If You Don’t Think It Matters, then YOU’RE the Idiot

Liberty 48, Baylor 45. Bam. Jerry Falwell Jr. might be an idiot for investing unwisely in athletics and brick-and-mortar campus facilities, but at least his investments have paid off. The long-held dream of Jerry Falwell Sr. and his successors seems to be coming to fruition.

As I’ve been working on my upcoming book about the history of evangelical higher education, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why do so many schools invest so much money in seemingly antiquated relics of higher-educations past? If the future of higher ed is online, why do schools make such sacrifices to have winning sports teams and ivy-covered buildings?

In the case of Liberty University, it would make sense if they avoided pricey campus investments. They made all their money, after all, in the flashy world of online education. And it was a lot of money. Instead of presenting themselves as a new, more modern-than-thou online institution, though, Liberty plowed those winnings back into the trappings of traditional higher education.

The campus is beautiful and growing fast. It even has an all-year snowboarding hill built into Liberty Mountain. Harvard doesn’t have one of those.

LU sign on mountain

Mountain-sized ambitions…

We might think—as I have—that Liberty’s leaders are merely missing the boat. We might think that they are trapped in a dead-end vision of higher education.

If they are, however, at least they are making that vision come true. Their recent upset win over football powerhouse Baylor was treated on campus as a major miracle. Students were given an official holiday to rub Baylor’s noses in it. President Falwell even relaxed the famous curfew rules in order to encourage Liberty’s students to celebrate.

All the hoopla shows how much athletics means to Liberty. As then-president Pierre Guillermin crowed way back in 1982, Liberty Baptist College (it only became Liberty University in 1985) planned to be

the Notre Dame of the Christian world athletically and the Harvard of the Christian world academically.

This recent football triumph brings that vision one step closer. And it tells us something about the nature of higher education. College has never been only about professional preparation. Yes, in order to be a teacher or a doctor or an engineer one needs a college degree. But “college” as a whole has never been limited merely to that sort of thing.

When Americans think of higher education, we tend to think of a bundle of things all wrapped together. We want to earn a degree, true, but we also want to have an “experience.” We want to attend a “real” college, one that has ivy and winning sports teams.

To a great degree, this unarticulated assumption is the reason why MOOCs flopped. The ability to take challenging classes online can’t replace the allure of a full-bore college experience.

At some level, President Falwell grasps this key fact in a way policy nerds have not. He sacrificed a great deal (not personally, but in institutional terms) to have a winning football team.

For Falwell, as for generations of scrimping and struggling evangelical colleges, the looming, nagging worry has been that they have not been seen as real colleges. They’ve been seen as dumpy little church schools, though they’ve dreamed of being taken seriously.

The win over Baylor means—at least for today—Liberty’s dreams have come true.

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

It happens. Every once in a while, especially in May, some of us leave our computer screens. Sure, we might smell a flower or two, but we miss the torrent of news stories that keeps flowing through the interwebs. Here are some of the stories SAGLRROILYBYGTH might have missed over the past week:

Should schools do more to include controversial issues? An interview with Jon Zimmerman about his new book, The Case for Contention.

Have Jerry Falwell Jr. and other evangelical Trumpists turned themselves into “court evangelicals?” Have they “sacrificed the prophetic voice of their Christian faith for a place of power and influence in the current administration”? John Fea says yes at Religion News Service.

Who is the extremist here? Texas A&M students protest that Professor Thomas Curry is not an anti-white violent radical.

READING man in chair

Words, words, words…

Bill Nye’s new show stinks. Tyler Huckabee argues in WaPo that Nye should have studied evangelical outreach first.

Remember MOOCs? They were going to spell the end of traditional higher education. Why haven’t they? At IHE, Joshua Kim offers three reasons.

Regulating homeschool: A dramatic Kansas case draws attention to the lack of rules about homeschooling. Is homeschooling to blame for this seven-year-old’s murder?

Thanks to everyone who sent in stories and tips.

Is Jerry Falwell an Idiot?

Is Jerry Falwell Jr. an idiot or a genius? Falwell, the president of Liberty University, has hit the jackpot with Liberty’s incredibly popular—and incredibly lucrative—online programs. Falwell has plowed that money into Liberty’s brick-and-mortar campus. Is Falwell a higher-ed visionary? Or does he simply not recognize the way things are really going in higher education?

