Skip navigation
College Quarterly
Fall 2013 - Volume 16 Number 4
The Idea of the Digital University: Ancient Traditions, Disruptive Technologies and the Battle for the Soul of Higher Education
Frank Bryce McCluskey & Melanie Lynn Winter
Washington, DC: Westphalia Press, 2013
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Lots of people are stupid. Lots of people are ignorant. The first group probably can’t help it. Stupidity, at least in ordinary language, connotes an inherent mental incapacity. Ignorance is different. It can generally be cured by the acquisition of information. Stupid people are pretty much stuck. Ignorant people aren’t, but they seldom make the effort to overcome their lack of knowledge. Neither stupid nor ignorant people matter much in the allegedly larger scheme of things, except perhaps when they show up to vote for stupid, ignorant or, worse, cunning and mendacious politicians eager to get their unskilled but grubby little hands on the mechanisms of power. It happens.

A more troubling fact about our society, however, is that lots of smart, well-informed people make it into positions of authority (they make important social decisions) and influence (they have an effect on the decisions made by the authorities), but keep getting it wrong anyway. By it, of course, I mean issues concerning the natural environment, technology, war and peace, wealth and poverty, health and disease and, of course education.

One of the main reasons that they get it wrong is that they don’t know how to think systemically. They try to “unpack” complicated issues, reduce them to manageable parts, isolate “pieces of the puzzle,” fix some of the smaller, more manageable bits and imagine that, in doing so, the whole will somehow be restored, redeemed or reinvented in a way that benefits everyone. Smart, well-informed analysts and policy makers, maybe more than their stupid, ignorant compatriots, can make a tremendous botch of almost anything.

Take education: everyone thinks that it is in a state of crisis, has been for a long time and will be for a long time to come. How do we fix it?

Well, first, we need to understand it so that we can determine precisely what’s wrong and then go about working necessary miracles. The first problem with understanding is that we don’t have much agreement on what education is and what education is for. If, however, we were absurdly lucky enough to come up with a tentative consensus on those two essential questions, the next difficulty comes when we try to sort out how to dispense with what doesn’t work, improve what does, and maybe invent new policies, processes, practices and procedures to resolve previously unsettled disputes and dilemmas.

The Idea of a Digital University doesn’t do any of the above, much less all of it. It should not, however, be criticized for that. No other praiseworthy book on education has delivered coherent, comprehensive answers to our various conundrums; so, the volume under review is in pretty good, though obviously mixed, company. What it does do and what few others even attempt is set out some useful arguments and assessments about the complexities involved in (post)modern education. In this it succeeds. It provides a kind of map that will allow intrepid educators to begin to essay (so to speak) a remarkably difficult and sometimes inhospitable terrain. It’s a rough map, to be sure, but it does help us to see patches of forest as well as particular trees. It informs us of restorative oases in a sometimes parching desert.

Most important, it gives us an example of the rudiments of systemic thinking and thereby teaches the more astute among us not to “think outside the box,” but to understand the nature and structure of the box, its placement on a particular shelf in our commercialized society and also much of the stuff that has been jammed inside it. It locates the box in its larger context and it helps us to see within.

Sophisticated critical pedagogues—with or without an addiction to apparently abstruse theory or a penchant for impenetrable polysyllabic prose—may find little that is new in this contribution to our common discourse; nonetheless, attentive teachers, who are either unfamiliar with or already ill-disposed toward the Peter McLarens and Henry Girouxs of our day, should get some healthy satisfaction from reading it. It is conversational without being condescending. It respects its readers’ intelligence without expecting expert or specialized knowledge of the historical theory and practice of (mainly) North American higher education. It does not presume technical expertise in everything from public administration to information technology, but it manages to put forward important issues and explanations in those fields that will help at least the less stupid among us to overcome some of our ignorance. As such, it can be viewed as a primer or a reminder for those who have allowed awareness of the complexity of postsecondary educational systems to fade as we dug ever deeper into our ever more constricted professional domains.

The Idea of the Digital University compels us to look beyond the classroom and its micromanagement, beyond specific syllabi and even beyond internal patterns of power, conflict and cooperation that describe the institutions within which we function. Education, it makes clear, is a product of political economy above all. So, colleges and universities are compelled to take into account power relations among major economic and political structures. They must also deal with demographics. They must address student demands (however inchoate and ill-considered) for marketable competencies and employer demands for skill sets (regardless of how limited and short-lived) among graduates. Of increasing importance, too, is the insinuation of electronic communications and high technology into postsecondary teaching and learning, both as both pedagogical instruments and as curricular content. McCluskey and Winter deal with them as well.

Certain ideological commitments must also be navigated. A lot of people enthuse over academic entrepreneurship and a few still value scholarship. In the near and distant future, hoary old debates about vocational training versus liberal education will regularly be trotted out, though that argument hasn’t improved much since C. P. Snow talked about scientists who couldn’t write and humanists who couldn’t think. And, not finally, but as finally as space will allow, there will be enduring chatter about social criticism and social justice of the sort that the authorities are trying desperately and apparently rather successfully to defuse and to marginalize by transforming expressions of outrage into mealy-mouthed “conversations,” the purpose of which is to delay and to dither until once inflammatory issues are deformed or adjourned until a more expeditious moment—which, of course, will never come.

