Radical Traditionalism: 3 New Highlights in Anglo-American Education

Anyone interested in Europe’s continued intellectual & technological development should pause before 3 exceptional higher education initiatives here in 2012. All are conspicuous for their bizarre but not unconvincing blend of radical vigour with stodgy traditionalist caution. 2 are American (cited for inspiration), the last is British.

1) New York City’s “game-changing” tech campus. The City of New York has chosen Cornell University, jointly with the Technion (Israel Institute of Technology), to develop this urban technology campus on Roosevelt Island. The project is exceptionally ambitious, as is the schedule. Though the more glorified constructions will be ready only years from now, the new school still plans to open doors to its first students this year, using a few rented makeshift buildings. Vast private & public resources are already set aside for the project, which stands out from almost any aspect: high-tech job creation, low-tech job creation, architecture & urban planning, environment & sustainability, partnership with the city public school sector, initiatives to keep spinoffs in the area… But most remarkable is that Cornell-Technion won’t be left on their own, to grow fat on the new pie. New York remains in talks with 3 other universities which competed for the commission – including the city’s own Columbia & NYU – & now looks for alternate land allowing these schools to execute their submissions too. So New York City, never the strongest at tech & science schools in the Caltech/MIT/Stanford vein, could end up with a small half-dozen such establishments, complete with startups, venture capitalists, & high-value jobs – almost within the decade.

2) MITx: new online education certificate from MIT. Also starting this 2012, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) will deliver its new online education & certification programme MITx (see here). Of course, there are many online education offerings these days, including MIT’s own successful OpenCourseWare, started in 2002. The key difference from OCW – aside from the tiny & giant leaps given by 10 more years of digital progress – is that MITx is built to allow formal certification for mastering certain courses. This certification will have nothing to do with an MIT degree – it isn’t even a degree, as we’re talking certifications for single, separated courses. In fact it may not even carry the MIT label as such. But it should still get stamped with some form of authoritative distinction. Compare with the Cambridge ESOL (English) certification: it’s well recognized, & indeed run by a department of Cambridge University, yet generally clear that recipients didn’t for that reason attend the University itself. So if things go as planned, people who’d never dreamt of attending MIT “itself” – in theory, many millions of them – will now be able, online, to earn rigorous engineering & science certificates with some manner of quality stamp from the world’s leading technology institute. Which will hardly fail to encourage dedicated online study. Also it might well enhance, not dilute MIT’s treasured reputation. Think of those designer sub-brands which only reinforce the pharaonic aloofness of the core label.

3) London’s (new) New College of the Humanities. With 2 such cases from across the Atlantic, it’d be nice to hear some good news from Europe as well. This one may not compete as to scale or showiness, but it certainly measures up with the apparent quality of its conception, & the amount of reflection underlying it. (This being Europe, the ritual coterie of haters hasn’t been idle either.) The New College of the Humanities, in partnership with the University of London, will also open doors here in 2012. The brainchild of philosopher AC Grayling, this is a select, & yes, private undergraduate diploma, with the ambitions not only of providing quality education somewhere not Oxford or Cambridge (a much-needed, but hardly original aspiration), or of boasting a stellar professorial staff (hardly more novel, except to the extent it succeeds: the character cast featured here does look sensational for so recent a school; how much will these people actually teach?). More fundamentally, it’s the best attempt I’ve seen at redefining the Humanities for this tech-crazed information age. An almost classical trivium of English Literature, History, & Philosophy is thoughtfully supplemented by either Law or Economics, & by offerings specifically tailored for up-to-date needs, like science literacy or professional skills. Certainly it’s not the parts themselves that stand out; it’s the smart & appropriate way they’ve been adjusted & combined. Which hasn’t prevented this tiny experimental initiative from suffering vicious & surely disproportionate attacks – mainly for being private & charging high fees – from a society which has taken in chronic detestation the slightest attempt to apply corrective or innovating measures to itself.

Different as they are, these 3 initiatives have more than high ambitions in common. Most obvious is their fierce reassertion of elitism. All 3 projects frantically invoke some select exclusiveness. Yet this elitism has also been subtly tweaked, making it no less obvious, but at least a little different. Cornell’s New York campus articulates the idea of a truly metropolitan prestige tech campus – something of a rarity itself – crisscrossed by potentially credible & authentic partnerships with ordinary city life. MIT is no longer happy to distribute only the content of its education, since we all know it’s not about content but brand. It now seeks to share some of that brand’s authority with a broader crowd, while taking obsessive pains not to dilute its cachet. The New College of the Humanities aims at top candidates, but does it with a pragmatic & contemporary Bloomsbury flavour: hoping to admit by different criteria some of those perfectly able students who never make it to Oxbridge; then offering them Oxbridge-style 1-on-1 tutorials, with star teachers, in an environment just as selective but presumably less rarefied, less out of touch with urban buzz.

Do elites & traditionalism go hand in hand? In any event, neither of the 3 above initiatives is only what it looks like up front: a comprehensive, radical, frontal assault on the opportunities & problems of the knowledge era. Of course, all are resolutely proactive, all explicitly seek to redesign education for our times. Yet somehow they seem just as concerned with what doesn’t work, with not reinventing the wheel, with the awareness that much education remains a demanding, repetitive pursuit, burdened with formal aspects resistant to change. Subdued are vaporous notions of e-learning, multimedia, or web 3.0.

Those very tech schools which New York City so aspires to emulate were generally built as independent institutions, different & separate from nearby universities, at times rebelliously untainted by them. Yet New York leaders deliberately ignored the temptation to build their own new school from scratch. Instead they approached ancient & honoured universities, comfortably nested in rich liberal arts traditions, almost petitioning these for their name, expertise, credibility.

As to MIT’s online programme, the very notion of a sub-branded certification is deeply conservative, if not reactionary, no matter how gee-wiz the technology involved. All while the New College of the Humanities proudly – & expensively – confronts modernity with such antique armament as History, Shakespeare, & Roman Law.

Seeing only this prudence & not the forceful radicalism pushing it up from below, well might you still believe that nothing is new under education’s sun. But taking these ventures in their sum, as the powerful undertakings of 3 English-speaking schools with global reach & ambitions, things begin to resemble a small revolution. Universities & technical schools land-locked on the European continent might do well to stay on the alert.


(Webfront photo caption & credit here.)

Categories: History of Science & Tech, Ideal Europe

Tags: , , , ,