Is this the Future of Education?

A lot of wags have spent the better part of the July 4th weekend mocking Fox News’ Glenn Beck for founding “Beck U”, an online, unaccredited university available to subscribers of his personal website. His announcement reads as follows:

School may be out for the summer, but for Glenn Beck class is just starting.

This July, while others are relaxing poolside, head back to the classroom – from the comfort of your own home. That may sound like an oxymoron but Glenn’s new academic program is only available online.

Offered exclusively to Insider Extreme subscribers, Beck University is a unique academic experience bringing together experts in the fields of religion, American history and economics. Through captivating lectures and interactive online discussions, these experts will explore the concepts of Faith, Hope and Charity and show you how they influence America’s past, her present and most importantly her future.

So don’t miss out on this amazing experience. Enroll in Beck University today by subscribing to Insider Extreme.

As a national figure, Glenn Beck alternates between revered, ridiculed, and reproached for his brand of off the wall conspiracy theorizing, most frequently aimed at progressives and a sort of mythological version of the Obama administration in which Nazis and Marxists and Black Panthers are stalking the 1950s vision of America, salivating at the prospect of initiating some kind of socialist new world order. There’s nothing particularly new or interesting about the rhetoric. We’ve seen hucksters like Beck over the generations as a part of our national political heritage. What’s different about this particular aspect of his persona is the “teacher” identity he dons when he stands before his blackboard, glasses perched on his nose just so, imparting “wisdom” to millions and millions of viewers who are searching for a champion of the mythological 1950s America, where solid Christian, white values served as the beacon for our national morality…as the story goes.

That television persona, in past generations, would likely have corralled Glenn Beck into a relatively confined space in the American discourse and would have limited his cultural significance to a select audience ready to dismiss him for whichever revival preacher of American nativism came along next with a more interesting sell. The Internet is the x-factor here in what just be a sneak peak at the (disturbing) future of education in America.

Consider this. The number of online universities and education programs has increased exponentially over the last several years. In fact, a US Department of Education study(pdf) states, ” The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” Also from the report, “The National Center for Education Statistics (2008) estimated that the number of K-12 public school students enrolling in a technology-based distance education course grew by 65 percent in the two years from 2002-03 to 2004-05. On the basis of a more recent district survey, Picciano and Seaman (2009) estimated that more than a million K–12 students took online courses in school year 2007–08.”

Of course, the matter of accreditation figures heavily in this swelling trend, and more frequently we see existing accredited institutions of higher learning ramping up their distance, or e-learning, programs to cash in on the phenomenon. If we apply what we know about electronic technology to this situation, that electricity tends to segment and tribalize, we ought to take the idea of Beck U more seriously. Am I crazy…maybe, but…

Consider that the debate over the Internet as a source for news and information is that citizens can now be even more highly selective about the news they seek out and the framing of reality they consider as legitimate, or perhaps more appropriately, desirable. The idea is that progressives can limit themselves to a steady diet of Amy Goodman and Democracy Now!, Huffington Post, DailyKos, The Nation, Mother Jones, and Firedoglake, to name a few, or that conservatives can listen to Rush Limbaugh, watch Fox News, and engage in their ideological back and forth via the forums at Free Republic. We’ve come to accept that as one of the challenges to our national discourse and to the viability of a traditional, institutional media as well. The same conversation can be had about education and learning in light of Beck U, as it challenges the very definition of what academia means.

Harold Innis’ theory of the Monopoly of Knowledge plays an important role in this thinking and is described thus:

Those who control knowledge through the dominant media of a given society also control reality, in that they are in a position to define what knowledge is legitimate. Thus, monopolies of knowledge encourage centralization of power.

Paul Levinson suggests that “[l]iteracy probably constitutes the most significant monopoly of knowledge in human history.” (Levinson, 1997: p12) In times when only a select number of people could read or write, the knowledge conveyed in written texts remained among the literate. It was these literate people who could decide the nature of the information that they passed on to the rest of the community.

(Note: I transposed the above passage from Wikipedia in order to provide a definition prior to the illustration of the concept.)

Controlling knowledge is a peripheral issue in education, as it relates to reinforcing the dominant cultural narratives that persist in a given society, but becomes extremely important when we relate the concept to propaganda. Those who control, or who have an exclusive mastery of, a dominant communication form can define legitimacy or primacy of ideas and beliefs, and in doing so can include or exclude groups and individuals from circles of power. In totalitarian societies education most assuredly plays this role (think North Korea), but it would be considerably myopic to think that the powerful entitites that generally produce mass communication in “free societies” don’t enlist the same techniques to advance their private or public agendas. Political parties, corporations, and even individuals have become adept at propagandizing the public to the point where we ought to wonder aloud when we aren’t being propagandized, rather than when we are…

Innis says that monopolies of knowledge centralize power. I would argue that the Internet gives us the ability to centralize power around particular fractious nodes of communication influence, where the frequency of linkage to a particular node might correlate to its significance in monopolizing knowledge. Beck U may or may not ever amount to anything, but if interest groups mask propaganda in education the way Beck has here, we might see a trend emerge where the agile-minded individuals in our society, rational or otherwise, can selectively educate themselves via these nodes, collectively reinforce their vision of reality, and parade themselves to the world-at-large as “educated” citizens entitled to the status of expertise previously afforded only to those who rigorously pursued scholarship via accredited institutions.

Lest I be accused of elitism here, I always make the point to separate thinking, learning, and academia. Some of the most intelligent, rational, and profound people I know have little or no higher education at all. Some of the most irrational, crass, and vulgar people I’ve met have graduate degrees from world famous institutions. The notion that the agile-minded but irrational class of people, who might otherwise be discredited for their manipulation of reason and science, might one day find themselves a legitimized and empowering force via e-learning is a serious debate to have in light of what we already know about the profoundly tangled web of science, pseudo-science, and propaganda. The idea that we might one day be a people who care little for the accredited world of knowledge, seeking out whatever narrative furthers or supports our own worldview, is very real. We live amidst this environment on this very day. Too often we see legitimate arguments about climate change dismissed as the whining of liberal elite eggheads who are trying to control America through bigger government, for example. Equal time is given to climate change deniers where they ought be drowned out by reason and science.

Communities of people seeking legitimacy for their worldview can already find solidarity more readily than at any time in history thanks to the Internet. Adding a curriculum and a tacit accreditation for the irrational and unreasonable, in the absence of an authoritative accreditation, makes the monopoly of knowledge for the propagandist nodes of our networked society all the more powerful. Perhaps Glenn Beck’s university will simply remain an icon of ridicule, but others will surely follow with less charicatured and laughable spokespeople behind them. Once they multiply and offer a public ideological alternatives to Enlightenment institutions with pseudo-science and propaganda as their curricula, you will see a hardening of attitudes and an even greater struggle for the definition of reality than we are faced with already. These nodes will make the recent Texas School Board whitewashing of history texts look like child’s play.

Hand-wringing aside, the overall impact of this turn of events may likely be minimal, however, it represents a very real future (or present) for the definition of education and the unquestioned legitimacy afforded to those who are “educated”. Who will be the first Fox News expert to have been “educated” by Beck U. I’ll be watching.


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