The University of Nowhere: The False Promise of “Disruption”

Kevin Carey’s "The End of College" is the latest book to seize the imagination of disrupters. It touts massive changes for post-secondary education.

The End of College by Kevin Carey. Riverhead Books. 288 pages.

FOR TWO DECADES, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen has advanced a sweeping account of “disruption” as an explanation for business history, and as the key to its future. According to disruption theory, nimble competitors replace established firms by developing rival products. Initially cheap and of poor quality, these rival products end up dominating markets. From Amazon to Zillow, disrupters reign.

Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation electrified the consultant class, and its influence soon extended far beyond business. Thought leaders aimed to disrupt government. Christensen co-authored books telling hospital and university leaders to shake up their operations. His public statements now suggest that virtually every facet of human existence can be improved by implementing disruptive principles. Why, he asks, buy a single painting for your apartment, when digital gallerists can email your flatscreen “a fresh piece of art” every three weeks? Disruption has become a theory of everything, set to catapult Christensen to guru status as scholar, consultant, and sage.

And yet the last couple of years have not been kind to him. Historian Jill Lepore’s devastating New Yorker profile portrayed Christensen as an academic lightweight, who downplays evidence that large, stable companies can sustain their business models. Business researchers Andrew A. King and Baljir Baatartogtokh have strengthened Lepore’s case. As Lee Vinsel observes, they found “only 9 of 77 cases that Christensen used as examples of disruptive innovation actually fit the criteria of his own theory.” Given these embarrassments, it may be time to consign “disruption” to the dustbin of stale management theory buzzwords.

But Christensen’s zombie ideas are too politically convenient to disappear — and particularly so in the education sector. Tax-cutting, budget-slashing politicos are always eager to hear that education could be much, much cheaper. The Clayton Christensen Institute had a starring role at a recent Senate Hearing attacking traditional accreditation standards. In Silicon Valley and Wall Street, talk of “disrupting education” mobilizes investors and excites startups. Kevin Carey’s The End of College is the latest book to seize the imagination of disrupters. It touts massive changes for post-secondary education.

How massive? For Carey, a great deal of instruction should be commoditized, with free or near-free content as accessible as YouTube videos of massive open online courses (MOOCs). Most research universities shouldn’t just shrink. They should “reform” themselves to the point of unrecognizability, or dissolve into the internet ether. We should not mourn them, says Carey, but “shatter” them outright; they are, he believes, “grotesquely expensive and shamefully indifferent to undergraduate learning.” 

Carey hopes that online courses combined with tiny, impromptu “learning communities” will end college as we know it, replacing it with a “University of Everywhere.” His utopian vision, however, is premised on inconsistent values and aims. The likelier result of his policies is a University of Nowhere by way of shifty firms marketing ad hoc vocational education of questionable value or relevance.

The Two Faces of Kevin Carey

Carey’s book is an impassioned fusion of prescription and prediction. Following the disrupter’s creed, he believes things need to change drastically in higher ed, and that they will change. But bridging the gap between “is” and “ought” is a formidable task — one Carey tries to solve by muckraking indictments of universities on the one hand and encomia to tech firms on the other. Painting universities in the most unflattering light possible, he sounds a lot like a moral scold, shocking the reader with stories of college students paying “$1,000 for reserved tables and bottles of premium vodka” and faculty decadently pursuing esoteric research agendas. By contrast, he treats the would-be architects of his “University of Everywhere” with kid gloves, praising most of their initiatives with the enthusiasm of a fan-boy.

Neither approach offers a fair account of present university life, nor of the corporations (and corporate-funded foundations) that aim to disrupt it. Rather, they pander to all-too-human predilections for tales of heroism and villainy. I hope to show below that they are particularly jarring when juxtaposed.

As a scold, Carey follows in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan. In the 1960s, the Gipper campaigned for governor of California by promising to “fix the mess at Berkeley.” Reagan suspected students were goofing off and smoking pot — and Carey, too, tells college students they need to “put down the bong” and start studying harder. One of Carey’s main sources is a study, Academically Adrift, which has itself been heavily criticized. The distinguished education researcher Alexander Astin believes that the study’s claim “that 45 percent of America's college undergraduates fail to improve their reasoning and writing skills during their first two years of college” simply “cannot be taken seriously.” A brutal review of Academically Adrift claims that its authors neglect to engage with “hundreds” of articles “showing undergraduate improvement in writing and critical thinking […] although [their book is] aswim with think-tank books and blue-ribbon papers opining the opposite.”

Count Carey’s End of College as one more of those think-tank books, to be brandished in the next iteration of anti-college research, which will then be cited in the next generation of think-tank books. Content cycles are all the rage in disruption circles.

