This week the NYTimes posted an article about the impending demise of the traditional university. According to columnist Thomas L. Friedman, “massive open online courses” (MOOC) are the future,. The article cites how millions of students are now taking coursework once reserved for a handful of privileged elites. Students stifled by autism, remote locations, lack of funds, social awkwardness, or snob-deficit can now jump on the college degree train. The brick-and-mortar campus, speculates Friedman, should be already preparing its fossil record in advance of its extinction.
The now-legendary Kahn Academy looks downright rustic compared to the MOOC movement. Advocates say that the skeptics will eventually join the ranks of past naysayers who were also suspicious of the printing press, commercial flight, or the Roomba. All people deserve an education, one that can lift them from poverty and bring them into the modern world, say all the innovators, so step aside and let the revolutionaries do their magic.
The pushback is obvious. Such a global shift in higher education could mean the collapse of campus life where midnight pizza runs and eye contact are required. It also suggests that a few professors can do the work of hundreds, thereby eliminating an entire sub-culture of working professionals, many of whom have handcrafted their product over decades in small, intimate communities. Yes, it does sound exactly like the discussion over factory production or the “economies of scale” where Walmart pushes out mom and pop.
But the biggest implication might be the re-definition of education entirely. Is providing education the same as providing steel or paper? Does education work best relationally, where physical bodies are sharing mindspace, interpreting body language, laughing over a meal, and living in community? Or is education a sum of knowledge to be retrieved quickly and efficiently in order to reach some credentialed status? Yes, all people deserve an education, but where does it happen best?
The difference, I presume, is what I call the IKEA factor. It’s the collision of two product-styles--one that assures you will get a slick, fiberboard bookcase at low cost, and the other where for two weeks some guy in his barn cuts and sands his family’s cedar trees. If you desperately need some horizontal shelving to increase your quality of life--and IKEA is your only choice--then I say get over there and look in BIN A-18 as quickly as you can. But if you can figure out how to let Bruce deliver your bookcase, why wouldn’t you rather smell the cedar trees every time you pull out your copy of Great Expectations?
But perhaps that’s the point. The people who read Great Expectations are more likely to want a homemade bookcase, and the people who get one at IKEA might be using it for their underwear and loose change. Just having a bookcase doesn’t make you a reader, just like having a computer (or a degree) doesn’t make you educated. There seems to be more going on than simply owning a bookcase.
Education is facing what the contemporary church has been facing for decades now, and we’ve learned an interesting lesson. Unlike Friedman and his optimistic colleagues who equate the words massive, open, online, and courses with progress and revolution, many in the Christian Church (primarily in North America) took that train ride already and decided to get off. For decades, the church was associated with words like mega, welcome stations, stadium-seating, satellites, and worship centers. Yet the new North-American church today seems more interested in a return to the intimate fellowship found in cell groups or home churches than they are in IKEA production values. True, we still have large congregations and even online fellowships, but the promises of the 30,000 member church have often fallen short. It is precisely because we live in a digital age (not in spite of it) that we may need the old-school intimacy of eye contact, awkward silences, or bear hugs in order to understand the gospel and its human implications.
Anyone who has persevered in a Christian home knows that the evidence of spiritual fruit (or lack of it) shows up in small, intimate spaces. Spiritual growth does not show itself best in wide open spaces where plagiarism is easy. It happens under the careful watch of many loving brothers and sisters who pull one another into community. Mass production can fill a void when community is difficult, broken, or unavailable (I think of my own grandmother whose Christian radio in the 1980s brought her enormous comfort when she couldn’t leave the house). But mass-produced religion can also weaken the human intimacy embedded in the Christian faith.
Perhaps there’s a place for factory assembly--whether in education or the gospel--but let’s not vilify its honest critics or pretend it’s the only way. The gospel is big and small: big with its epic scale of grace and redemption, and small with the transformation of a single heart. Jesus Christ and his message accommodated both styles, whether teaching the multitudes or hunkering down with his disciples.
Progress is fabulous, but without discernment, it’s just another trophy and fast money for the revolutionaries. The discernment comes when a culture figures out how to reach the world with every tool available. And sometimes the best progress might even be behind us.