The University Record, October 22, 1996

FACULTY PERSPECTIVES

The VisioN Thing

By J. David Velleman
Professor of philosophy

 

If you are interested in the future of universities, and of this University in particular, take a look at the VisioN 2010 Home Page on the WorldWide Web (http://www.si.umich.edu/V2010/). VisioN 2010, located in Michigan's School of Information, is a project designed to promote discussion of the revolutionary changes that information technology will bring to higher education. The V2010 home page conveys a vision of the future that became familiar on this campus during the presidency of James Duderstadt---a vision of the "virtual" university, in which the printed word and face-to-face instruction are largely replaced by networked, multi-media software. The values and qualities of mind informing this vision have never been revealed more clearly than they are in the V2010 home page.

 

The V2010 home page promises to "heat up the conversation" by presenting "four scenarios of what higher education may look like in 2010." You might think that the best way to spark conversation would be to present four alternative visions of the future for higher education. But what the authors of VisioN 2010 present, instead of four alternative visions of the future, is in fact a single, narrow vision of the alternatives facing higher education.

In this vision, universities must choose between going virtual and going extinct. Thus, one of the four V2010 scenarios portrays a rosy future in which universities have digitized, while the other three scenarios portray futures in which, having failed to change, universities suffer various forms of death and decay. These four possibilities are arrayed as the points of a compass, suggesting that they exhaust the directions that higher education can take. The choice is supposed to be up for discussion, but it is presented in terms designed to make it a no-brainer.

 

VisioN 2010 doesn't so much invite discussion, then, as seek to force discussion along a particular course. This pressure is backed by a barrage of rhetorical and polemical devices of the sort that undergraduates are warned against in courses on critical thinking---emotive fallacies such as name-calling, ad hominem attacks, fear mongering, false dichotomy, and so on. By the end of the four scenarios, the waters have been so thoroughly muddied, the wells so thoroughly poisoned, that intelligent discussion cannot go forward, except by ignoring the scenarios and starting from scratch.

 

One of the polemical devices favored by the authors of VisioN 2010 obliges me to pause at this point for a bit of autobiography. The device in question is that of impugning the motives of anyone who disagrees with the authors. In the V2010 scenarios, those who are in the least skeptical of instructional technology are said to be "arrogant," to be "acting out of fear of change and out of prejudice against anything ... popular." They secretly admire instructional technology, of course, but "get them in a departmental meeting ... and forget about it---their feet are so firmly planted in the mud you'd need a backhoe to dig them out." Elsewhere, the skeptics appear as "Cassandras" who "harp" on the social dangers of technology. In yet another scenario, they appear as short-sighted has-beens who can only look back with the "remarkable optics of hindsight."

In the face of such language, anyone who wishes to criticize VisioN 2010 must be prepared to defend his character, by showing that he is not an arrogant, hysterical, myopic stick-in-the-mud. So here are the relevant items from my CV.

I am a proponent of instructional technology. I teach a course in which blackboard and paper are completely replaced by networked software that I wrote myself. In another course, I have integrated digital display technology into all of my lectures and disseminated all of my course materials on the WorldWide Web. I have served on the Vice President's Task Force on Research Computing, on the search committee for the Library Director of the new Media Union and on a team representing the U-M at a Big Ten conference on instructional technology. For years I have chaired the computing committee in my own department, where I have also developed database applications for administrative use.

In short, I am not afraid of technology, prejudiced against it, or hysterical about its dangers. I am fully computer-friendly---a real point-and-click kind of guy. So why am I not a friend of VisioN 2010?

 

Let me start with the scenario titled "Higher Education: It's Not Just for College Students Anymore." In this story---one of the dire scenarios in which universities have missed the boat---a 26-year veteran of faculty life is packing it in and moving to industry. Surveying the boxes in which he has packed his office, he reflects on the ratio of books and papers to CD-ROMs and DigiDocs: "Three paper to eight electronic. As it ought to be. Unfortunately, in this world I'm leaving behind, that ratio is inverted. ... Eight to three. Just one of the reasons universities are unraveling."

Note that the protagonist of this scenario believes there is a correct ratio of analog to digital materials, in abstraction from the materials' content or purpose. You may wonder what's in those boxes. What information is recorded there and how is it meant to be used? What kind of research does this professor do, what kind of courses does he teach? Don't ask. You needn't know the substance of this person's work in order to judge the appropriateness of its format. What's important is the "ratio of analog to digital"---an expression in which the adjectives alone express values, without being attached to nouns. Digital is better than analog---digital anything, that is, compared with analog anything.

I myself am a technophile: I think computers are neat. But as a teacher I cannot afford to indulge my own tastes in technology at the expense of pedagogical effectiveness. I have to use the medium that works best for my students. So the overall ratio of digital to analog is meaningless to me as a teacher. I need to know what is in these formats, how it is meant to be used, by whom, for what intellectual purpose.

 

To be sure, the authors of VisioN 2010 discuss the intellectual purposes of a university. But their discussion is hopelessly tendentious.

