Nigel Thrift has a new, dystopian, speculative post up on his blog at The Chronicle of Higher Education. He reveals, at the end, that the entire vision he’s just laid out doesn’t really sit well with him. But, before he gets there, he raises a series of “what if” questions: what if a new kind of political economy were to arise in the American & British university system? What if it looked like the conglomerate chain model that so many restaurants follow (think: Olive Garden, Cheesecake Factory) where “large numbers of customized choices” would be “delivered efficiently and well through the production of greater variety, better quality, and lower cost”? He’s inspired, in this reflection, by Atul Gawande’s New Yorker piece, where he reflects on how the medical industry could re-shape itself in accordance with these standardized restaurant models. In a nutshell: what if university education were to become a mass produced product with greater predictability and standardization? There would still be some old hold-outs, who could represent the “craft model”… the nostalgic sort, that’s only available for those with time and money to burn.
Of course, the first thing that came to my mind was: isn’t this already happening? Isn’t this what the whole MOOC phenomenon (“elite” universities partnering with private companies like Coursera to offer Harvard-style lecture courses that are cheap to produce for “the masses”) is all about? Isn’t this craft model exactly what enterprises like the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research are trying to produce? This isn’t some dystopian future that might happen, if we don’t come up with something better. It’s what is happening now. These are the actual conditions of our existence.
I find this depressing, of course. Which is why, I suppose, I wanted to post something about it. I’m wondering if, through some sort of ironic exercise, it isn’t possible to just have a laugh, instead. Some questions: If the MOOC-at-Harvard phenomenon is like the Cheesecake Factory of higher ed and the Brooklyn School for Social Research is the Blanca-in-Bushwick (a 12 seat, $180-200 per person joint in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood)… what is the McDonald’s of higher ed? What is the greasy-ass, independently owned truck stop diner of higher ed? Or… if someone called you up to help build a business model of the university-as-cheesecake-factory… what would you pitch? Instructor uniforms?