Sigh. I know I am going to regret this, but I feel a standing obligation to fill this space with words even when I am reduced to writing about things of which I am totally ignorant, so here goes. What follows is my attempt to explain, in the absence of all direct experience, why I am deeply suspicious of MOOCs as a form of education. What is an extended reverie plucked from an empty mind? Call it Philosophy.
I begin, somewhat unexpectedly, with a discussion of two educational experiences, radically different from one another, neither of which would appear to be able to tell us anything about MOOCs: Basic Training in the United States Army and the first semester anatomy course at medical school. In June, 1957, I was awarded the doctorate in Philosophy by Harvard University. A week later, I boarded a bus in Central Square with a group of other young men for the long ride to Fort Dix, New Jersey, where we would undergo eight weeks of Basic Training as part of our six month regular duty obligation to the Massachusetts National Guard. I was twenty-three, a bit older than the other men on the bus. After completing Basic, I was assigned to a company of recruits at Fort Devens, MA to be trained in "communications," which in those days meant learning how to climb a tree or a telephone pole with metal gaffs strapped to my ankles, among other things. While at Devens, I cadged rides into Cambridge to visit young ladies I knew at Radcliffe. On one such trip, I met and fell hard for a pretty young woman, later my first wife, who was writing her senior honors thesis on Thomas Hardy's dreary novel, Jude the Obscure, before beginning her medical studies at Harvard Medical School. The next Fall, I listened to her detailed accounts of that first semester, the central focus of which was the dissection, with five other students, of their very own cadaver.
So I know whereof I speak.
Basic Training, as the name suggests, is ostensibly a crash course in a variety of skills and bits of knowledge that all recruits need to master in order to be satisfactory soldiers. During those eight weeks, we learned how to make our beds with hospital corners and the blanket pulled so tight that a quarter would bounce on it. We learned how to salute and how to march with our fingers curled just so. We spent a great deal of time in close order drill, doing left wheels and about turns and double times, all in step with one another. We learned how to field strip an M1 rifle in ten seconds, how to clean its muzzle and polish its stock. We learned how to load the M1 without losing our thumbs in the process. And yes, we even got the chance to fire a few rounds with the rifle at targets set up several hundred yards away.
Now, most of these skills have little or nothing to do with warfare, at least as it is conducted nowadays. To be sure, marching in a line was the preferred style of attack during the American Revolution, and still played an important role in the First World War. But we were doing Basic after the Korean War, and no one by then was mad enough to order troops into battle in close order drill. As for hospital corners, and GI-ing the barracks until they gleamed, and arranging our footlockers with each piece of GI issue equipment displayed in precisely the mandated order, what on earth did that have to do with being a soldier?
Well, the sergeants knew what they were doing, all right, even though they did not tell us the real meaning of the bits and pieces of the training day. Their job was to take a group of individualistic young men, none of whom knew one another, and in eight weeks turn them into soldiers, which is to say, into a group that thought of itself, and acted as, a unit. These young men had to begin to take pride in themselves as members of a group, to take responsibility for the behavior of their fellow soldiers, to think "we," not "I." And to accomplish this, it was certainly not enough to tell the young men to act that way, not even to assure them that their chances of surviving combat would be greatly improved if they acted that way, all of which, to be sure, was quite true. The sergeants [and the lieutenants, although they play a much smaller role in basic] had to create a context -- what the great sociologist Erving Goffman called a total institution -- whose effect on its inmates was to transform their self-understanding so that, at the end of eight weeks, they were soldiers.
And by God, it worked. Even though I was by that time sufficiently self-aware and sophisticated to understand what was going on, I found myself beginning to feel pride at the precision of my marching, at the snappiness of my salute, at the bounce of the quarter on my bed. Don't misunderstand me -- all of us griped like mad about what we were made to do and spent a good deal of time fantasizing about killing our platoon sergeant. The regular soldiers in charge of our training knew that and quietly approved. They understood that a group of soldiers who do not gripe lack "unit cohesion" and cannot be relied on in battle. But for all the griping, I was starting to think like a soldier, exactly as those who planned Basic Training intended.
First year medical students are thrust into an intense and pressured experience on the very first day of their medical education. In the required Gross Anatomy course, they are expected to pull all-nighters, cramming endless lists of muscles and nerves and insertion points and the like. And, at least at Harvard Medical School in 1958 [I do not know whether this is still true], each first semester student was assigned to a group of six who were given their very own [dead] human body to dissect, as part of a hands-on introduction to human anatomy.
There is, of course, a great to learn about the human body, and slowly cutting one up is actually a pretty good way of doing it. But there are other ways of acquiring that knowledge that do not involve picking up a scalpel and slitting some dead chap's throat. What is more, since the days of grave robbers are happily behind us, it is rather expensive to keep providing bodies [once dissected, right down to the individual nerves, muscles, and bones, they cannot easily be reassembled.] So why do it?
The simple answer is this: All of us have certain quite natural sentiments about the human body, sentiments that, in those of us who are normal anyway, will interfere with the cold-hearted business of cutting someone apart. Now, doctors must learn to overcome these normal human sentiments. They must, if you wish to make it sound fancy, learn to objectify the body, so that they can treat the sick bodies of living persons without recoiling or hesitating or gagging at the therapeutic maneuvers sometimes required. In short, they must learn to think like doctors. Plunging a first semester medical student into the dissection lab, long experience shows, is a good way to accomplish this mind-wrenching transformation.
