Educational Technology & Society 1(1) 1998
ISSN 1436-4522

Remember the Future, Imagine the Past*

Tom P. Abeles
Resident Futurist
Sagacity, Inc
3704 11th Ave. South
Minneapolis, MN 55407, USA
Tel: (+1) 612 823 3154

*Carlos Fuentes
"It is no longer clear what the place of the University is within society nor what the exact nature of that society is, and the changing institutional form of the University is something that intellectuals cannot afford to ignore." Bill Readings


In Edgar Allan Poe's story, "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar", a gentleman is dying of consumption. He is placed in a hypnotic trance by a friend to ease his final hours. Upon returning to the apartment some months later, the friend is surprised to find the patient alive; but quickly realizes that the trance is still in effect. To the terror of the consumptive, the hypnotist snaps his fingers; whereupon the consumptive dies and immediately decays.

The rapid rise of a plethora of electronic learning options, from satellites to the internet and from private, for profit, distance learning institutions to consortia of public universities using technology has served as that "snap of the fingers" which has raised the "alarum" throughout the academic community. Unfortunately, the University of Reason and Culture rising out of the Germanic tradition of Immanuel Kant and Wilhelm von Humboldt is dead; but, like the Phoenix, it is being reborn as the University of "Excellence", as so eloquently documented by Bill Reading's "The University in Ruins".

The "digital age" and its specters, raised by the Academy, are like the marks which rise on the skin when one gets chicken pox. By the time you see these eruptions, the disease has infected the system and the contagion has spread. The concern about electronic delivery of courses, and distance education, is equivalent to treating symptoms and not the underlying causes. Like medicated lotion applied to the skin, focusing on the technology, its use, and potential impact on the professorial community, is a palliative, offering only short term relief.

Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote a slim volume, "The Mission of the University". He pointed out three key roles of the institution: research, teaching of professions and transmission of culture. It is this latter which serves as the key. "(Culture) was, consequently, the repertory of convictions which became the effective guide ..Culture is what saves human life from being a mere disaster."

It was the inability of the British universities to articulate this which, Readings feels, lead to the demise of the humanities in these venerable institutions. But the humanities are what Earl Shorris found to be critical when he offered a "hard core" philosophy course to the disenfranchised in the slums of New York City. Shorris, in his examination of poverty in America felt that the humanities was, perhaps, more important than providing job based skills training. Shorris' speech to those considered the dross of society was, in part, "Rich people learn the humanities; you didn't. The humanities are a foundation for getting along in the world. They (the rich) know how to negotiate instead of using force.. They know how to use "politics" to get along, to get power."

And, if one were to study the etiology of the Consumption afflicting the Academy and made visible by the eruption of the electronic media, one would find that a principle element is the collapse of a cohesive "culture" within the nation-state itself and a concomitant abandonment, at the meta level, by the Academy, while its patron, the government, also drifts rudderless. Simultaneously, we are seeing a rise in the strength of the Transnational Corporation (TNC). As Jeannie Meister has cogently pointed out in "Corporate Quality Universities", the core or essence of these entities is the development of a corporate culture. Thus, the Academy, in its search of a new patron has, like a sycophant, been playing Polonius to the Transnational Corporations' Hamlet, in principle, practice, and content.

The Training of the Professions

Chemists, lawyers, doctors, educators and related skills areas have been considered to be the purview of the modern post secondary institutions. The basic skills are well understood and the professions have been able to establish standard measures of competence. As the world becomes interconnected, these standards become separate from any national borders and local assessment, outside of the professions themselves.

Thus what the Academy needs to provide becomes a commodity, which should be standardized and interchangeable. Chemistry 101 should be the same in Boston or Dhaka, or at least chemistry graduates should have the same standards of excellence. Essentially, as far as professions are concerned, institutions are, or should be interchangeable.

What the digital world has done is to call the Academic's hand. If the highest quality knowledge generating experience is to be provided at the most competitive price, then the corporate world would welcome it. What we are seeing today is the market's response to this position. While we can all admit that the ability to do this is at its formative stages, no one has been able to successfully argue that, in the arena of professional skills building, the digital media can not meet the demand at the best quality/price point or offer options similar to that which the consumer sees when purchasing a vehicle or appliance.

Additionally. what the digital world has done is to mesh the Academy with the entertainment sector, creating an intersection which has been termed "edutainment". Modern electronics allows the best experts to be coupled with the most creative producers and marketers and highly competent mentors to professionally deliver this core set of skills. Thus, Hollywood can combine with a world renowned astronomer and others to deliver high quality knowledge to the largest number of individuals, globally. Similarly, as campuses become interconnected, such as in the case of the State University of New York's system or the emerging Western Governors' University, it becomes apparent that there will be a redundancy in the academic community and a decrease in demand with a concomitant rise in quality of the available professorial talent.

In fact, the global community of scholars has helped to establish this direction. As faculty travel and lecture around the world and as students attend differing institutions, course syllabi, content, and outcomes, by default, are being designed to meet uniform standards of excellence within each profession. This has allowed academic administrations to see their institutions as businesses which can interchangeable accept faculty and students in a global, competitive marketplace. Electronics for delivery have only become an enhancement.