McCluskey and Winter begin by addressing their theme head-on. In the current phase of the allegedly permanent crisis in education, there can be no more dominant issue than the one they identify in their title. The digitization of postsecondary education is pervasive and supposedly irresistible. In prestigious law schools, for example, teachers of torts may interrupt their lectures every ten minutes or so to make sure their students “got it,” when they explained the importance of the “snail in the bottle” case involving a woman who sued because she opened a bottle of ginger beer and was allegedly sickened by the sight of a dead snail inside (Donoghue v Stevenson [1932]). During the pause, students must use their “clickers” to reply to a few multiple-choice questions on the previous ten minutes of talk. If an insufficient number get the answers right, the professor is prompted to back up and do it again. More common, however, is the fear that grips inexperienced teachers when “student evaluations” are imposed by the authorities or, worse, when they are castigated for being “boring” on any number of social media sites.

The Idea of the Digital University starts sensibly with Cardinal Newman and proceeds to examine innovations in teaching, libraries, online curricula and the clouds of “big data” that envelop and sometimes threaten to choke us. Drawing on the likes of H. A. Innis and Marshall McLuhan, the authors make allusions to the shift from oral to written cultures that suggest something about the mechanisms of societal transformation. They then take a step back. Exploring the etymology of “crisis” itself, they refer to the ancient Greek physicians who coined the term to refer to that singular moment when it becomes clear that the patient will either live or die. They then reassure us that there is no “crisis” in higher education, since it is clear that the patient will live and not die, but it will be unalterably changed. McCluskey and Winter are optimistic. They say that something new will be born though, like the people who lived at the time of Gutenberg, they may not appreciate what the new technologies of communications will portend for, perhaps, an unexpectedly long time.

At this point, I feared that McCluskey and Winter were about to smack me in the face with another cream-puff commentary on the magnificent future awaiting us—not only crowded with fun-filled learning experiences using videogames in place of dreary books and deadly lectures, the sanitized essence of which could otherwise be seized in a minute-long YouTube video clip or, at worst, a few PowerPoint slides digitally transferred to Facebook, but also opening up education to millions of new virtual students through the explosion of MOOC (mass open online course) offerings for free casual enjoyment or for cheap academic credit at some of the world’s most exalted institutions or the impending MOOCiversities that are no doubt part of Bill Gates’ business plan.

Instead, I am happy to say that The Idea of the Digital University takes a swerve toward seriousness and significance. Instead of an uncritical paean to the Gates-Jobs axis of wired (or, now, wireless) Universal Universities and K-Mart Kolleges, the authors give us a brief but satisfactory review of the history of American higher education from the turn-of-the-twentieth-century establishment of the land-grant universities to the effects of the post-World War II “GI Bill” and on to the evolving relationship between higher education and “national security.” This period, they correctly say, has resulted in a “new debate about inclusion and quality.” The debate may not exactly be about elitism and equality, as some have somewhat feverishly suggested, but it may nonetheless be about politics. And, as I found it necessary to say to someone who irritatedly asked why I had make everything political: “I don’t. Everything is already political. Always was. Always will be.”

McCluskey and Winter, of course, do not deal with politics in a narrow partisan manner. Just as they went back to Hippocrates and Galen for their comment on “crisis,” so I will rehearse Pericles and Aristotle. Politics, properly understood, is our highest secular calling. We are zoon politikon (political animals). Politics is our common effort to determine what is in the interest of our communities and what will do the most good for our people. To turn decision making into a mechanical exercise or a purely instrumental set of amoral procedures derived from a heartless, fleshless exercise in “cost-benefit” analysis is to denature ourselves. I sense that McCluskey and Winter understand this and consequently raise the normative stakes of the discussion. They also understand the importance and relevance of history—which is not a minor accomplishment in today’s insistence on living in the specious present and the make-believe future.

In the middle part of the book, the authors present an engaging treatment of some of the habitual examinations of the philosophy of education. Although this is not (and does not pretend to be) an intellectually ground-breaking or superbly scholarly exercise, it makes the necessary nods to Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Rousseau, Hannah Arendt and Allan Bloom. Discussion of their significance and the implications of their work is limited, but it is important in a book of this sort and scope that such figures are at least mentioned and readers with the wit and the will to do so are implicitly invited to search for more.

Equally satisfying is the fact that The Idea of the Digital University does not affect an apolitical disinterest and a detached objectivity. The main fault that I have to find with most articles and books on the subject of technological change in education is that they deny or try falsely to finesse the question of power and authority. To their credit, the authors do the opposite. The entire area of college and university governance is opened up, and the concept of academic freedom is not only considered as the essence of any education worthy of the name, but also of its intimate association with the entire array of human rights. It is a topic that begs further engagement and one for which, I regret to say, too many educational leaders have little stomach as they speak timidly and defensively about cut-backs, accountability and the necessary pragmatism of lying supine before government and corporate giants which are not only marginalizing the liberal arts, but also gutting the integrity of the sciences as they slash “pure” research and demand the immediate commercialization of any project apt to be funded privately or publicly.

