The Redcoats Are Coming!

I've been hanging around the websites of anti-MOOC profs, most of whom seem to be humanities types. I tend to think that they living in a dream world, imagining that the status quo, or some optimized version of it, can be saved. Every wave of automation has swept away whole classes of artisans. In the last decades, we have seen factory workers displaced by robots. It looks to me like the next victims will be members of the professional classes - doctors and professors - not that they won't have plenty of company.

Paul Krugman takes on the subject today:

Nancy Folbre suggests that the golden age of human capital – roughly speaking, the era in which the economy strongly demanded the kinds of skills we teach in liberal-arts colleges and universities – is already behind us. She may well be right: after a long stretch when both technology and trade seemed to be undermining only manual labor, it does look as if many skilled occupations are now under threat by Big Data, Bangalore, or both.

I’d just like to add a sort of footnote, inspired by a conversation I had the other day with a Congressional aide. Has there ever before, he asked, been a time when technology undermined skilled labor, instead of making it more necessary than ever?

And the answer is of course yes, once you realize that there are many kinds of skill, and book learning hasn’t always been the one that mattered.

After discussing Princeton's original role as a trainer of preachers, he notes:

After that, by the way, institutions like Princeton evolved into something more like finishing schools, where the elite acquired manners and connections. (Yes, there’s still more than a bit of that aspect today). The role of higher education as a creator of human capital came along quite late. And maybe, as Nancy Folbre says, this role is already waning.

Anyway, the humanities types I mentioned mostly spend their time casting imprecations at MOOCs and their creators, and telling each other that they will never catch on. They might be right, but I doubt it.


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