The Shifting Concept of "Dystopian"

Some professors are arguing about online education.  I will not comment on that particular topic right now, though it sounds a bit like two apatosauruses arguing about whether they should be worried about the comet they just saw.

I did, however, want to comment on this, from an SJSU professor to a Harvard professor, I assume pushing back on online course work designed by Harvard.  Emphasis added.

what kind of message are we sending our students if we tell them that they should best learn what justice is by listening to the reflections of the largely white student population from a privileged institution like Harvard? Our very diverse students gain far more when their own experience is central to the course and when they are learning from our own very diverse faculty, who bring their varied perspectives to the content of courses that bear on social justice…

having our students read a variety of texts, perhaps including your own, is far superior to having them listen to your lectures. This is especially important for a digital generation that reads far too little. If we can do something as educators we would like to increase literacy, not decrease it…the thought of the exact same social justice course being taught in various philosophy departments across the country is downright scary — something out of a dystopian novel…

I would have said that teaching social justice at all and requiring students to take it at many universities was something out of a dystopian novel.  In fact, the whole concept of social justice, wherein it is justified that certain groups can use the coercive force of government to get whatever they may fancy merely by declaring that there is a right to it (e.g. health care), actually underlies a number of dystopian novels.

Postscript #1:  If find it hilarious that the SJSU rejects Harvard-created course materials because they are the product of white privilege.  I cannot speak to Harvard undergrad, but my son is at Amherst which could certainly be lumped into the same category (any college named after an early proponent of biological warfare against Native Americans has to be up there in the white privilege category).  My son actually gave up his earlier plan to study history when he looked at the course catalog.  It was impossible to simply study, say, the political and economic history of Western Europe.  All the courses are such things as "the role of women in the development of Paraguayan aboriginal rights."

Postscript #2:  I don't have the larger context for this letter but it strikes me the professor is stuck in the typical leftist technocratic top-down and centralized single mandated approach to anything.  Why is it that online courses would end up with no viewpoint or content competition?  The Internet has increased the access of most people to a diversity of ideas that go beyond what they got in the morning fish-wrap and from Uncle Walter on TV.  Why would it have the opposite effect in education?  Or perhaps that is what the professor is worried about, a loss of control of the education message by the current academic elite, to be feared in the same way the Left hates Fox News.


  1. Elam Bend:

    What did your son decide to study?

  2. marque2:

    SJSU is in the news a lot this week. The dean of the Meteorology department posted a picture of burning a book from the Heartland Institute on the department web page (since removed). They have some interesting links to pro global warming sites as well. It is sad they are indoctrination their students this way.

    An asside: Why exactly does NOAA say 350ppm is the ideal level of CO2 anyway? Saw a cute little graphic how we are going to blow through 400 any day now. And how atmospheric CO2 has gone up 1% in just 3 days!

  3. a_random_guy:

    It is easy to sit back and watch a video lecture like a television show. Some of the lecturers are very entertaining, and this can be a lot of fun. Notably: all of the examples I have been shown have been overviews or introductions; none of them discussed topics in any sort of depth, none tried to develop actual skills in the students.

    To get beyond a shallow overview in a topic, be it math or history, the student must invest real effort - must *use* the material and get feedback. At present, interactive programs cannot provide useful feedback beyond the very basics. Consider, for example, online essay-grading programs: as long as your language is grammatically correct, you can feed them total nonsense. Useful feedback must come from a person, i.e., the instructor or perhaps a teaching assistant.

    Online courses are nothing new - they have been around in one form or another for decades. Every few years, a new buzzword is invented and we are told that the world is about to change. At the moment, the new buzzword is the MOOC. However, students have not changed: they still need interaction and support, and online systems still cannot provide this. At best, the Internet offers the possibility of an online interaction. In this sense, a few schools may successfully manage tele-teaching, just like a few companies have successfully introduced tele-commuting.

    If a comet is coming, it's still a long ways off. The Apatosauruses still have millions of years...

  4. marque2:

    When I went to grad school, some of my courses were videotaped. I have to say the video tapes saved my life in two of the classes I took. When I didn't understand the lecture, and didn't understand the prof, I could go to the tape and watch it and rewind it over and over until I could get what he was saying.

    I ended up not going to class and just using the video taped lectures in those two classes, because it was that much better. We already had email. So if I had a question I could always email the prof.

    These weren't trivial classes I was taking. Usually for online and telecourses there is a prof or at least a grad student assigned to the course, and if you have questions, or want more detail you can always email them.

  5. dc:

    I was insulted at having to take "core" classes like English when I got to college - I just sat through this crap in high school, now I have to have some rabid feminist push her views on me as part of "core curriculum?" Classes like that were what prevented me from getting a degree in physics.

    Half of college is utterly redundant. That's what kids go to high school for.

