College Quarterly
Fall 2007 - Volume 10 Number 4
Reviews Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education.
David F. Noble.
New York: Monthly Review Press, 2003.

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

About forty years ago, my college’s ever-vigilant administration was seeking new, exciting and cost-effective ways to deliver curricula. A group of senior management therefore went trooping off to Dallas, Texas in search of instruction. A week or so later, they brought back a stunning innovation in the form of videotapes. A striking young woman with a bee-hive hair-do and an impenetrable southern accent was available to lecture us (and our students) on the intricacies of the English language. It was neither the first nor, certainly, the last time when edbiz hustlers sought to short-circuit teaching with technology.

In the 1920s, Thomas Alva Edison confidently predicted that radio was the teaching tool of the future. In the 1940s, film was set to replace instructors. Television had its moment and, in the 1990s, Newt Gingrich expressed his fervent hope that computers would replace books in classrooms by the year 2000.

Having survived several sequential phases of technological mediation, I expect to leave the classroom for the last time on a gurney, chalk (to paraphrase Charleton Heston) clutched tightly in my cold, dead hand. With this sort of background, it is unsurprising that I have paid attention to York University professor David Noble for some time. He won a substantial reputation as a scholar with early books such as America By Design: Science, Technology, and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism (Knopf, 1977) and Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation (Knopf, 1984). He remains prolific but, for college teachers, perhaps his most pertinent contribution is Digital Diploma Mills.

Unlike most academics, David Noble cannot sensibly be discussed without a few references to his bumpy ride through the cinder-block halls to the ivied walls of academe. His scholarship is much admitted and generally undisputed. He has held impressive positions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. He was awarded the prestigious J. S. Woodsworth Chair in the Humanities at Simon Fraser University. He left the first two under a cloud, one that settled firmly atop each institution as its behaviour was investigated and found wanting in academic integrity. As for the Woodsworth Chair, he had that snatched from under him at by an administration that, it seems, discovered too late what Noble’s scholarship was about. Plainly, none of these remarkable fortresses of higher learning were prepared to accept a serious, critical scholar. Each, in its own way, has paid the price.

David Noble, you see, is fearless. He is not easily cowed; in fact, to my knowledge, he has not yet been cowed at all. Instead, he has championed currently unpopular phrases such as “academic freedom,” and he is undaunted by the possibility of union arbitration or civil litigation when he finds that higher educational facilities have done him wrong. What’s more, he wins.

Noble also has a history as a political activist to supplement his academic credentials, and he appears to have little difficulty negotiating the dual roles of scholar and citizen. In 1983, for instance, he joined with Ralph Nader to found the National Coalition for Universities in the Public Interest. He has worked for decades with rank-and-file trade unionists and is as comfortable with industrial workers as with gowned academics – maybe more so.

He is, in short, an educator who writes and acts to bring scholarship into the service of working people and a part of that service is the active resistance to increasing corporate control over colleges, curriculum and the teaching-learning process. To some, he is the embodiment of the fusion of theory and practice. To others, such as ex-York University president Lorna Marsden, he is “anti-science” and “anti-intellectual.”

And what has this to do with us?
Digital Diploma Mills is a sound, sane and serious criticism of a variety of trends in higher education. It revolves around the theme of computerized education and takes account of the use of electronic gadgetry in classrooms, the Internet and all other domains of educational communication that exist or are emerging. Rather than confine himself to complaints about the efficacy and efficiency of digitalized education, however, he extends his analysis into other aspects of the twenty-first century educational experience. The mode of educational production, after all, does not consist exclusively of hardware, software and what, in some circles, is lovingly called “teachware”. It also involves human relationships including those between teachers and students and those among students in their classrooms, where they still exist.

In particular, Noble makes clear the relationships among the mass adoption of educational technology, the politically imposed budgetary restrictions that apply to “second-tier” universities and colleges, the subordination of education to narrow vocationalism and such trends as the attack on university tenure and the massive changes in the college workforce as, for example, in Ontario where economically exploited and insecure part-time teaching staff now outnumber full-time teachers and where the balance is apt only to increase.

Commodification, commercialization and corporatization are all elements of a continuing process of transformation that is increasingly shaping the ideological and material conditions of employment and education in the colleges. Confronted with this externally imposed modification designed to meet the expressed needs of late capitalism, Noble’s lucid analysis and deft assessment provides invaluable insights into our current working conditions. The question is what, if anything, is to be done.

I have only spoken with David Noble a couple of times, but I plan to do so again, not so much to seek his advice (though it would not go amiss), but rather to acquire a little more inspiration. I am fairly certain that he would not abjure the label of Luddism, and it might be ennobling to resuscitate that particular attitude toward technology in our own time. To the uncritical celebrants of contemporary technology, Luddites were at best irrational romantics and at worst among the first modern terrorists. It is a token of our collective historical ignorance that we fail to know (or to care much) about who the Army of Redressers under the symbolic leadership of Ned Ludd really were.

Witnesses to, and victims of, the early phases of the industrial revolution, these handloom weavers did not seek to stop technological innovation, but merely to guarantee that its material benefits were equitably shared. Their machine-breaking was not a violent rejection of modernity, but only a protest against the manner in which machinery intensified the social class system of early nineteenth-century England. Derided as anachronisms in the era of progress, they have endured a damning indictment for close to two hundred years. It will take some effort to reintroduce chronology and coherence to our study and teaching of history, but we are imperiled without it.

Today’s educational administrators seem content to murmur, with Henry Ford, that “history is more or less bunk.” A careful reading of David Noble can persuade us otherwise, while illuminating our current circumstances. Though I remain cautiously pessimistic about our prospects, it may be time to echo the words of science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury who famously quipped: “I do not try to describe the future. I try to prevent it.”


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

Reviews

• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2007 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology