Thomas Friedman’s most recent New York Times column on education, “The Professors’ Big Stage,” (6 March 2013) is a hymn to MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, and more generally to the promise of technologically mediated learning as the key to building the future. It is also an exercise in what Carolyn Foster Segal refers to as “magical thinking,” a tendency among the highly educated to think in utopian terms about how the Next Big Thing—a new curriculum, a new leader, a new technology, a new business model—will fulfill our dreams and solve our problems.
The last time we were all so excited about online learning was in the 1990s. This was before our attention was diverted by terrorism and war (which the ever-consistent Mr. Friedman also proposed to solve with better educational methods). And it was before the spectacular failure of more than one attempt to make digital learning the Next Big Thing (remember the fancy consortium that put together Fathom, a scheme which cost Columbia University $25 million before it collapsed?) Back then, when the promise of online education seemed fresh and exciting, historian David Noble wrote a biting critique of the movement, demonstrating that instead of being something new, the idea of distance education was in fact a highly capitalized and even predatory descendent of the Correspondence School movement of the late nineteenth century.
Here, I’d like combine Segal’s reference to magical thinking with Noble’s historical perspective by providing some excerpts from Margaret Mead’s 1930 ethnography, Growing Up in New Guinea .
Mead was, if possible, even a greater idealist than Thomas Friedman. She was certainly a better thinker, in part because she was more self-aware, understanding that her own optimism was a characteristically American cultural trait. Much of Mead’s published work used her field experiences in small-scale cultures of the Pacific to illuminate her own social world and to help her educated, middle-class American audience think about their own experiences in a comparative context. She wanted to help people think about the rapid changes both the United States and the rest of the world were experiencing in the early and mid-twentieth century.
In discussing education, Mead wrote about “the characteristic American Faith in education as the universal panacea,” but warned that “the pleasant optimism of those who believe that hope lies in the future, that the failures of one generation can be recouped in the next, are given the lie” by the narrowness of our understanding of “education” as “technique” (p. 261).
Unfortunately, she continued, in the United States “the spectacular fashion in which sons of illiterate fathers have become literate has been taken as the type of the whole educational process,” a process which is in reality not confined to particular classroom techniques, but which involves the whole process whereby we learn to be cultured beings.
The continuity of our cultural life depends upon the way in which children in any event receive the indelible imprint of their social tradition. Whether they are cuddled or beaten, bribed or wheedled into adult life–they have little choice except to become adults like their parents. But ours is not a homogeneous society. One community differs from another, one social class from another, the values of one occupational group are not the values of those who follow some different calling. Religious bodies with outlooks as profoundly different as Roman Catholicism and Christian Science, claim large numbers of adherents always ready to induct their own and other people’s children into the social traditions of their particular group (p. 262-263).
But in the heterogeneous context of the United States, do the insights anthropologists might gain from studying socialization in small-scale societies really apply? “Does not education,” she asks, “cease to be an automatic process and become a vital question of what method is to be pursued?” (p. 263).
Undoubtedly this objection is a just one. Within the general tradition there are numerous groups striving for precedence, striving to maintain or extend their proportionate allegiances in the next generation. Among these groups, methods of education do count, but only in relation to each other. Take a small town where there are three religious denominations. It would not matter whether Sunday School was a compulsory matter, with a whipping from father if one didn’t learn one’s lesson or squandered a penny of the collection money, or whether Sunday School was a delightful spot where rewards were handed out lavishly and refreshments served by each young teacher to the admiring scholars. It would not matter, as long as all three Sunday Schools used the same methods. Only when one Sunday School depends upon parental intimidation, a second uses rewards and a third employs co-educational parties as its bait, does the question of method become important. And at the same time the process under discussion has ceased to be education and become—propaganda.
So, if education be defined as the process by which the cultural tradition is transmitted to the next generation. . .propaganda may be defined as methods by which one group within an existing tradition tries to increase the number of its adherents at the expense of other groups. . . .
