When the Village Doesn’t Need You Anymore

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.
  4. 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?


  1. How scary and true. I really enjoyed your finer points concerning both sides. Well presented argument and well thought out with many ideas to move us all forward. Sadly, a lot of people do not see this coming at them and soon to blindside them. I say choose number three or four as well. The education system needs reformed. The people have to wake up to a new day, a new batch of ideas and the realization that the industrial age has paved to the knowledge age. Great post!

  2. I love how idealistic this is, how simple things can be spelled out but then somehow get so lost in translation when society tries to implement plans like what you’ve spelled out, if implementation happens at all..

    • I actually agree with you. I tend to think that society/culture is a local/organic phenomenon. It is pretentious to think that we can wrangle the world into our vision of what it should be. I don’t have a real solution to the problems presented. However, that does not mean we should stop thinking about the impacts of our individual and corporate actions and attempting to adjust where we can.

      Perhaps I’m reading too much into your comment. I just want to acknowledge the difficulty of finding a balance between withdrawing from a society we are powerless to affect and improperly and hopelessly co-opting that power for our own plans. I don’t want to do either; I do want to act, personally, in a way that contributes to a well-considered society. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • If I came off as snarky, that was not my intent. I truly like what you say, and that you offer possible answers is significant enough, especially in terms of fulfilling your desire to shape the world — even in a small way.

  3. I suspect anyone fortunate enough to have attended and enjoyed a decent post-secondary education can — as I can — still name some (many?) of their professors. I graduated in 1979 and still vividly recall many of my profs, of English, philosophy and political science. They were real people, smart and tough and demanding and sometimes quite eccentric. Learning by machine, impersonally. No thanks.

    • English, philosophy, political science … I love the combo! Thanks for reading!

      • I attended university in Canada, so our major was 3/4 of our classes — all I studied was English..plus French and Spanish. I wish I’d had more variety but wanted to graduate tri-lingual.

  4. Anne Bonney said:

    I applaud the MOOCs because they are evidence of the evolution going on in teaching/learning. I think, however, that this bloom in on-line courses will peak, there will be adjustments, and education will forward a little bit changed. Some elements of the MOOC phenomenon will be retained, others that do not work as well, will fall away. It has happened before.

  5. It’s a tough question. While being educated online will make one more knowledgeable, being educated in a traditional sense teaches one how to deal with people and how to do things they don’t want to do when they need to be done. It’s really a debate of learning toughness versus technology. When I was 18, I used to have to put in 12 hours a day 6 days a week to run a business. Now, I can get the same amount of work done, mostly remotely for 20-30 hours a week. Do I really need to be super disciplined to do that or is it better for me to be more tech savvy?

  6. Well done on the detailed post, many insightful points made. I am a former senior lecturer who gave up my tenure in a UK university because of the direction things are taking in higher education. It seems the situation in the US isn’t much better regardless of the different financial models of university education funding. I think unless university education is somehow subsidised by public money (can you think of a better place to spend it, borrowed or not?) it will be mortally wounded by its commercial aspect. Some Ivy league places will mutate and thrive but most will become worthless-degree sellers, some already are. I had a similar experience to that of broadsideblog above for my own education and wouldn’t change it for anything. Congratulations again.

  7. Not only did I spend the appointed time in the dorms and classrooms of a major university, I have two retired professors for parents, so I get this. But I went to college with my eyes wide open. I understood beforehand that the majority of my takeaway wisdom was going to be how to live, how to learn, and how to interact with other people. (I also became an educated nerd in the bargain who continues to devour knowledge with all the restraint of a rugby player at a pizza party but that was just a perk.) In the end, trying to learn what I learned online would be like eating a four course meal over the phone. Can’t be done.

    Your points are good ones and they having staying power but I’m afraid this is one of those Gordian Knots that only time and experience can unravel. The unpleasantness you prophesy will come but only when it finally tangibly manifests will there be a backlash movement that either revives universities or gives birth to a new paradigm. Online courses aren’t going away but the university experience doesn’t have to, either.

    The whole thing reminds me of a scary intersection out in wine country. Two roads met at spooky, blind angles and for decades people muttered to one another, “Some day someone’s gonna get killed.” Then, BANG! A bicyclist got smeared across the pavement. And then they erected four way stop signs.

    Humans are illogical, frustrating beasts, even academics. My folks would probably say especially academics. There’s a lot of sitting around, muttering at one another in committees, meetings, and panels until BANG! Something finally happens. And then they hold hearings to assign blame for any damages we all incurred from them sitting around for so long. I say take your diploma and run like the wind.

  8. I teach online for a nearby university. Online classes are limited to 20 students each, and course requirements include research papers and other written work submitted online. Students are encouraged to text or email professors as needed. When contacted by a student, I try to respond quickly. It works well, but it certainly would not work in a class with hundreds or thousands of students.

  9. themodernidiot said:

    Pack up, migrate, and build a new village. This article was such a salve for my wounded outlook on university education. Thank you.

  10. When the village doesn’t need us anymore, I think the best thing is to move on and find the right village! May take time, but you should do what is best for you.

  11. I am going to take up the opportunities offered by this system…but I can benefit from it as someone lucky enough to have grown up in the U.K. post war settlement, where those who returned intended that the opportunity to advance, to learn, should be there for all.
    We were taught how to think, encouraged to think…were rewarded for thinking…
    The poor buggers going through education now are force fed crap, to enable them to apply for the few jobs available.

  12. Focusing on what works best for the students, I’ve read that hybrid courses–for example, one hour of class time and two hours, or the equivalent, of on-line work–works better more consistently than completely on-line classes. This makes sense–the students experience both the concentration of working on the computer along with the interaction, the socialization, even the drama, of a good classroom. In part this is also the trend toward the “flipped” classroom; students learn the basic material on-line (instead of from, say, a lecture) and then come to class to discuss and stretch what they have learned.

  13. I just came across this, as I saw something about a village. Being Greek, yes the Greeks work very hard to earn only a small amount to live on. It actually really sucks, and I was one of those people when I was a chef in Greece.

  14. A few key points to raise here…..and apologies if others have raised these already.
    1) the concept that work hours relate to productivity is a tayloresque myth which has, in my opinion, damaged industry for far too long. These days in particular, where automation as you rightly describe is doing away with process driven work, the need for a creative, highly intuitive and lateral thinking employee population is getting bigger and bigger…it seems perverse to me that we are still stuck with the same measurement systems. Your stats clearly indicate the nonsense behind these figures.
    2) I hate to get all ‘Ken Robinson’ on you (!), but batch based education does not at all correspond to humans learning style. Ironically, technology may actually help generate a more individually based experience by removing the messy supply chain aspect of transporting students and professors to the same location, but it cannot be an excuse for mass market, rote learning!

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