Having painted Hogarthian indictments of university excess and failure early in the book, Carey abruptly embraces the sunny optimism of techno-utopians later on. In The End of College, Silicon Valley thought leaders are as pragmatic, nimble, and public-spirited as university administrators are doctrinaire, ossified, and avaricious. They’ve devised methods of teaching and evaluating students that solve (or will soon solve — Carey vacillates here) all the old problems of distance education.

Online learning at the University of Everywhere could eventually improve outcomes — or degenerate into an uncanny hybrid of Black Mirror and Minority Report. Big data surveillance will track the work students do, ostensibly in order to customize learning. Get stuck on a lesson? Just keep interfacing with a keyboard, camera, and perhaps haptic sensors. Or perhaps IM some reserve army of tutorial labor via digital labor platforms like Mechanical Turk or TaskRabbit. Want to prove you aren’t faking exams? Just let cameras record your every move and keystroke — perhaps your eye movements and facial expressions, too. According to Carey, “People like [Google’s] Peter Norvig will analyze the oceans of information being generated by millions of students and continually optimize and improve what students experience and how much they learn.” Certainly we can trust Silicon Valley to respect our privacy and do nothing untoward with the data! “All watched over by machines of loving grace,” as the Brautigan poem (and Curtis documentary) put it.

With new platforms like Coursera, Silicon Valley has even lured universities into giving away lectures for free. The colleges think they’re establishing good karma with the public, but disrupters hope for a more chaotic endgame: students deciding to watch free courses, then proving their credentials to certifiers who give out “badges” to signify competence in a skill set. The certifiers most likely won’t be burdened with any of the teaching, research, community service, counseling (career or otherwise), recreation, social events, extracurriculars, or other long-standing features of residential university communities. They will just verify that student X can do task Y.

It could be a very profitable business. As students pay less for actual instruction by experts, they have more money to spend on badges. Unburdened by legacy staff and faculty, “ed tech” firms could muster a just-in-time workforce to develop new educational technologies. Carey foresees courses produced like movies or videogames — the greatest biology course imaginable, for instance, might cost $100 million to make, but charge a $100 fee to 10 million students, achieving a 10X return for investors. Scale is key, he advises, and therefore “colleges should start thinking about smaller amounts of money multiplied by much larger amounts of people.” Meanwhile, investors will continue “unbundling” the university into least-cost providers of content units, student surveillance, and badge-granting.

The Logical Contradictions of Cybernetic Education

It’s hard to simultaneously pen a requiem for college, a utopian vision of its low-cost future, and a business plan for educators and investors. Carey blasts universities for operating like for-profit businesses — and then suggests to readers that an entrepreneur who once “settled SEC charges of reporting inaccurate financial results” will treat students better. He praises Great Books maven Robert Maynard Hutchins for criticizing the universities of his day — only to propose a series of nakedly instrumentalist conceptions of education that offer little, if any, room for the classical learning that was among Hutchins’s highest concerns.

Sometimes bricolage reflects a healthily hybrid outlook, a willingness to entertain disparate perspectives to achieve a larger vision. But Carey’s farrago is dissonant; he grasps at whatever evidence can indict research institutions while ignoring (or gingerly broaching and dismissing) critiques of the “ed tech” he lionizes. Philosophers are worried about regimentation of curricula and homogenization of class content via centralized online courses? Oh, that’s just the “philosopher’s guild” looking out for itself, a scientist reassures Carey, and the narrative immediately returns to lavish praise for all things tech.

By failing to question that dismissive response, Carey implies that faculty opposition to MOOCs is simply a matter of self-interest. His concerns about greed, so prominent when he discusses universities, fade away when he rhapsodizes about ed tech’s “disruptive innovators.” Keep in mind that the speculative, financialized business models that Carey claims will transform education have already been tried in other fields, with wildly varying levels of success. We may not care if fails spectacularly. But when educational innovation goes wrong, real people suffer. One of Carey’s heroes, former Google VP Sebastian Thrun, had a no-bid contract to MOOCify San Jose State University math instruction, only to see the partnership pause after “no more than 51 percent of Udacity students passed any of the three courses” (while “74 percent or more of the students in traditional classes passed”). Eager to find one more excuse to defund higher education, legislators thrilled to Thrun’s siren song of “no frills instruction.” Expect The End of College to serve a similar function, the “go-to” source for cost-cutters who dismiss research universities as anachronisms.