The money is hard to ignore. Between 2006 and 2012, Liberty’s net assets increased from $150 million to $860 million, thanks mainly to its booming online business. Instead of using those funds only to increase online education, Liberty has bankrolled an ambitious sports program and a recession-busting campus building program.

The new bajillion-dollar Jerry Falwell Library

The new bajillion-dollar Jerry Falwell Library

Most campuses are going the other direction. At traditional schools, including my beloved State University of New York, presidents and chancellors are scrambling to find ways to profit from online education.

Perhaps Liberty’s got something to prove. Founded only in 1971, it originally met in the basement of the Thomas Road Baptist Church. As I explore Liberty’s archives this week as part of the research for my next book, I’m finding reminiscences of those early years. One early ministry student remembered that he used to have revival meetings on the “old trash dump road” above the current campus. There was no campus back then, so these earnest “preacher boys,” this alum remembered, used to

Even the archives are nice.

Even the archives are nice.

pray, sing, and practice preaching for about an hour to an hour and a half. We would pray and preach in the Spirit! Walking, shouting, and praying up and down that road, calling out your name to the Father, tears streaming down our cheeks!

As do most fundamentalist schools, Liberty feels a constant need to prove that it is just as good, intellectually, as mainstream universities. As first president Pierre Guillermin put it in an early fundraising letter, any Christian college must maintain “performance standards of unquestionable academic excellence and admirable professional credibility.”

No more Trash Dump Road...

No more Trash Dump Road…

The campus building program may result from a deep need to prove that Liberty is a real university, not just a fundamentalist camp meeting. Or it may be something more strategic. College administrators these days are wracked with anxiety about the future of higher education. Will students in the future simply take classes from a menu of online providers? Will giants such as MIT and Harvard provide the world’s best content online? Can smaller schools continue to exist?

It seems President Falwell is betting big that people will continue to want a traditional campus, with traditional amenities such as sports programs and libraries.

I think he’s right. So far, the leaders in Massive Open Online Courses are not start-up companies in their garages, but established schools such as MIT and Harvard. People still have high expectations that their education—even their online classes—will come from a “real” university.

How the Apostle Paul Beat Out Beyonce

Can MOOCs be Christian?  That’s the question explored in a recent Christianity Today post.

When Harvard University offered a free-online course in early Christianity, a “massive open online course” or MOOC, so many people took part it nearly blew up the system.  As instructor Laura Nasrallah related in HuffPo,

The day the course launched was astonishing—like drinking from a fire hose. The edX discussion threads couldn’t handle the amount of people who were commenting, and crashed and slowed down. More people participated on Poetry Genius that day than ever before—the apostle Paul beat out Beyonce!

As the CT post explores, some Christian universities are exploring the MOOC model.  But there is some disagreement about the value of the platform.  Could this be a great way to reach more students with the Christian higher-ed message?  Or does this do violence to the need for face-to-face personal contact in a truly Christian intellectual environment?

Christian universities aren’t the only folks struggling with the notion of the MOOC.  As we’ve noted, a variety of conservative intellectuals have also disagreed about the desirability of MOOCing.  Some free-market types have salivated over the notion of bureaucracy-free, low-cost, open colleges.  Other conservatives have worried that MOOCs will abandon the traditional element of character-formation in higher education.

Harvard University has not been a bastion of conservative Protestantism since at least 1805.  Nevertheless, its course on early Christianity seems to be one of the most popular academic experiences of the MOOC era.

 

MOOCs and Mardi Gras

What is college for?  Can MOOCs transform a sclerotic system of higher education?

Conservative commentators have been split as to whether MOOCs are a blessing or a curse.  As we’ve noted here on ILYBYGTH, some conservative intellectuals have bemoaned the implications of free online education.  Others have celebrated MOOCs as the ultimate free-market corrective to ossified funding structures.

This morning Rod Dreher, the thinking man’s conservative, connected readers to an emotional description of college that squeezes MOOC-ery far out to the sidelines.

In an online dialogue about the many reasons to go to Louisiana State University, one writer gave a nostalgic endorsement.  Why go to LSU?  The writer describes a close personal mentorship with a philosophy professor, the rich history and tradition of campus life, friendships made for a lifetime.  And booze.

