them do this? Of course not. Why not? Because they are in debt up to their ears for educationally unnecessary real estate. They adopted a technologically defunct model before the Web.

There is another reason. If a school’s curriculum were 100% on-line for free, every parent, donor, and prospective student could judge the academic quality of the program. There is no interest in doing this. I think the administrators have a sense that their programs are not up to the standards of tax-funded universities.

Their problem is not lack of money and physical plant. Education is about wisdom, self-discipline, highly motivational teachers, and perspective. The problem for these schools is a lack of a distinctive Christian academic worldview.

If parents could see the classroom presentations, they might conclude that the academic content is essentially the same, the perspective is the same, and the cost is far higher than tax-funded education. A prayer before each class is not worth an extra $80,000.

Someday there will be a Christian college aimed at home school graduates that itself is 100% on-line and priced accordingly. In the meantime, parents and students have on-line alternatives for under $20,000, total.

There are several universities that offer this, most notably Excelsior and Edison State.

Would a college lose its accreditation if it adopted such a program? Not if it played things smart. It could enroll on-campus students whose parents are eager to spend extra money. There are still lots of these parents. Jennie Sue and Billy Bob want to get away from home at their parents’ expense for four to six years. They wheedle a free education by pleading a love of classroom education. Peer pressure from other parents reinforce this. “What? Your kid is still at home?”

Would parents enroll their children at an unaccredited college? Maybe not. They, too, grovel at the feet of accreditation committees. But since the graduates of accredited schools can’t get decent jobs these days, of what economic value is accreditation?

I am not talking about students who major in a natural science like engineering or chemistry. But hardly any American students do. I am talking about the standard, career-unrelated liberal arts degree.

WHAT DO PARENTS WANT?

The sad fact is this: most parents don’t care about education. They care about accreditation. The great German social scientist Max Weber commented on this just after World War I. He wrote this:
If we hear from all sides demands for the introduction of a regulated curricula culminating in specialized examinations, the reason behind this is, of course, not a suddenly awakened ‘thirst for education’, but rather a desire to limit the supply of candidates for these positions and to monopolize them for the holders of educational patents — [B]ureaucracy strives everywhere for the creation of a ‘right to the office’ by the establishment of regular disciplinary procedures and by elimination of the completely arbitrary disposition of the superior over the subordinate official. The bureaucracy seeks to secure the official’s position, his orderly advancement, and his provision for old age.

Parents seek union cards for their children. But there are so many kids with union cards today that the advantage has disappeared.

What should a wise parent do? Keep the child home and away from the bureaucrats. Get the child apprenticed to a local businessman. Have the child quiz out of the entire B.A.

Add an incentive. The child gets $50,000 in cash — or half the total cost of college — as a graduation present. The child pays for his/her college education. The parent saves a bundle, especially considering how many students drop out. The child gets starting capital. Use it for grad school. Use it for starting a business. Use it for down payments on a few repossessed houses.

Meanwhile, Podunk College gets nothing. This is the way it ought to be until it offers something educationally unique and worth the extra money, or else offers its existing run-of-the mill program on-line for a third of the money that it charges today.

Private, campus-based, wildly overpriced colleges with undistinguished academic programs will survive, but only a handful of them will prosper. They function today as expensive marital matchmaking services. There are cheaper ways to marry off your children. They can to use one of these on-line dating services.

To the parent who says, “I don’t want my child being certified by a state university like Edison State or Louisiana State,” I respond: “So, you prefer to pay $120,000 to a private college that gained its accreditation only by kissing the hindquarters of a state-licensed accreditation agency?”

There is stupidity and then there is financially suicidal stupidity. Parents display both. The older the child, the more suicidal the stupidity.

Under no circumstances — none — should a family or a student go into debt for college. The average student graduates with $20,000 of debt. This is suicidal. When graduates marry, they are $40,000 in debt. I offer lots of horror stories here:

CONCLUSION

The end of the high-priced university training system is in sight. It may take a generation. These schools are licensed agencies of the state. They will not surrender without a fight. But when the best science university in the world says “Come and get it . . . free!” the other schools have a major problem for justifying secrecy. This response — “We offer a better program than MIT does” — is not likely to be widely believed.

Any college that does not have all of its professors’ classroom lectures on-line on YouTube or Vimeo or Blip.tv is saying, loud and clear, “We don’t want people to see how incompetent our faculty really is.”

Any college that claims to be Christian but which assigns standard secular textbooks and does not publish on-line refutations of these textbooks is saying, loud and clear, “We agree with the textbooks. We charge parents $30,000 a year so their kids can have a prayer before every class — maybe — and a morally safe environment — maybe.” I call it Darwinism with prayers.

It is fraudulent. It is corrupt. It is widespread.

Parents, save your money. Have your college-bound children stay at home and pay for their own educations by using AP/CLEP/DSST exams at $60 per course, plus on-line distance education at $100 to $125 per semester unit, plus local apprenticeship with a salary are the way for your children to pay for their own college educations. This takes the risk out of the deal for you. With a 50% drop-out rate, there is huge risk.

If you say, “My child is not smart enough or mature enough to learn on his own,” then do not send him off to college. Let him stay home and watch Animal House twice a day until he matures.

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit http://www.garynorth.com. He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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