America presents the spectacle of all three of these processes going on in great confusion. The general stream of the tradition—language, manners, attitudes towards property, towards the state, and towards religion—is being imparted effortlessly to the growing child, while the complex of minute and exacting techniques are being imparted to him arduously, through the schools. Here and there the propagandists range. Christian Scientists, Communists, vegetarians, antivivisectionists, single taxers, humanists, small compact groups in respect to religious or social philosophies, mere participators in the general American cultural stream in most other respects. And the rapid assimilation of thousands of immigrants’ children through the medium of the public schools, has given to Americans a peculiar faith in education, a faith which a less hybrid society would hardly have developed. Because we have turned the children of Germans, Italians, Russians, Greeks, into Americans, we argue that we can turn our children into anything we wish. Also because we have seen one cult after another sweep through the country, we argue that anything can be accomplished by the right method, that with the right method, education can solve any difficulty, supply any deficiency, train inhabitants for any non-existing Utopia. Upon closer scrutiny we see that our faith in method is derived from our assimilation of immigrants, from the successful teaching of more and more complicated techniques to more and more people, or from the successful despoiling of one group’s role of adherents by some other group of astute evangelists. In both of these departments method counts and counts hard. Efficient teaching can shorten the learning time and increase the proficiency of children in arithmetic or bookkeeping. A judicious distribution of lollypops, badges, uniforms, may swell the ranks of the Baptist Sunday School or the Young Communists. . . . By method it is possible to speed up the course of mastering existing techniques or increasing the number of adherents of an existing faith. But both of these changes are quantitative not qualitative; they are essentially non-creative in character. (pp. 264-265)
What interested Mead far more than the process of social groups poaching members from one another, or even being able to spread specific kinds of technical knowledge among broader and broader sections of the public, was the issue of educational quality, which both fostered cultural creativity and deepened the personality and experience of students. “The child will receive the general content of his culture no matter how it is transmitted to him,” she wrote; “he will absorb the content in any event, but he is hopelessly dependent upon the quality of that content” (p. 274).
Friedman also speaks about quality in his column on MOOCs. But for him the quality of education has to do with the issue of the most effective technique of transmitting knowledge. “We demand,” he writes, “that plumbers and kindergarten teachers be certified to do what they do, but there is no requirement that college professors know how to teach. No more. The world of MOOCs is creating a competition that will force every professor to improve his or her pedagogy or face an online competitor.”
Now, for Thomas Friedman, connections with the wealthy and the powerful, whether politicians or corporate leaders—or philosophers such “my old friend [Harvard professor] Michael Sandel”—fill the role that residence among the Samoans and Manus played for Margaret Mead. They are the sources of his factual knowledge, but also sources of his status within his profession, and of his self-image. It’s tempting to think about his approach, as well as that of other proponents of MOOCs and even earlier versions of e-learning as a propaganda of technique reminiscent of the church propaganda Mead outlines in her example above. One can spread the gospel of the MOOC technique by means of threat or by means of enticement, but the goal is the same: to bring new paying customers to the revival.
Mead was not satisfied with a narrow focus on technique, because she knew that a merely quantitative approach—thinking about how many students could be taught most efficiently—betrayed an incomplete understanding of the progress of culture, art, and science. “The gradual change in human thought which produced Darwin’s type of thought instead of Thomas Aquinas’,” she explained, “took place in the library and the laboratory, not in the schoolroom. Medieval schoolmen and their deductive approach had first to be ousted from the universities before the inductive method could be taught in the schools” (p. 266). What Friedman misses in his love letter to MOOCs is that what college professors are hired to do is not merely to teach, but to serve the community by expanding the body of knowledge which can be taught. And in this they are certified just as surely as plumbers and kindergarten teachers.
