Thomas Docherty warns that the need for speed kills learning and crushes reason

Structural impatience disguised as ‘efficiency’ diminishes the university and demeans the student, Thomas Docherty warns

July 18, 2013

On the morning of 20 February 1909, readers of Le Figaro in Paris were roused by a front-page article written by F.T. Marinetti: the Futurist Manifesto. Scorning past and established traditions, Futurists wanted tomorrow today; and the Manifesto was a document that, albeit indirectly, shaped a dominant idea of our contemporary university: the worship of “a new beauty: the beauty of speed”. Universities are driven now by similar kinds of structural impatience, usually masked as “efficiency”.

One pertinent manifestation of speed’s ostensibly unquestionable desirability lies in Anant Agarwal’s claims for the feedback mechanisms in his massive open online course platform, edX. Submit your essay online and as your finger leaves the “send” button, the response feedback is instantaneously in your mailbox. Agarwal thinks this is good, a boost to efficiency, as it will “free professors up for other tasks”; but it is worth exploring the logical consequences. Don’t worry, I’ll be quick.

The appropriate parallel is found in stock exchanges worldwide. Since 2008, we have become more aware of how financial transactions are no longer carried out by human agents. Computers use algorithms to process data infinitely more quickly than human brains can: the computer, as if fulfilling a Futurist dream (maybe just a “Futures” dream), brings tomorrow’s decisions today. Those we used to call “share owners” can now hold a company’s shares for less than a microsecond.

With this, the company in question is no longer functionally a company at all: it has become a mere shell, a vehicle through which transactions take place in order to generate wealth for individuals who have no commitment to, or even interest in, what the company actually does. The algorithm determines activity based solely on maximising profit.

Increasingly, however, the same thing happens with the university: governments divest themselves of state interest in our substantive activities, provided that we are useful vehicles for wealth creation. Who now sees our priorities as grounded in the intellectual work once integral to our institutional identity? Who cares about communities of knowing that are made possible by the university’s existence? What do these things matter in the face of a machine for enriching individuals whose intellectual commitments have been deliberately reduced by policy that requires their accumulation of personal debt, and who are thereby diverted into the prioritisation of economic self-interest?

Private institutions, such as the University of Buckingham, aim to profit from this. Their “opportunity cost” model of the efficient degree machine lets them parade their shortened degree structure. Why invest three years when you can get a degree in two? “Getting the degree” here, seen as a passport to wealth, supplants the idea of “taking time to think”. Logically, then, why waste two years? Won’t a Mooc allow you to get through all the procedures in about a fortnight of sustained clicking through some videos, themselves typically pretty short and speedy? No need to wait for engagement with a teacher for feedback.

In this context, ‘getting it right’ means ‘conforming’ to the expectations generated by algorithms. ‘Excellence’ means knowing one’s place

That model - based on the worship of speed and a bogus efficiency mistaken as “throughput” - diminishes the university and demeans the student. Feedback, after all, is not just a one-way delivery statement: it is an extension of work done through discussion, which takes time. Anything else is just an invoice, the bureaucratic processing of students as fodder for a system corrupted by a wicked immorality that reduces thought to mere commodities for sale. In 1914, Futurists argued that thought itself is a commodity and its price can be quantified by, er, measurement. Research excellence framework, anyone?

A chilling endorsement of speed comes from Daphne Koller, one of Coursera’s founders: with instant feedback, “learning turns into a game, with students naturally gravitating toward resubmitting the work until they get it right”. In this context, “getting it right” means “conforming” to the expectations generated by algorithms. “Excellence” means knowing one’s place, obediently playing the game whose rules are made by others, conforming to what they call “correct”. This is the policing of behaviour, not education; and it reduces the time for thought or communal engagement.

The real enemy of speedy efficiency is democracy itself. Amartya Sen follows J.S. Mill in describing democracy as “government by discussion”. Discussion requires that we slow down enough to listen to others and to think, patiently, with a view to making tomorrow tomorrow and thus different from today. If we are genuinely interested in learning and in universities, we should argue for a further investment of time - longer degrees - to allow communities to “govern by discussion”.

Marinetti’s Futurism advocated the destruction of libraries and ended up alongside Mussolini. Our universities are in danger of catching up with that discredited past.

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