‘Disrupting’ Higher Ed Will Destroy It

Published December 28, 2013

“Disrupting” may have had its day as a pervasive buzzword, claims Judith Shulevitz in The New Republic. It is or is soon to be toast as “jargon cluttering the pages of Forbes and Harvard Business Review” and as part of the title of many a TED talk. 

Disruptive used to refer to students and others who had impulse-control “issues” in class. It now is virtually a synonym for “innovative” and “transformational.” Well, not quite a synonym, because it’s easy to find phrases like “disruptively transformational” Or “disruptively innovative.” The unironic user of buzzwords doesn’t fear redundancy. And the ironic user—who knows what to say to win friends and influence people—knows how to move his audience.

In this case (but not in most), Shulevitz reminds us we can actually “name the person who released a cliche into the linguistic ecosystem”: Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business school professor.

An Awful Theory
Christensen’s first use of “disruptive innovation” occurred in his fascinating The Innovator’s Dilemma. That first use is more instructive—or honest—than many of his subsequent ones. A company that invents some “gizmo”—say, a disk drive—goes on to make better versions of said gizmo and sells them for more money and so a bigger profit. Then a disruptive upstart makes a stripped-down version of the gizmo and sells it for much less, driving the established company out of business. So “disruptive” means replacing something expensive and of high quality with something cheaper and no-frills but good enough.

Christensen went on to come up with the “brand” of “disruption theory” and applied it to virtually every area of human life. It’s a powerful theory less in what it really explains than its apparent capacity to explain complex human institutions with a compelling and disarming simplicity. “Disruption theory,” in fact, is one form of scientism or expert self-help that flourishes in the techno-era of the TED talk. 

I’ll limit myself to the way Christensen and others markedly less bright than he have applied that theory to education, particularly higher education. The theory is pernicious because it gives “stakeholders” in higher education who don’t really engage in it—such as administrators, politicians, bureaucrats, corporate leaders, and board members—way too much confidence that they really know what’s going on and what needs to be done. Disruption theory as the key for understanding everything makes these stakeholders as arrogant today as Marxism once made so many of our intellectuals.

The truth is that “disruption theory” in education and higher education means replacing an expensive and often self-indulgent concern for quality with a cheaper alternative that’s good enough for giving students what they need as productive members of the 21st century global competitive marketplace. There’s an argument for this kind of transformation if the goal of American higher education is to give as many Americans as possible the useful credential of a college degree. 

This transformative agenda includes putting the higher-quality but higher-priced brands out of business. That’s not a real issue when it comes to software or tablets, of course; they’re just useful tools. Nothing essential to human flourishing disappears with the replacement of the personal computer with the tablet. The same isn’t true when it comes to the disappearance of close reading of the “real books” of philosophy, literature, theology, and so forth, the study of history, and the disciplined appreciation of art and music because they’re unreliable and not cost-efficient.

MOOCs Won’t Transform Education
One feature of disruptive theory as applied to higher education is an obsession with MOOCs and “blended learning” as somehow transformational. They aren’t. They are tools teachers might or might not use. For those engaged in liberal education, they don’t change what is to be taught. The MOOC is much inferior to “the book.” As I probably said too often, discussing a book written by Michael Sandel (who has a hugely successful social-justice MOOC) makes a lot more sense than hearing him talk. It’s ironic, after all, that those who criticize professors who are content to teach through lecturing alone (a just criticism) think that it’s somehow disruptive to listen to the Sandel lecture. 

The real promise of MOOCs and so forth is that they allow students to reliably achieve a fairly minimalist version of the relevant competency or learning outcome at a very affordable price. In higher education, disruption theory is not about “job creation.” The promise is that lots of self-indulgent, tenured, overpaid, and underworked professors will be laid off, and that all the other expensive amenities we associate with residential higher education will wither away too. Technology might, in some cases, make higher education worse or reduce it to much less than it has been or could be, but it will reliably make it cheaper and good enough.

A lot of the disruptive criticisms of higher education today point to real decadence, and in many places what goes on in our often needlessly expensive colleges manages to be neither useful vocational education nor beautiful and truthful liberal education. But disruptive techno-utopianism isn’t really about making higher education “higher” or more ambitious. It’s about exploiting the decadence to root out the quality as well, to discipline all of American education with the disruptive logic of the market. That’s one reason the disruptive innovators want all American education (from charter schools to graduate schools) to be “for profit,” and for professors to be understood as workers like any others.

So, as Shulevitz points out, disruption theorists are against democracy in general. Nobody runs an effective corporation that way, and “shared governance,” or thinking of professors as stakeholders too, has kept our colleges and universities in the thrall of outmoded illusions. The disruptive cognitive elite that runs the institution of higher education should know all about “the best practices” to which the instructional workers should conform if they are to be as efficient and productive as possible. “Best practices” turns out to be the methods of being reliably good enough to achieve the relevant competency. Being competent shouldn’t be confused, of course, with being excellent or even being good.

The good news is that the word “disruption” seems to be just worn out through promiscuous overuse, and surely so too is disruption theory. Here’s hoping our stakeholders in higher education get the news before they end up obliterating the genuine diversity that is the saving grace of American education.

Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College. Reprinted with permission from Minding the Campus. Image by mer chau.