“Our general neglect of content for method” in primary and secondary education, Mead continued,
our blind trust that all we need is a mechanical formula, is illustrated sharply in the kind of courses taught in teachers’ training colleges as compared with courses in the Liberal Arts. The prospective teachers are taught how to teach everything under the sun, but they are taught very little about the art, literature, history, themselves. A slight, ill-comprehended body of material is transmitted from teacher to pupil in a most elaborate and unrewarding fashion. In the training colleges, the “value of teaching with dates,” “the use of charts” takes the place of actually reading history. And thirty hours of pedagogy, courses in how to teach history or biology, are regarded by school boards as more valuable than academic distinction in these subjects. Prospective teachers, often coming from homes with a very slight cultural tradition, enter a college where they are given nothing to make up for their deficiencies. And yet we continue to depend upon the individual teacher to transmit the rich content of literary and scientific tradition which is available to us to-day. If we are to use these materials, if we are to have a richer culture, we must either abandon the dependence upon the individual teachers or give them a far better background during their years of training. If the teachers are to be the advance guard of civilisation they must first be given a genuine feeling for and understanding of that civilization (p. 274-275).
So we could train teachers differently, instilling in them a profound knowledge of and love for their subjects, a knowledge they would find many different ways to impart to their students, rather than certifying them in “how to teach.” Or we could take a different path.
And here we come to the Ancestral MOOC, Mead’s description of a bold possibility for harnessing modern technology for the purposes of shaking up the stodgy educational system and improving learning outcomes:
An alternative course is to relinquish our dependence upon the teachers and turn to other methods of diffusing cultural content. This method is symbolised by a recent educational plan of a large museum in an Eastern city. The museum sends out sets of slides to a series of city high schools. The children in each high school are then shepherded into the school auditoriums at a given hour, and a highly trained expert on the museum staff gives a radio talk which is illustrated by the slides. Even the signal for change of slides is given over the radio. Methods such as these, using the radio, the lantern, the motion picture and a far larger and more available supply of books, could be used to place great masses of good material before children. A comparatively small body of highly intelligent educators could direct the content prescribed and administered to millions of school children. Unlike the old text book, these new methods would teach themselves. The teachers would have to be little more than good disciplinarians and good record keepers. A dependence upon good material diffused mechanically, impersonally from remote but reliable centres is preferable to the present method in which a teacher who knows nothing of poetry herself is expected to interpret Shakespeare to her students. Such mechanical methods may be necessary to adopt as emergency measures, until we can revise the course of training in teachers’ colleges and provide for our schools teachers who can combine knowledge of rich materials with personal leadership.
So MOOCs are nothing new, at least conceptually. Remember this, and think of the bright promise of all the previous technologies brought into the classroom over the course of the twentieth century, each of which was promoted as the answer to our educational problems: radio, movies, film strips, television, videotapes, personal computers, DVDs, PowerPoint, SmartBoards, Smart Classrooms, and on and on. Now we’re told that we’ll all be better off if we ditch this publicly funded infrastructure altogether and ensure that students don’t even need classroom space. Only a computer and an internet connection (both of which they’ll need to provide themselves). All of these media have something in common, of course. Each of them is manufactured and marketed by companies that will profit from their widespread acceptance by faculty—or even better, their widespread imposition by administrators or governing boards or legislators—at the behest of relentless cheerleaders who understand the function of the Next Big Thing: to make money. Each of them is promoted as an indispensable pedagogical tool, only to be dismantled and surplused in turn.
But no unprecedented use of technology is without its costs. Mead cautioned that
In either case, those who wish to alter our traditions and cherish the Utopian but perhaps not impossible hope that they can consciously do so, must first muster a large enough body of adults who with them wish to make the slight rearrangements of our traditional attitudes which present themselves to our culturally saturated minds. This is equally true of those who wish to import part of the developed tradition of other societies. They must, that is, create a coherent adult culture in miniature before they can hope to bring up children in the new tradition—even if they expect them to be brought up by radio. Such changes in adult attitudes come slowly, are more dependent upon specially gifted or wise individuals than upon wholesale educational schemes.
