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The Problem With Bill Gates’s Vision

The Microsoft magnate-cum-philanthropist Bill Gates made waves in the community-college world a few weeks ago when he suggested that two-year colleges should use more MOOCs.

Most of us who actually teach community-college students understand that, while there may be a place for MOOCs in the curriculum, relying on them too heavily would be a mistake. (I wrote about this extensively in “A Massively Bad Idea,” and I won’t reiterate those arguments here.) But the notion of MOOCs as some sort of educational panacea dovetails neatly with Gates’s constant championing of online learning and what seems to be his overall vision for higher education.

I don’t begrudge the man his vision, nor does it bother me that he uses his millions to advance it. That’s his right, and I don’t doubt that he believes he’s doing good.

I just think he’s wrong. I think much of what he assumes would be good for higher education would actually be bad for higher education—and, more specifically, for community-college students. And I believe that faculty members, along with responsible administrators and legislators, have a duty to stand up and say, “No, that’s not going to work. It’s not a good idea.”

The essential problem with Gates’s vision is that, at heart, it’s corporatist. I understand that “corporatism,” for historians and political scientists, refers to a specific economic theory, and I apologize for co-opting the term. I’m using it here in much the same way one might use “statist” to describe a person who believes in the primacy of the state. A corporatist, in that sense, is one for whom social institutions—particularly education—exist to serve corporations.

I came to this conclusion while pondering the obvious similarities between Gates’s vision for higher education and the methods used by the public schools in the area where I live. I’ve often noted that our school system, in an affluent suburb of Atlanta, employs what I call a “Chamber of Commerce” approach to education, one that is heartily endorsed and to some extent influenced by the local business community. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the system has earned numerous recognitions from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.)

The primary goal of the COC approach, I’ve observed, is to produce mostly “good employees,” who at the high-school level take vocational and deceptively named “college prep” courses—which do not, in my experience, prepare them for college. At the same time, the COC approach seeks to develop a relatively small number of “future leaders,” who are funneled into honors, gifted, and Advanced Placement classes.

In the interest of full disclosure, my children benefited from this approach. They were identified as gifted early on and placed in the best classes with the best teachers who gave them a great deal of individual attention. But that doesn’t mean I believe it’s the best way to run public schools—and I certainly don’t believe it’s a good model for higher education.

Yet that seems to be what Gates and other like-minded individuals are attempting to recreate for colleges and universities at the national level: a system in which the majority of students—those at community colleges and smaller regional institutions—are stuck in large auditoriums watching talking heads on giant screens, while a much smaller group of elite students gets to attend “real” universities where they receive personalized instruction in small groups. Such a system would certainly work well for corporations, as it would create both a large “trained work force” and an elite managerial class.

I’m not a Marxist. I don’t have a problem with corporations that operate legally and responsibly. I understand that corporations can act as economic engines and do a great deal of good for society. But as a community-college faculty member, I don’t believe their priorities should necessarily be my priorities, any more than I believe that the primary purpose of a college education is to train students for particular jobs.

Unfortunately, that seems to be the position Gates is advancing these days with his well-financed emphasis on work-force development and online education. I hope those of us who believe education has a purpose higher than merely to produce worker bees—even at community colleges—will speak out against this vision and advocate for our own. Only by uniting in our opposition to the corporatist agenda Gates represents will we be able to combat the millions being spent to promote it.

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user sam_churchill.]

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