When the possible death of humanities is a progressive development

MOOCs (massive open online courses) and more freely available lectures and university content are transforming the education landscape, and alliances between academia and corporations are ever-increasing. But this revolution in education might pose a lethal threat for hardly commodifiable disciplines such as those of the humanities. 

Hundreds of thousands accessing knowledge for its own sake is even more cause for rejoicing than if they were receiving diplomas, a commodity in exchange for their learning. In a way, TEDx, Coursera and others like them are taking part in the democratisation of education by removing it from the shackles of consumerism and the market, a place where truly emancipatory education has no future. However, such developments must be advanced with caution, as their consequences on the production of knowledge could be detrimental, in particular within the fields of humanities and social sciences.

Recently, in the Guardian, Carole Cadwalladr argued that free online access to tertiary courses and lectures would revolutionise education. Cadwalladr imagined a United Kingdom where ‘the "second-tier" universities … could struggle in the brave new free education market world’. What Cadwalladr seemed to ignore is that these universities are already struggling, not because of the ‘free education market’, but because of the hegemony of free market strategies in education. This is particularly striking in the humanities, an area of study to which Cadwalladr only dedicated one paragraph, but one that has been the greatest loser in this recent transformation of the education landscape.

A world where online learning is generalised and ends up replacing other education delivery modes could cause the loss of much of universities’ original purposes. Most of the examples cited by Cadwalladr are from what is often termed the ‘hard sciences’. With disciplines like mathematics or physics, it is true that an online component could quite easily replace content delivery and assessment undertaken on campus. Questionnaires with precise questions and answers can easily be marked automatically online and it would therefore be possible for tens of thousands to ‘sit’ such exams without necessitating hundreds of invigilators and markers.

However, even in these disciplines, a problem would arise in what seems to be central to learning in higher education: the development of critical abilities and the possibility for students to express their own original analytical skills. Assessment marked automatically, where only one answer is correct, does not leave space for human imagination and, therefore, progress. This is obviously even more striking in the humanities where critical skills are (or should be) central to assessment, and a guiding principle to any good essay writing and, beyond all, fruitful studies.  

The development of online courses in lieu of university-based subjects also poses a more practical problem for the humanities. More than other university areas, the humanities depend on public funds for teaching students. If students can access online modules for free from Ivy League universities, they may not want to spend tens of thousands on a degree at a traditional university. Meanwhile, many hard sciences can find industry partners for research funding, whilst the humanities largely depend on government grants.

While global Ivy League universities with industry partners can survive the current decline in government funding, others will most likely be doomed if the positive advancement of free universal education is not balanced by increased public investment in universities. In a system where ‘impact’ is increasingly driving research, this would be the death knell for many departments who would struggle to make a case for the short-term practical relevance of their research in a free-market economy. This is probably where we hit the crux of the matter, and the main danger of advocating the surrender of education to the online realm without prior guarantee that universities will be able to remain (or return to being?) a space for fundamental thinking about all of humankind’s knowledge, whether this is profitable or not.

As co-founders of the Melbourne Free University, we firmly believe that education should be and indeed is within everybody’s reach. Beyond the emancipatory power of free education, financial pressures will obviously make students think twice about undertaking expensive courses, if they can do the ‘same’ online; just as many tend to think twice before undertaking studies in humanities in the first place when job prospects appear all too limited. However, while a strong supporter of free online education, we are extremely wary of the consequences this potentially emancipatory project could have on knowledge as a whole, if it is harnessed by market forces and enters into competition with other forms of academic knowledge.

If more corporations decide to support the extension of free online projects to the point where their degrees become equivalent to that of traditional universities, one consequence could be the further withdrawal of state funding from education and the complete abandonment of education to laissez-faire politics. This would allow governments to circumvent their responsibility to fund tertiary education and research altogether. Once research is required to be profitable to the private sector, as outlined in Ernst and Young’s manifesto ‘University of the Future’, it is hard to imagine a prosperous future for the humanities and social sciences, and beyond that, for critical research whose results are not immediately applicable to the economy.

In fact, one could imagine a return to a pre-revolutionary world where such a form of knowledge and study would only be practised by a very small elite, rich enough to delve into ‘unprofitable’ questions in their spare time. More than a threat to the humanities, this would be a threat to democracy, as discussions central to our future in terms of philosophy, ethics and the human condition in general would be left to a small clique ‘of leaders and entrepreneurs of the future’ whose interests are bound to be narrower than those of humanity as a whole.

About the authors

Gerhard Hoffstaedter is a lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Queensland. He is co-founder of the Melbourne Free University.

Aurelien Mondon is a Lecturer in French Studies at the University of Bath, and co-founder of the Open Café in Bath. His first book, Mainstreaming the Extreme Right in France and Australia: A Populist Hegemony? was published in February 2013 by Ashgate.

He tweets @aurelmondon