Besides encouraging a most unfounded optimism, this over-valuation of the educational process and under-valuation of the iron strength of the cultural walls within which any individual can operate, produces one other unfortunate result. It dooms every child born into American culture to victimisation by a hundred self-conscious evangelists who will not pause long enough to build a distinctive culture in which the growing child may develop coherently. One such group negates the efforts of another and the modern child is subjected to miseries which the Manus child never knows, reared as it is with unselfconscious finality into a Manus adult. Not until we realise that a poor culture will never become rich, though it be filtered through the expert methods of unnumbered pedagogues, and that a rich culture with no system of education at all will leave its children better off than a poor culture with the best system in the world, will we begin to solve our educational problems. Once we lose faith in the blanket formula of education, in the magic fashion in which education, using the passive capacities of children, is to create something out of nothing, we can turn our attention to the vital matter of developing individuals, who as adults, can gradually mould our old patterns into new and richer forms (pp. 274-276).
Were she still with us, Margaret Mead would be excited by the new technologies we have available. She would be the first to use them in her own research, just as she was one of the first to regularly use still and motion-picture photography in the field in the 1930s. But the Ancestral MOOC was not the Next Big Thing for her. It was a stopgap measure, a transitional technique that might be used to improve learning for our students until we could arrange for them to benefit from real, face-to-face encounters with historical texts, works of art, and innovative thinkers. Such encounters are nearly always best done in person and on a relatively small scale rather than massively and online.
Mead might have cautioned us to think carefully about using our children as test subjects in creating a new world of commoditized and digitized information delivery systems, whether in the form of college-by-MOOCs, or laptops and tablets for everyday classroom use in the K-12 classroom. We risk victimizing our students by listening to the self-conscious and tireless evangelists of computer technology in education, who would have us force upon our students, in the name of efficiency or novelty or “access,” techniques we ourselves have not grown up in. Only once we have used these technologies pervasively on ourselves, and have sufficiently rearranged and remolded our own lives and professions, transforming our own expectations and sensoriums in their image; only then will we know enough to expect the next generation to do the same, or, more to her point, merely to copy us and to become what we have made ourselves. Until then, we’re simply talking about propaganda.
UPDATE April 2013: For an interesting outline of a different experiment from the same period, “Colleges of the Air“.
UPDATE November 2013: We shouldn’t expect Mr. Friedman to make much of MOOC provider Udacity’s admission of its own failure to do what it promised, and its retreat to the corporate training sector. For more on the apparent implosion of MOOCs, see the blog of technological historian Jonathan Rees .
 See also his earlier column on the topic, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/27/opinion/sunday/friedman-revolution-hits-the-universities.html.
 See his New York Times columns from the end of 2001, which earned him the 2002 Pulitzer Prize: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/13/opinion/13FRIE.html, http://www.nytimes.com/2001/12/12/opinion/dear-saudi-arabia.html.
 http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbReader.asp?articleid=16813. Ann Kirschner, who headed the venture for Columbia, now serves on the Board of Directors of The Apollo Group, parent company of the online University of Phoenix (www.apollo.edu).
 E.g. John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco Systems in 1999. “So,” Friedman reports having asked him, “now that commerce has moved to the Net, and the Net is moving into business, what comes after that? ‘’Education,’ said Mr. Chambers. ‘The next big killer application for the Internet is going to be education. Education over the Internet is going to be so big it is going to make e-mail usage look like a rounding error’ in terms of the Internet capacity it will consume. What will drive it will be the demands on companies, in an intensely competitive global economy, to keep improving productivity. E-learning, insists Mr. Chambers, if done right, can provide faster learning, at lower costs, with more accountability, thereby enabling both companies and schools to keep up with changes in the global economy that now occur at Net speed. Schools and countries that ignore this, he says, will suffer the same fate as big department stores that thought e-commerce was overrated” (“Next, It’s E-ducation,” http://www.nytimes.com/1999/11/17/opinion/foreign-affairs-next-it-s-e-ducation.html).