Not long ago, leafing through Forbes magazine, I was gripped by the words of management guru Peter Drucker: "Thirty years from now, the big university campuses will be relics...Higher education is in a deep crisis. The college won't survive as a residential institution. Today's buildings are hopelessly unsuited and totally unneeded."
He was talking about the so-called "virtual university." Education, he believes, should and will take place completely off campus and on-line. Students will go to college on the Internet and earn their degrees via computer.
A day doesn't pass that I don't read or hear a prediction that "distance learning" will reinvent colleges and universities. I'm exhorted to get on the bandwagon.
Drucker's vision of the demise of colleges' physicality came as a shock. So does his belief that the vast, richly varied enterprise of higher education can be replaced by an electronic substitute. I understand the romance of the virtual university. It promises affordability and universal access. It promises to transform professors into entrepreneurs whose prowess depends upon their ability to appeal to electronic customers. In the virtual university there will be no need to deal with the housing, feeding, and follies of students.
Virtual higher education is the kind of quick technological fix Americans have always found deeply appealing.
This threat or promise of the virtual university compels us to consider what colleges are trying to accomplish and to ask whether virtual colleges could do it better.
People enter college for many reasons. Above all, students tell us that they come to learn the arts that will serve them well in earning a living. Liberal arts colleges believe that the best professional preparation is learning the arts of writing clearly and persuasively; of reading carefully and evaluating evidence effectively; of reasoning quantitatively and analytically; of doing research and thinking critically. Liberal arts colleges impart familiarity with basic concepts of science and a sense of history. These skills and competencies seem even more important as students come of age when knowledge is expanding at a rate faster than ever before.
Another essential goal of liberal education is to nurture creativity. Science education provides an excellent example. Liberal arts colleges have long been very successful in producing scientists. Oberlin's success at producing more graduates who earn doctorates in the natural sciences than any other undergraduate institution owes a lot to the interaction between individual students and their teachers. The best liberal arts colleges have long understood the value of the old institution of apprenticeship. Each summer at Oberlin, scores of science students work in research labs alongside professor-mentors. Excellence in education happens in relationships.
Students come to college today wanting to learn how to live together in a richly diverse America, comfortable with racial, ethnic, political, and religious diversity. Here, students come from all over the US and nearly 40 nations, reflecting the entire socioeconomic spectrum. They hold a wide range of political and social opinions. Oberlin, in short, looks like America.
This brings me back to the virtual university. Instead of cultivating the arts of actual face-to-face human relationship, the virtual university encourages us to be on our own in the virtual marketplace, free to make our individual contracts in cyberspace.
All of us will be on our own. There will be no conflict on the virtual campus, for we need never come into contact with one another. Could this be the basic appeal of the virtual university in this time of social and cultural uncertainty? This troubles me most about virtual education.
Historically, Americans looked to colleges, in the words of the Northwest Ordinance, to further "religion, morality and knowledge, (these) being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind." When we look closely at the mission of colleges, it's not really so different from the one the drafters of the Northwest Ordinance had in mind. We're very much in the business of educating citizens. We're very much in the business of furthering knowledge, and we know that the best teaching and learning happens in relationships, face to face.
Colleges are concerned about furthering "the happiness of mankind." Today, this translates most clearly into realizing our need to learn to live together, and into helping students master the arts that will best serve them in those essential human tasks of love and work.
This mission seems inextricably tied to the sometimes messy, often ambiguous, always inexact, and usually contentious relationships in the actual rather that the virtual university.
* Nancy S. Dye is president of Oberlin College, in Oberlin, Ohio.