We do know that there are, indeed, differences between professional programs and the institutions which provide them. Even when the classes may be taught by the same professors in different institutions, there is a difference, not just perceptual, between the graduates which not only "selects" for students taking the programs but also the opportunities which are open to the graduates of differing academies. This will be discussed below.

Research in the Academy

A recent poll taken of faculty indicated a preference for teaching over research. Research in the traditional sense of Wissenschaft, though, has given way to a more mundane world of applications which allows a broader participation. Thus, most academic research has been surgically separated from its philosophical component. Similarly the traditional Bildung, in academia has become closer to the instructional function found in the K-12 system rather than the more philosophical "education".

In fact, the education system is now seen more as K-16 with the transition to grades 13-16 seen as less of a transformational experience. K-16 institutions and programs are becoming formalized and more students in grades 9-12 are able to also participate in courses offered in grades 13-16 programs. The point is that the research functions are being decoupled from the teaching activities in post secondary institutions.

The digital age, again, has amplified rather than created this fissure. With the ability to share information globally, electronically, several activities are catalyzed. First, premier research laboratories and researchers can make their information available to a larger audience in an expedient fashion. This short circuits duplication and the need for many other laboratories. Secondly, it allows smaller facilities to couple with and complement the work being done in major research centers.

In many ways, this should, also, thin out the number of publications necessary to disseminate information in the scholarly literature. Thus, the research arena of academia will see the same splitting which is coming in the education/training portion of the Academy. There will be a number of "Centers of Excellence" in laboratories while most traditional academics will fulfill the support functions whether physically present in the centers or connected electronically.

Transmission of Culture

In a major metropolitan area there are two MBA programs; one is run by a private, denominational, university and the other is a public institution. Many of the courses in both institutions are identical in that they are taught by the same adjunct faculty, using the same syllabi, reference materials and texts. Yet, when possible, the students attend the private institution, even though the tuition is higher. In a similar vein, recruiters for a major engineering firm, in the United States, go to East or West Coast universities when they are looking for managers, and to Midwestern universities when seeking "line" engineers, even though the curricula, when compared, are almost interchangeable. Similarly, Oxbridge graduates are seen as separate and distinct from the graduates of the continuum of post secondary institutions in England.

As Hamlet says, ".ay, there's the rub." The Academy has been forced to navigate between the perceived Scylla of a liberal education and the Charybdis of a narrow disciplinary program. And it is this conflict which has created the raging fever within academia. While Reading's autopsy establishes the onset of this turmoil in the latter half of the 19th century, most sense that it became manifest at the end of World War II with the establishment of a college degree as a tickets to economic security.

Here we see the humanities sacrificed on the alter of expedience. Long half-life knowledge, the core philosophical underpinnings, are reduced to a "leisure science" while, programs in the applied disciplines added more requirements and even create courses such as English for Engineers within the technical schools. The issue, here, is not to attempt to identify the need for a rapprochement between CP Snow's "Two Cultures". It is more fundamental, and cuts to the core competencies within the professions themselves. It amplifies the concerns which Shorris and other have regarding the position of the humanities within and the defacto of the Academy.

The globalization of the Academy, along with the introduction of electronic vehicles has laid bare the conflicts, not across disciplines, but within the disciplines themselves. It is as if the arcane metrics of the guild have had a window created, revealing the internal conflict and uncertainties in the Academy. Like the translation of the Bible into the language of the common, the electronic media has defrocked the Academy.

In one city there exists a highly profitable, fully accredited, private institution purveying academic degrees, via a variety of "distance learning" vehicles . Across town is a major public institution whose faculty are publicly hostile in their description of the quality of the private university. Closer examination reveals that many of the adjunct faculty of the private institution are individuals from the public university. Additionally, many of the stock holders in the private university's parent company can be counted amongst those same faculty. Furthermore, the private institution provides accreditation based on competencies, often in periods much less than the traditional semester, while the public institution still functions on accreditation by "seat time". Coincidentally, the graduates from both institutions are accepted by the corporate world which is dependent on a highly qualified workforce. The University is forced to compete in the global market place.

As Reading cogently shows: ".the link between the University and the nation-state no longer holds in an era of globalization. The University thus shifts from being an ideological apparatus of the nation-state to being a relatively independent bureaucratic system. The economics of globalization mean that the university is no longer called upon to train citizen subjects, while the politics of the end of the Cold War mean that the University is no longer called upon to uphold national prestige by producing and legitimating national culture. The University is thus analogous to a number of other institutions that face massive reductions in foreseeable funding from increasingly weakened states, which are no longer the privileged sites of investment of the popular will."

Currently corporate universities represent about 30% of the post secondary education market aside from specialized training programs. Many governmental agencies contract with private sector clients to provide educational programs for their staff. Some of these activities are provided via a variety of electronic delivery systems.

The hegemony of the Academy has been broken in the global, multicultural, marketplace of ideas, Globally, accrediting agencies are placing alternative post secondary institutions pare passu with the Academy. The shift has been occurring for 50-100 years. The ululation's regarding electronic media as a cause and not a symptom are merely a dirge for a past that never was and a future that never will be.


  • Gasset, Jose Ortega Y (1944). Mission of the University, W W Norton and Company, Inc, New York.

  • Readings, Bill (1996). The University in Ruins, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

  • Shorris, Earl (1997). In the hands of the Restless Poor, Harper's Magazine, Septmeber, pp 50-59.

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