Gross Anatomy is, of course, not the only trick in the Med School's bag. Medical students very early on are required to spend time at a teaching hospital where they trail along behind a Resident or Attending making rounds, watching while the real doctor examines the patients. On these visits, they wear stethoscopes about their necks, and are routinely called "doctor" by the nurses and orderlies, all of whom, needless to say, know much more about practical medicine than they do.
The point of all of these experiences is not to communicate knowledge but to bring about a transformation of the self-understanding of the doctors-to-be. In much the same way, Professors of Law will say that the most important part of legal training is the first year, when the new students "learn to think like lawyers."
Which brings me, at long last, to MOOCs. Gathering a group of young people together and having them sit quietly while a Professor talks at them for an hour at a time is not an especially efficient way of communicating information or transmitting skills. It may well have been the best way available in Athens when Plato formed the Academy, or in the twelfth century when universities in Europe got their start, especially since books at that time were pretty scarce and ferociously expensive. But things have changed a bit in the intervening two thousand four hundred years, and it is surely reasonable to suppose that there might have been some improvements made along the way. So if the central purpose of higher education is to communicate information and transmit skills, why not give MOOCs and all manner of other technological innovations a try? If the test scores of students educated by MOOCs match those of students educated the old-fashioned way, and if the MOOCs are way cheaper, nothing is lost by switching to the new pedagogical technique, right?
Wrong. In fact, I think, everything is liable to be lost, at least everything that counts as education in my book. How so?
As is my wont, I shall start with a story. For as long as I have been associated with the University of Massachusetts, it has been afflicted with periodic budgetary crises. In Massachusetts, unlike many states throughout America, the State University is not a thing of pride to the residents, nor is it the alma mater of more than a handful of State legislators. The very richness of the private higher educational sector in Massachusetts consigns the State University to the status of a poor relation. One year when I was still in the Philosophy Department, there was a shortfall in state revenues and a massive cut to the University budget was threatened. The Amherst campus mobilized to fight the cuts, and someone, recalling the good old days of the View Nam era teach-ins, proposed that the following Wednesday, all of us with Monday-Wednesday-Friday teaching schedules hold teach-ins on the budget problems in our classes. I was teaching an undergraduate course that semester on Three Short Philosophical Classics [Plato's Gorgias, Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, and Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments,] and decided to participate in the effort. This was not a matter of controversy, I thought. Everyone on campus, Left, Right, and Center [or, to be more accurate, Far Left, Left, and Center-Left -- it was a very progressive campus in those days] agreed that the university should not have its budget cut.
On the Friday before the appointed Wednesday, I assigned a long-planned short paper, due Monday. I announced that I would grade and hand back the papers on Wednesday, after which we would conduct a teach-in on the need for more money for the university. I graded the papers Monday evening and Tuesday, and found one from a very good student who had, however, said little or nothing in class discussions. He had not written on the assigned topic, but instead had penned an impassioned explanation of his opposition to the planned teach-in. He was, he said, a Libertarian free-market advocate who did not believe in using tax monies to underwrite higher education. He was not comfortable participating in a discussion that started from the premise that public funding for Higher Ed was a good thing.
I was stunned. Thoughtlessly, it had never occurred to me that there might be someone in the class who rejected the very premise on which the class discussion that day would be conducted. On Wednesday, I met the class, handed back the papers, and then said that one student [whom I did not name, of course] had objected to the basis for the planned teach-in. I said that after reading his paper arguing the point, I had come to the conclusion that he was right to object, and I therefore had decided not to conduct the teach-in. So I dismissed the class and said I would see them on Friday.
As I started to walk out of the room, I noticed the student, who was sitting in the front row. There was in his eyes a look of such gratitude that I almost wept. His face said, as clearly as though he had put the thought into words, that he was deeply grateful that I had listened to him, heard him, taken his argument seriously, and was actually prepared to change my plans as a consequence.
I have thought, ever since, that that was my finest moment as a teacher in the fifty years I spent in the classroom.
I could not have done that in a MOOC.
It is not the purpose of a Philosophy class to transmit information or inculcate skills, however useful that may be. It is to introduce students to the life of the mind, with all the characterological as well as intellectual changes that requires. It is to welcome the young man or woman into a moral sphere in which argument, honesty, and a passion for ideas reign. This is accomplished -- it can only be accomplished -- through the establishment and nurturing of a relationship between the teacher and the student. There are no rules for how that relationship is to be created or sustained. When I studied the First Critique with Clarence Irving Lewis, I was nineteen and he was seventy . He wore a vest and a pince-nez, and I would no more have thought of calling him Clarence than I would think of called the Pope Frank. In his outmoded, formal, Late Victorian way, he communicated the passionate conviction that Philosophy was so important it would be immoral to do it carelessly or thoughtlessly. He would have been mortified had anyone suggested to him that that was what he was teaching us.
There is, as Paul Goodman argued many decades ago, a strong erotic component to all great education. The good teacher loves his or her students, in the way a parent loves his or her children [and also, needless to say, in the way a lover loves the beloved.]
You cannot communicate that in a MOOC.