Derek Thompson from The Atlantic posted some interesting but unsurprising statistics a while back. It seems there is a roughly inverse correlation between hours worked and GDP per capita in European countries. Given a 40-hour workweek, the average German works three and a half MONTHS less than the average Greek each year. The average Greek (Greece being home to mass corruption and economic failure) works over 2,000 hours per year. The vaunted Germany economy does more than get by while Germans average only 1,400 hours a year. French and Norwegians work similar hours to the Germans. Other leading economies like Japan, Canada, the United States, and Luxembourg all work significantly fewer hours on average than Greece, though significantly more than Germany. Industrialized nations do not need lots of people working long hours to generate wealth.
In an illustrative case, academia has been unsettled over the past few months in the debate over MOOCs. MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, are free classes taught by professors from prestigious institutions (Harvard, MIT, Stanford, etc) that anyone with an internet connection can take. The aforementioned institutions have invested heavily in the technology over the last several years and proponents hope that someday MOOCs will offer the same accreditation as their ivy-coated predecessors. While they began as systems for teaching computer programming to the self-motivated, they have rapidly burgeoned; you can find courses in anything from finance to english common law.
Some see this as the arrival of the internet’s long-promised ability to educate rather than entertain but many professors are getting (I think rightly) a bit defensive. They charge that online lectures, computer-graded quizzes, and forum collaboration will never match their pedagogical intangibles.
I think I can see merit in both positions. But putting myself in the place of the MOOC-promotor, the situation is a bit pitiable. I feel like the Bobs in Office Space when they are conducting layoff interviews:
Interviewer: “So what do you do?”
Professor: “I take the information from the texts and give it to the students.”
I: “Oh. Well why couldn’t the students just go to the texts/lectures/forums themselves, since they are on the internet?”
P: “I have finely honed teaching skills!”
I: “So does Dr. UberAwesome from Harvard … in fact, I suspect he’s better.”
P: “… you … you don’t understand! See, the internet is not interactive like I am! I have office hours from 2-3pm on the second Monday and third Thursday of every month by appointment!”
I: “But our forums are monitored 12 hours a day by teaching assistants …”
P: “… but the internet isn’t … good … with …”
Again, that’s how I see the situation from the technologist’s perspective. He comes in looking to maximize value (where value is information) and the arguments of academics look like self-interested blubbering. The professor is a middleman to be cut out.
In one sense, this should be a wake-up call for the ivory tower. That world is going to become much less comfortable unless it makes real steps toward self-regulation against laxity.
Yet I see two reasons to defend academia against its would-be online marauders:
First, despite many professors’ failings in terms of being expensive, inaccessible, and drier than a Triscuit in the Sahara, they can do something that MOOCs cannot. I discovered this while signing up for the MOOC on finance. Reading through the syllabus I came to some dos-and-don’ts. Most prominent on the list was the reminder that one should never contact his or her virtual professor. The shocker was that he went on to say that he loved us all very much though he would not be able to speak with any one of the tens of thousands of us. My online finance professor loves me and thirty thousand other people? Huge, free, online courses may do many things; they may do many things better than traditional classrooms. They cannot, however, produce the same kind of other-interested acts that love in the Augustinian sense. A virtual professor will not grade the laborious and awkward essays that build critical thinking skills in her students; her multiple choice grading system will handle all assignments. He will never sit down with a student in his office to sift through the student’s competing desires and anxieties; we have a self-help industry for a reason, right? No professor ever again will be subjected to students coming to class in their pajamas. The professors who become MOOCers have a strong financial incentive and perhaps an abstract well-wishing for humanity at large. But what are abstractions worth if we lose our concrete foundations?
Further, professors’ apparent selfishness in the face of massive vocational displacement should be lauded rather than derided. I wish more vocations put up such a stiff defense. They are fighting less for their already-tenured selves and more for a certain type of economy that values the broader ordering of the home than the reductive dollar.
Technological innovation has done a lot for western society. The mechanization of labor allows us to produce more with less humans. Those humans still involved only have to oversee and troubleshoot their systems. It should not be surprising that the vast majority of open jobs are for administrators and information technology workers. A fourteen-year-old with a working knowledge of C++ and Java is more qualified for a half-decent job than a PhD in almost any other subject. This massive generation of capital does present a problem: very few of us are needed. Like farmers, craftspeople, and artists before them, professors are learning that technology can make them redundant. So what are we to do with our excess labor? A few things:
- We can pretend nothing ever happened. In this scenario we hire just as many people as before and work them just as many hours as before. The difficulty is that because they are not needed, they spend a great deal of their lives idling — pretending to work.
- We can acknowledge that most of us are not needed anymore or do not have the requisite skills for this new economy. We will marginalize (fire) those folks and wedge a gap between the those who are needed and those who are not. (We often opt for options 1 or 2 in the US.)
- We can follow Germany’s lead. As industry centralizes around the few who control the most, we will integrate education through the state to prepare young people for the “right” sort of careers and then legislate softer work requirements so that the capitalists are forced to share their wealth and leisure. We employ everyone in our wealth machines and pay them the same amount as before but require them to work less. In other words we redistribute leisure.
- We can reaffirm the value of creative vocation to individuals, homes, and societies. By understanding economy non-reductively we can use our wealth to support vocations which have value to human beings: understanding the nature of things, taking care of our places, serving people, and building beautiful things.
Options 3 and 4 both acknowledge that work and leisure (understood as the pursuit of higher-order endeavors rather than laziness) are both priorities. While Germany’s centralized approach is in keeping with a mechanized society, the fourth option returns creative control of people’s lives to themselves. This society, one where a person can be a full-time professor, not because she is subsidized but because people value her scholarship, is the kind of place I want to live. But we are not that society. So what shall we do when the village doesn’t need us anymore?