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Republicans Declare War on College

Bobby Jindal doesn't want the GOP to be the "stupid party," but fellow governors are plotting to wreck higher ed

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I spoke on Wednesday with Daphne Koller, one of the founders of Coursera, the Stanford spinoff that is one of the big players in the for-profit MOOC world. She vigorously disputed the notion that the MOOC model was less appropriate for humanities education than for the hard sciences. Koller believes that with the right grading “rubric” students can grade each other’s papers even on issues of critical reasoning and grammar, thus solving seemingly daunting logistics problems. That seems debatable. It’s certainly reasonable to say that we are at the very beginning of learning what will work and what won’t, but it’s also safe to say that most of the professors in the social sciences that I talked to about MOOCs in the last couple of weeks would disagree with her.

And that’s where it gets tricky, and potentially tragic. If neither MOOCs nor state legislatures support the classic model of a humanities education, what happens to the anthropology and history students of the future? The scenario is ugly: University systems faced with declining public funding support are increasingly forced to turn to MOOCs, to the benefit of hard sciences and vocational training. Meanwhile, the humanities sector gets hung out to dry, unable to take advantage of new technology to the fullest extent while forced to make do with less funding.

And that, of course, is exactly what many conservatives want. For many conservatives, the humanities departments of public universities are bastions of the “tenured left” busily brainwashing the young people of America into godless socialist postmodernism. They’d much rather for-profit corporations were in charge of the educational agenda than the current academic elite.

With or without the help of people like Rick Perry and Rick Scott, online education will become a more and more important part of how we educate ourselves, at all levels, all over the world. But this particular disruptive transformation has a conservative wind at its back, and that’s something to watch, and perhaps even resist.

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. Follow him on Twitter: @koxinga21