Examples of these concerns abound. In the private sector, they include the efforts of pharmaceutical companies to suppress research showing the adverse effects of their drugs. In the public sector, they include infamous Coburn amendment to a US Senate bill that has (I hope only temporarily) cut National Science Foundation research funds from any political scientist unless the research is designed to promote the national security or economic interests of the United States. They also involve numerous Canadian government attempts to stifle environmental research that could be inconvenient for the petroleum industry, especially with respect to the extraction of ecologically hazardous bitumen. By contemporary neoliberal lights, higher education is in place to produce uncritical servants of the state and economic innovators of corporate technology … “only this, and nothing more.” McCluskey and Winter do not dive deeply into this or any other controversy, but it is pleasing to note that they notice that controversies are there.

The second half of the book mainly concerns the authors’ generally balanced approach to a series of specific situations. It is informed by their earlier attentiveness to the systemic nature of, and the changes within, higher education in a time of technology in ascendancy. They are neither radical nor reactionary in their approach. Whether discussing the role of librarians or records-keepers, admissions criteria for colleges and universities or accreditation criteria for institutions of higher learning, the authors are exquisitely sensitive to the competing needs/demands of business efficiencies and of academic independence.

Students in the digital age are also examined, but not as a sleazy solicitude reminiscent of Uriah Heep. Too often educational marketers and recruiters have done little but help grease the slide to the bottom by selling an “experience” instead of an “education” to young people unqualified to distinguish between the two. The book concludes with commentaries on dashboards, data warehouses and digital report cards, but it is cheering to see that, even there, McCluskey and Winter are willing to make reference to Tolstoy, Joyce and Proust as they advise a middle way between corporate excesses and total academic integrity. The end result is a plea for the golden mean, for pragmatism, mutual understanding and what I am sometimes tempted to call a battery of liberal bromides in a Panglossian rear-guard action against dominant and domineering leaders of what my colleagues in the humanities might call a crude philistinism.

At the same time, to return to the initial point, too many writings on contemporary higher education either treat educational technology as a means of salvation or damnation. Likewise, too many engage in the kind fragmented approach which speaks only to matters of micromanagement and ignores the larger societal context. To understand, never mind to influence, the fervent, obsessive drive to educational “reform” demands of us a level of analysis and engagement that goes well beyond the classroom door and reaches instead into the community and on up into the highest realms of determinative power.

Some people get this, including some of my mystical, New-Agey acquaintances who at least appreciate that “everything is connected to everything else,” (though too often by gossamer threads of spiritual hope). Mostly, however, they pay inadequate attention to the fact that the same thing can be said of a food chain or a hydrology cycle. They are, however, not as bad as the intelligent and well-informed experts and policy makers who understand that, when any part of a natural ecology overpowers the other elements, then systemic balance is doomed and that much the same can be said of our whole society. It is upon them that blame must fall for impending, systemic and wholly understandable economic, ecological and ethical dangers and the designed failure of our educational systems to alert young people not merely to imminent hazards and also to the ways to diagnose our pathologies and to seek possible therapies. As it is, we are far more likely to treat symptoms (albeit ineffectively) than to seek to disclose the underlying systemic, structural disease.

Growth in population, technology, energy use and consumption of both needed and wholly wasteful commodities constitutes a real and present danger for the health and even the survival of our species (never mind our cohabitants of the Earth that we are exterminating at a rate equal to those of the mass extinctions of the past when, at least, the destruction of the dinosaurs can be explained by an accidental terrestrial run-in with a large chunk of interplanetary rubbish and not a sordid combination of human avarice and hubris.

Making the connection between our “lesson plans” (for those who actually “plan” their “lessons”) and the ideological strictures which our students bring to their studies is a tricky matter. Many of us do not make the connection between our allegedly apolitical teaching and the civic indifference which our graduates too frequently display. Nonetheless, as educators, we must hold ourselves responsible both for contributing to a critical consciousness in our teaching and the temptation to acquiescence in the uncritical educational system that is outlined in The Idea of the Digital University. We are at least partly culpable for the creation and consequences of what Canadian journalist, author and activist Linda McQuaig famously called our “cult of impotence.” This book, however, makes it possible to take a step away from ignorance and to begin to understand the critical mechanism for determining what must be done.

Frank Bryce McCluskey and Melanie Lynn Winter make that step easier for anyone who has not yet made the connection between power and pedagogy. I have communicated on several occasions with Frank McCluskey over the past few months about issues unrelated to his book or to my review of it. I am proud that he signed my copy and called me, as always optimistically, his “dialectical partner in crime,” adding what looks like a stylized “happy face” with his signature inside. That pretty much sums it up. I suspect that, if we were ever to have the opportunity to exchange views on stage or, better, to team-teach a course, we’d quickly find fault-lines of mutual disagreement. Meanwhile, however, it is always good to find people who are making serious attempts to bridge some gaps.


Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at howard_doughty@post.com

Contents