We are told that the University has three functions: "1) the preparation of the young for economic usefulness; 2) the fulfillment, especially since World War II, of society's research needs; and 3) the provision of values and ethics to the good citizen, a function that holds over from the university's origins in the medieval European church." The latter function, we are subsequently informed, is "reactionary, harkening back to the 18th- and 19th-century model of the liberal education of both mind and heart." Nevertheless, the authors try to be tolerant: "there is certainly a niche for such education with a moral focus---witness the rise of religious colleges." Their example of an institution filling this niche is the University of Bridgeport, which was taken over in 1990 by followers of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

What the authors are suggesting here, though they never come out with it explicitly, is that research and professional training are the only legitimate functions of a university. Everything else is medieval hocus-pocus, 18th-century piety or cult religion.

 

Nowhere in the V2010 narratives is there an inkling that universities might serve functions other than the ones listed in this first scenario. If there are other possibilities, the 2010 VisioNaries aren't putting them up for discussion.

In particular, the authors never consider the possibility that universities might be responsible, not for "the provision of values and ethics to the good citizen," but rather for the cultivation of that citizen's intellectual curiosity, his powers of critical thinking, his awareness of the natural and cultural worlds around him, his ability to participate in rational debate, to evaluate scientific claims, or to appreciate works of art. In short, they never consider that universities might be responsible for the cultivation of the citizen's mind.

Now, if you thought that universities were responsible for cultivating minds, then the vision of a virtual university would prompt you to ask this question: Can the intellectual leaders of one generation cultivate the minds of younger generations at a distance? Unfortunately, VisioN 2010 makes no attempt to encourage debate on this question. It attempts rather to slip such questions quietly off the table, while insinuating that anyone who dares to ask them is a Cassandra or a Moonie.

 

I believe that a large portion of the undergraduate instruction that we provide in universities today can be enhanced---and a smaller portion, replaced---by instructional technology. I have tried to make my own, modest contribution to that evolutionary change in higher education. I also believe that instructional technology will revolutionize professional training, especially that phase of it which is called "continuing education."

I do not believe, however, that higher education --- the process by which the scholars, artists and scientists of one generation cultivate the minds of younger generations --- will ever transfer its core activities from the campus to "the net." I do not believe that what the VisioNaries call the "R-L (`Real-Life') campus" will ever shrink to the role that they envision for it, as a site for part-time residency, needed only for the purpose of inculcating social skills.

These beliefs are based on my own experience in teaching with technology. This experience has led me to doubt whether the students who now welcome computerized instruction as the spice in their educational diet will want to have it as a main course. It has also led me to doubt whether those who are professionally engaged in furthering the arts and sciences will ever be inspired or able to introduce their disciplines to merely virtual students. Teaching with digital technology has enabled me to refocus my personal contacts with students, but I see no sign that they or I can dispense with personal contact.

 

These doubts are tentative and subject to change. My crystal ball is no clearer than anyone else's. I'm ready to be persuaded that I've underestimated the future of technology in academia.

In order to persuade me, however, the authors of VisioN 2010 will have to stop belittling liberal education and its practitioners. They'll have to take seriously the intellectual values that define the university for me and for most of my colleagues.

Unfortunately, the only values that the authors of VisioN 2010 appear to recognize are economic values. They worry about how our institutions will "position themselves" in the "learning market" to meet the "new, leaner competitors" that will soon "attempt to capture ... the university's traditional monopoly." They want to explore how universities can attain "larger markets" by exploiting the "gold-mine" of "what we once disparagingly called `edutainment'." They want us to envision a fictional world in which academics "pull ... in multimillion dollar incomes from their digital packagings," while "tenure ... no longer guarantee[s] professors regular raises" (something that tenure never did nor was meant to do, by the way). And they want us to imagine receiving these words from a future provost, on the occasion of closing our university's doors:

 

When this university gave Bill Gates---a dropout---his eighth honorary doctorate, we should have recognized who in this digital age was overtaking us, and we should have listened to what he told our graduates:

`Insist with both fists that your education put you at the gate of your career.'

 

Is the value of an education reducible to the market price of a degree? Is our success as educators to be measured by our share of a "learning market?" Even if we think of ourselves as "positioned" in a market, is it one in which Bill Gates might take a competing position? Do Gates's business successes --- and the fawning attentions that follow --- make him a model to be emulated in academia? And why should higher education put students at the gate merely of a career rather than the gate of intellectual growth and personal fulfillment?

 

These questions point to just a few of the dubious assumptions that make VisioN 2010 unsuitable as a basis for further discussion. Indeed, the entire strategy of provoking discussion with fictional scenarios, which insinuate but never argue, and which mix selected facts with tendentious fantasies, is unsuited to the deliberations of an academic community.

Apparently, the VisioNaries' impatience with our traditional ways of teaching extends to our traditional ways of debating complex issues as well. In their ideal world, not only are lectures replaced by CD-ROM's, but self-critical inquiry is swept away by "visions," and the complexity of "pro and con" is trumped by the simplicity of "can do."

This impatience is typical of presentations on behalf of instructional technology. No wonder the proponents of technology so often find their faculty audience to be sullen or apathetic; it has been bullied into silence by their own uncritical enthusi asm and their disdain for careful thought. By all means, let us discuss the new technology. But let's discuss it with good, old-fashioned logic.