A Debate Over the Future

Michael Gibson of the Thiel Foundation and Peter Boettke of George Mason debate the future of higher education in the Freeman’s Arena section. Gibson argues that a crack-up of higher education is on its way; Boettke says no.

Readers have the opportunity to vote, and I’ll vote for Gibson’s position, but Boettke has the more interesting argument, in my view.

Boettke says that while online education will bring change, it won’t fundamentally change the process of teaching. After all, ever since universities started, there have been challenges to the traditional student-teacher relationship. The printing press, for example, made education possible on one’s own. Yet classes and exchanges between teachers and students continue. He says:

The first thing I want to stress is that any institution that has persisted as long as the traditional college and university must have some efficiency properties that are perhaps hidden from the view of even the most astute observer.

A good economist’s point. And, alluding to the enormous benefits from many of his teachers, Boettke says:

Students will continue to need the guidance of master teachers to learn that which they are unprepared to learn at the moment they most need to learn it. Once we know it, we often think we could have learned it on our own.

Also true. I love that.

So what’s wrong with his argument? Nothing, but the Socratic relationship that Boettke refers to is not what most students experience in college, or, apparently, even want. Higher education has become at best a process of training, which can be done more easily through hybrid classes, videos, self-pacing, adaptive technologies — you name it. So I vote for Gibson’s “Schumpeterian creative destruction.”

Jane S. Shaw — Jane S. Shaw retired as president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in 2015. Before joining the Pope Center in 2006, Shaw spent 22 years in ...

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