strike debt

Posted on February 5, 2014 by Ruth O’Brien

As higher education becomes the next healthcare, administrators and faculty alike scramble to explain why live-body teaching counts, and that tenure is important for teachers from K-12 or universities.  That said, this does not mean anyone in academia should ignore the student-loan debt crisis that everyone should face.

The debate over Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) versus brick-and-mortar teaching is a false one.  To my mind, the real battle is between live bodies and teachable (not smart) robots and machines who offer faculty templates for template-teaching.  Software is only as smart as those who write the programs.  Or at least until programming is written by machines, my brother-in-law assures me.

Robots and machines make rather poor mentors.  Not only do inanimate machines lack emotion or the passion required for teaching, faking it doesn’t work.  Even if programmers make computer voices more appealing (e.g. Scarlett’s voice in Her), they can’t inspire scholarship, or give students the ability to learn critically.

Our robots, computers, and template teachers may provide us with a lot of choices or information about education, but as happens commonly in the Internet era, it turns out that we are all burdened by too much, not too little, knowledge and information.  Indeed, there is a new job-consulting category since I last looked that upper-middle-class parents have begun using (college consultants, who help parent and students with the application process).  We all need our gatekeepers as we weed through the real and the misleading data on college and university websites.

Another alarming piece of news is that not only are undergrads coming out with five-figure debt, but the Chronicle reported in January that some graduate students have racked up six-figure debt — $190,000 and $250,000, as graduate students combine student loans with credit-card debt.

How did this happen? I dunno.  Many universities like mine have been offering five-year packages to help defray costs.  But clearly this is not enough.  And what I do know is that it’s time we all paid attention to this debt crisis.  And that rather than throwing the baby out with the bath water (getting rid of Ph.D. education in humanities or humanistic social sciences, which is fundamental for democracy as Martha Nussbaum so aptly shows), these fields should start tackling the problem.  While this is a heavy lift, surely prospective students and parents along with graduate students, and faculty could help administrators out, and work as a critical collective.  After all, both student and faculty governance operates, or should operate, on the basis of consensus, not conflict and sabotage.