Quality isn’t quantity

One of the great myths about mechanization and globalization is that it will replace low end unskilled jobs fit only for machines with higher end, high skill work. That we will all be free to be autonomous, creative individuals while the machines do all the grunt work.

The truth has always been more complex, if not the very opposite of official propaganda. Let’s go back to an earlier era of globalization, what we now call colonization. The British didn’t chop off the thumbs of muslin weavers in Dhaka because they were less skilled, but because they were abler. The weavers were a threat because they made a much better product at a competitive price. Why do we think it will be any better this time around?

In my own corner of the woods, i.e., higher education, there’s been a lot of hype about MOOC’s, massive online courses that will bring high quality education to the masses. I am quite susceptible to the charm of the MOOC myself. There’s a part of me that believes that higher education in India and elsewhere needs radical change. However, I also see the same muslin weaver logic at work here; cut off the thumbs of the competition, who in this case are the vast majority of faculty that work outside Ivy League academia, and then corner a highly profitable industry to yourself. College faculty are the craftsmen and craftswomen of higher education, for whom learning is both art and science. MOOC’s will inevitably bring downward pressure on those jobs and many institutions will close their doors. Are we ready to let these jobs go, just as we have outsourced manufacturing to China and Tech support to India?

Once these semi-tribal education fraternities end, we will be left with a less human world, even if it is of higher quality on several measures. A question that’s not asked in the relentless march toward progress is this: who are we doing it for, and what value do we gain by doing so? Can we trust MIT and Harvard to uphold those values?

You can guess my answer to these questions, but we will not know for sure until the dust settles. I just read a wonderful and tragic piece in the New York Times about the maddening but ultimately redeeming value of the Italian artisan-industrial complex. We have much to learn from it, as we reflect upon the future of education.

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