Silicon Valley is now a magnet for college grads seeking both to “change the world” and get rich. But it can be difficult to square that circle. Carey thinks important ed tech of the future will follow the business model of Google: attract millions of customers, and somehow monetize that audience later. He never pauses to reflect on the legal and ethical controversies dogging that firm, ranging from antitrust to privacy violations. Nor does he betray any serious worries about rapid centralization and reuse of student data by under-regulated firms, or the vast critical literature on Silicon Valley solutionism, or black boxed instructional technology run by algorithms that can’t be accessed by the students it is assessing.

Finding Resources for a Better Future

Two reviewers with deep knowledge of educational technology and policy have already dismissed as “techno-fantasies” Carey’s scorched earth dreams of corporate “thunder lizards” (his words, not mine) disrupting universities. Traditional college education endures — and even those who dismiss it rarely, if ever, try to dissuade their own children from attending a university. If colleges were really so terrible at preparing the workforce, the college earnings premium would have disappeared long ago. In addition, most employers are unlikely to subscribe to Carey’s biased bashing of colleges. The alternatives he is pushing are too untested and implausible.

So why bother reading Carey? Because, like Donald Trump blustering his way to the top of the Republican field by popping off shocking sentences, Carey’s rhetoric has political heft. To the extent it gains traction among education policy staffers (and the student loan companies that love to hire them), it changes the debate. The End of College is a master class in translating an elite project of privatization and austerity into bite-sized populist insults, even as it sings the praises of powerful corporations.

Carey claims he wants dramatically better educational opportunities for all. But that goal will require more public support — the kind of budget allocations that are hard to justify when a think tanker opines that Silicon Valley models (for providing free information in exchange for personal data) are on the cusp of disrupting higher ed. Finding new balances between human-led and software-driven classroom exercises (as well as lectures, tests, capstone projects, essays, and exams) demands experimentation and pilot programs. Productive deployment of new learning models depends on humane and distributed automation that balances the insights of diverse domain experts (including current educators) and technologists. Congress and states should help colleges pay adjuncts and education technologists fairly, while reducing student debt burdens.

Bernie Sanders has proposed a plan that would aid colleges in such a digital transition by directing funds away from sports and toward “activities that improve instructional quality and academic outcomes.” But Carey has mocked Sanders’s plan as quaint, a “kind of weird” idea from a “rumpled, redistributionist” utopian — even as he celebrates Silicon Valley utopianism. He has called educational policy analyst Diane Ravitch’s style “increasingly dismissive and strident,” concluding that “her righteousness can be breathtaking.” But The End of College is itself “dismissive and strident” in its condemnation of universities that are often struggling to balance competing goals. It self-righteously alleges that research universities have grown by exerting political influence and by using accreditation to knock out competitors. Meanwhile, Carey fails to reckon with the untoward forces that might be driving his own book’s popularity among elites.

The End of College will undoubtedly please many donors to, and board members of, the New America Foundation — its author’s employer. Many millionaires and billionaires want to see their taxes go down — and what better way to accomplish that than to tell Congress and state legislatures that college courses can and should be no more costly than a video game? A whole new round of budget cutting can ensue. After reviewing the funding and history of the New America Foundation, is it hard to imagine why Carey would push Google and tech firms as the saviors of education? Carey himself points out the symbiosis between his “University of Everywhere” and tech business interests, emphasizing how eager they are to grab a slice of the $4.6 trillion global education market.

In short, if Carey is going to portray so many people working in higher education as self-serving and grasping, he should not be surprised when critics see his work in the same light. And when an author’s critical faculties so often vanish when he discusses the technology sector that supports his employer, this raises troubling questions about think-tank expertise in general. Before touting D.C. researchers’ “findings” and “big idea books,” the media and indeed all of us should look closely at exactly what interests are funding the think tanks behind them. There probably won’t be much room on the curriculum at the “University of Everywhere” for such inquiry — which makes it all the more vital for it to happen now. Researchers like Audrey Watters are developing a more humane vision for education technology. Let’s hope policymakers begin treating their careful and rigorous work with a level of enthusiasm and interest now reserved for big foundations and billionaires.


Frank Pasquale’s research addresses the challenges posed to information law by rapidly changing technology, particularly in the health care, internet, and finance industries.  His book The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms that Control Money and Information (Harvard University Press, 2015) develops a social theory of reputation, search, and finance.

LARB Contributor

Frank Pasquale’s research addresses the challenges posed to information law by rapidly changing technology, particularly in the health care, internet, and finance industries. He is a member of the NSF-funded Council for Big Data, Ethics, and Society, and an Affiliate Fellow of Yale Law School’s Information Society Project. He frequently presents on the ethical, legal, and social implications of information technology for attorneys, physicians, and other health professionals. His book The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms that Control Money and Information (Harvard University Press, 2015) develops a social theory of reputation, search, and finance.


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