There are many aspects to “college” that are simply not contained in an online course.  For many people, college is not defined by academic achievement alone, nor by mastery of vocational skills.  College, as it was for our LSU fan, represents a jumble of intellectual growth, personal identity formation, social ferment, and human bonding.

Those things don’t seem challenged by any sort of MOOC revolution.

 

Of MOOCs and Monsters

Does Monsters University have a conservative anti-MOOC message?

I took my daughter to see it the other day.  It was great.  I laughed.  I cried.  There were lots of creatively imagined monsters, smart dialogue, and sight gags.  Plus a heartwarming story of friendship and dedication.

Monsters_University_poster_3But was it also a Disney-fied version of conservative arguments about the fate and future of higher education?

I couldn’t help wondering what the conservative intelligentsia would have to say about the movie’s implications for the future of higher education.  Especially about the latest craze to sweep the educational establishment, Massive Open Online Courses.

Conservatives have been divided about the moral and practical implications of MOOCs.

Some free-market aficionados have trumpeted the promise of the new approach.  By providing courses for free from elite universities such as Harvard and MIT, MOOCs make world-class learning more widely available than ever.  Economist Richard Vedder, for example, argued that a MOOC approach could cull out inefficiencies in higher education.

More recently, Benjamin Ginsberg fretted that MOOCs represented just another way for administrators to cut apparent costs, at the real cost of abolishing real learning.

Other conservatives have agreed that the MOOC model abandons the proper goal of higher education.  Rachelle DeJong complained that higher ed must take more responsibility for the formation of young minds and spirits. “The student,” DeJong wrote,

as yet unformed and uneducated, cannot judge what studies best suit his needs, his vocation, or his intellectual development. How can he discern a steep ascent to the mountaintop from a difficult dead-end, when all he knows are the briars, the rocks, and the stitch in his side?

In the pages of Minding the Campus, Peter Sacks warned that MOOCs will generate a crushing mediocrity and exacerbate the existing class divide among institutions of higher education.  Rich students will get a full learning experience, Sacks insisted, while less well-off students will only hear distant digital echoes of profound learning environments.

Such conservative arguments make sense to the historian in me.  Even a nodding acquaintance with the history of technology and education makes anyone skeptical of any new technological “revolution” for classrooms.  As Larry Cuban has demonstrated, new technologies often garner enthusiasm and enormous investment, only to crash against the reefs of complex educational reality.

Perhaps the best example was the flying broadcast technology of the 1950s.  The US government and the Ford Foundation poured tens of millions of dollars into this program, which sent planes circling over the Midwest and Great Plains.  These planes broadcast educational television programs to schools in those areas.  The idea was that the very best teachers could supply content for audiences of schoolchildren nationwide.

The program failed because schooling is about much more than simply receiving information from a TV screen.  CAN young people learn this way?  Of course.  Is such learning the equivalent of all the complex interactions that go into our notion of “school?”  Of course not.

A similar future seems in store for MOOCs.  Such distance learning is nothing really new and some students will likely benefit greatly from it.  But it will not replace the entirety of higher education, since that entirety includes such a broad range of ingredients.

What does all this have to do with adorable monsters?  I won’t give away any of the plot of Monsters University, but I can say that the movie centers around the dreams of a young adorable monster who yearns to attend Monster University.  The film includes long sweeping vistas of colored foliage and ancient-looking buildings.  It revolves around the intense traditions and intense personal interactions that make up higher education for monsters.

The main character, to be sure, went to MU for vocational reasons.  He wanted to earn a certain type of job.  Without giving away the plot, I can’t comment here on some of the movie’s ultimate implication about the career efficacy of those choices.

But for the main monster character, the allure of MU was at least as much about personal relationships between students and a hard-nosed dean as it was about attaining information.  The attraction of MU depicted in the film was at least as much about learning from fellow students as it was about downloading information from star professors.  The campus and its social scene played crucial roles in the education depicted in the film.

If the film gives us anything beyond two pleasant hours in an air-conditioned theater, it is an emotional, playful articulation of the drier anti-MOOC arguments made by conservative intellectuals.  College, in this film, is a whole-life experience.  College includes formal education, but it also requires a whole lot more.  In order to be educated, the film implies, young people must submit to a stupendous tradition.  Institutions of higher learning, as portrayed in this summer fantasy, are literally supernatural conglomerations of love, life, and learning.

Such conglomerations can never be replaced with online learning platforms.  No matter how much star power goes into them.