I’m a wicked man. I’m a wicked man who recalls library books other graduate students are using, and I won’t apologize. Now, in my defense, I know it was another graduate student because when I checked the online catalog in the summer, it showed up as out with the same due date it had for the intervening months until last week when finally my patience slipped and I said to myself, “It’s only 200 pages and I’m almost done with Crowley; if she hasn’t read it in these months, she can wait a week til I burn through it and return it,” and undergraduates don’t get to keep books out nearly that long here. And I’m not a total quisling: I know it wasn’t anybody from my own program who had it out. (In fact, I requested it from the library of the fancy and exclusive small college down the road a piece, rather than my own Big State U, which — due to the state of public higher education in our state — hasn’t bought many new books lately.)
After such an admission, of course, there’s no longer any point in attempting to disguise my baseness and rapacious bibliophagy. No sooner had I my filthy hands on the defenseless thing’s cloth covers than I creased its spine and spread its leaves to whatever spot was most convenient. Imagine my shock — O dismay! — when these words on page 87 greeted my eye:
“Larry Ellison,” I read (no, keep going: it gets worse), “CEO of Oracle, looks forward to a future in which e-learning will overcome the ‘wild inefficiencies of American higher education’ by offering ‘million dollar salaries for a few star professors and access to the best teaching for millions and millions of students all over the world.’ According to Peter Drucker,” the book continues (I told you it got worse), “‘Already we are beginning to deliver more lectures and classes off campus via satellite or two-way video at a fraction of the cost. The colleges won’t survive as a residential institution. Today’s buildings are hopelessly unsuited and totally unneeded.’” (Derek Bok, Universities in the Marketplace)
Let’s think for a moment about Ellison’s definition of “the best teaching.” And maybe, while we’re at it, let’s also thank the powers that be that he’s still doing that database thing (and I gotta applaud the attempt to kill PeopleSoft, which has been an absolute nightmare for our campus and for other universities as well) and staying away from the classroom. “Million dollar salaries for a few star professors and access to the best teaching for millions and millions of students all over the world” means, presumably, the salaries of the professors in question would be based on either (1) their intellectual credentials or (2) their communicative abilities. In which case I might offer Larry two alternatives: (1) books. Yeah, amazing how those antiquated technologies distribute information, isn’t it? Or (2), on the model of our television networks’ newsreaders: lecture-readers. Blow-dried, attractive, great teeth, witty — hey, we’ll even let you keep the tweed. Because the fact of the matter is, Ellison’s vision relies on distance learning as a broadcast medium. At the million scale, there’s no interactivity.
Maybe they skipped Plato in Larry’s Philosophy 101 section. Consider an alternative view, from C. Jan Swearingen’s “Prim Irony: Suzuki Method Composition in the 21st Century”, where Swearingen has a “nightmare” vision that “freshman composition will be taught in all the football stadiums that are being refurbished across the land while faculty and library funding are slashed. Rush Limbaugh will stand in the center of the field with a foghorn. The epistemological fog will have become dense. Students will compose fragmentary virtual texts, copying what Limbaugh opines onto backlit plastic clipboards using electronic styluses. Everything they write will immediately be put under copyright and thereby removed from public access. Athletic departments will fill their coffers by charging students a fee to retrieve their own texts, copies of Limbaugh’s copies of public opinion” (75). While Swearingen’s use of Limbaugh is a cheap shot — she shows the same intolerance for a diversity of public opinion that she attempts to indict the right for — her nightmare vision of the seamless univocity of one-way communication, or education as indoctrination, carries the same essential qualities as Ellison’s utopian vision.
Now: when you add Ellison’s argument to Drucker’s, it starts to sound a lot like the free-flowing immaterial spaces of footloose and unbounded transnational corporations. Education, thanks to the digital, bursts the boundaries of place and becomes truly global. How is it, then, that MIT can give away its course materials for nothing on the Web — disseminate them to the whole Wide World — and still charge $28,030 (not including room and board) for nine months of tuition? Maybe I’m still a little too smitten with my reading yesterday of Michael Porter’s On Competition and what he has to say there about local “clusters” — and I certainly believe Porter’s perspective has quite a few problems — but there seems to me to be a great deal of sense in Porter’s assertion that “the enduring competitive advantages in a global economy are often heavily local, arising from concentrations of highly specialized skills and knowledge, institutions, rivals, related businesses, and sophisticated customers in a particular nation or region” and their informal interrelationships within the context of that region (237). MIT knows that education is necessarily local, as does Yale with the strike of its massive support staff and Harvard with its $7.50 servers. And we know that the local is material, and bears with it material problems (and makes those material problems harder to ignore).
Local is the Writing Center. Local is informal alliances and support. Local: your classmates to flip through books with, a campus counseling center, a dorm door to knock on, dates, upperclassmen who’ve taken your class before or who’ve had your professor before, intructors’ office hours, friends who’ll recommend good courses. Local is the library.
Hooray for the library.