Higher Education Cartel, Meet Creative Destruction

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Modern colleges and universities have collectively become a rent-seeking cartel, an alliance of nominally competitive institutions that maintains a highly profitable monopoly of accreditation.

Correspondent Mark G. succinctly summarizes why higher education is ripe for the creative destruction of its cartel model. His brief account captures the essential dynamics so well that I made it the foreword of my book The Nearly Free University and The Emerging Economy: The Revolution in Higher Education.

Here is Mark’s essay:


Developments in education and information media have always impacted each other. Below is a brief review of the history of each for the past 2,500 years. The aim is to open minds as to how the asymptotic expansion of the information media technology known as the Internet is expanding education beyond its previous boundaries.

Brief History of Educational Media

Archimedes independently derived the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus over 2,300 years ago. This theorem did not become widely known until recently because of the scarcity of media, specifically papyrus and vellum parchments. During the time of the Roman Empire, the Library of Alexandria and the Roman imperial bureaucracy consumed almost the entire annual production of papyrus in Egypt. In fact, the competing library at Pergamum in Anatolia developed the use of vellum parchment specifically because of a lack of papyrus.

The extreme shortage of written media caused learning to become focused on two customs. One was the primacy of the oral lecture, such as Hero’s lectures on mechanisms. The other was the requirement to concentrate students in one small geographic area to hear these lectures.

Due to the concentration of all this academic information in one place with limited access, the libraries tended to become centers of academic study and scientific research. Thus ancient colleges and universities first developed in parallel with the ancient libraries, for obvious reasons.

Development of the Oral Lecture

Many surviving ancient books began as sets of written lecture notes. Many other books, such as the New Testament, began as letters addressed from one person or group to another. An especially well-endowed library might have as many as 500 books, each produces by scribes, by hand, a single copy at a time. Due to the lack of time and papyrus/vellum, it was impossible to provide every student with their own set of textbooks.

Instead, students were assembled in a room to hear a professor read to them from the school’s single book copy. It is notable that one of the most ancient of present-day universities, Cambridge University in England, to this day preserves the memory of this practice with the formal academic rank of “Reader.”

The ancient oral lecture method of delivering information is still in use at most universities, but is now subject to what I call the Johnny Carson Principle, which states “there is and can be only one Johnny Carson.” Within a talented, diverse field of talk-show hosts, only one host occupies the top spot. Applying this principle to the education filed, in any given field there will only be a handful of truly A-list lecturers, but with one clearly at the head of the pack.

In my view, Dr. Walter Lewin of MIT is clearly the Johnny Carson of Physics I & II. His Physics lectures–which are theatrical-grade productions–are readily available on YouTube. Note that unrivalled genius in theoretical research is no guarantee of being an excellent physics lecturer and educator.

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