    And they're going to be sitting there wondering why they've priced themselves out of the market!

  6. Incunabulum:

    ". . .varied perspectives to the content of courses that bear on social justiceā€¦"
    See, that's his first problem - the course he's deriding is on *justice* and he's confused it with *social "justice"*.

  7. MingoV:

    Higher education has been a mess for decades (in part because K-12 education has been a mess for two generations). Most universities and professors dread the emergence of internet-based education. They should dread it, because in a generation they'll be ruins and has-beens. Well-designed online courses will be superior to most college courses. Online courses cannot replace laboratories. My guess is that local facilities (such as community college buildings) will stay alive by housing laboratories.

  8. MingoV:

    I taught a statistics course at Old Dominion University eleven years ago. Students were in four locations, so there was a live feed to three off-campus sites. All lectures were videotaped, and the tapes were available to those any student. The text and graphics of the presentations were in PowerPoint, and those files were available online. Statistics examples were in Excel, and all those were online, too.

    That was quite an impressive setup for 2002.

  9. wintercow20:

    Viz the bolded part of your quote ... I wonder how these same faculty would respond to standardization in public K12 schooling and the indoctrination of young teachers in the Ed schools that are prerequisites for teaching there.

  10. marque2:

    Actually I agree with you. Many 4 year college degrees are handled in Europe in 2 year tech schools. At 19 you are done and ready to do basic engineering, and software development.

    No reason why so many of these careers need 4 years of college.

  11. Rich R:

    Those of you commenting that we should do away with core classes like English because they were already covered in High School have clearly never taught a lower level college course. I teach college credit business courses on board my ship (I am an active duty Naval Officer) through our NCPACE program and I can tell you that our High Schools are not teaching our kids how to write college level papers...many of them can barely compose an e-mail that would be acceptable in most companies.

  12. JKB:

    It's amusing how everyone thinks that the best online delivery method will be just setting up a camera to film the play, I mean lecture. That real innovators won't develop new ways to tell the story in a more entertaining and effective manner. Some, perhaps unknown rather than famous, professor will experiment and find ways to use the medium to more effectively.

    For one, the lecture has long been known to be damaging students. It is, however, the easiest for controlling a group of kids. Most by 3rd grade have developed "school helplessness" in school subjects. Oddly, while still exhibiting the innate critical thinking and self learning skills in other areas. Of course, in the US and other developed nations, the students who reach college are both well indoctrinated in passive learning as well as the ones who excel at lecture learning, others falling out along the way. The logical conclusion is also that those in the professorate are also the least likely to find the new way being their progress through academia selected for aptitude for the old way.

    As MOOCs and other online learning increases, look for the real innovation in usage to come from the 3rd world. Africa maybe, there seems to be a lot of hungry minds there. And thankfully little entrenched academia to choose the "right way" to learn. Look for student group learning with the teacher being mostly a coach. There have already been experiments in India and Africa where computers with no instruction were just dropped off, only to return to find the kids, learned how to use them, learned English, and found the knowledge on the Internet usually working as an unstructured group. Just curiosity bouncing off each other. No reason that can't continue up the line.

  13. dc:

    so the solution to that is solve it later on, in a far more expensive fashion? if people need remedial help in a subject then they can obtain it. there is absolutely NO reason this should be forced upon everyone.

  14. Ted Rado:

    I predict that if computer classes become popular, cheating will become rampant. Everyone will hire someone to do their work and get a degree with no competence whatsoever in the field. Instead of an army of graduates with economically useless degrees, we will have an army of incompetents with economically useless degrees.

  15. Rich R:

    The real solution is to improve the quality of teaching at the middle school and high school levels...I don't see that happening anytime soon. Most colleges do offer remedial help but it pretty much just gets the students up to a mediocre high school level.

    If we did what you suggest (which I agree has lots of merits) I would then be forced to integrate basic writing skills with my business classes. I already to that to an extent but it adds many hours to my paper grading as I provide feedback and suggestions on style and grammar vice the business concepts I am trying to teach.

  16. Rich R:

    Ted - I disagree. I completed my bachelor's degree and did my entire MBA online. I can't speak for other schools but the one I attended had very few exams, I wrote a ton of papers...pages and pages. Each paper was automatically scored for originality and a score above a certain level ( I think it was 20% or so) resulted in a rejection.

    Sure you could hire someone to write an original paper for you but that doesn't seem very cost effective and eventually would be confounded by that same originality score...a few people writing papers on the same subject for a very large number of students can only be so original...

  17. dc:

    home schooling FTW - people are amazed at how a kid can be ready for "college" at age 16 - all that one needs to produce that result is patience and sticking to it. the very concept of gong fu. (energy-time)

  18. Ted Rado:

    Rich- Engineering exams are all math. No essays. Easy for someone else to do.