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Will Reed College Go the Way of Newspapers?

By Randall S. Barton on June 28, 2012 02:49 PM

Thumbnail image for ColinDiver_reunions12.jpgLikening the internet to a tsunami, Reed College President Colin Diver warned the information wave that decimated daily newspapers now threatens undergraduate institutions. He offered a compelling look at the future of colleges like Reed in a June 2 speech entitled "Prix Fixe Education in an à la Carte World: The Impact of the Information Revolution on the Future of Liberal Arts Colleges." Following are excerpts from that speech at the Foster-Scholz Club and Annual Recognition Luncheon.

Newspapers are dying because, in the world of information, this is the à la carte era. Nowadays, you get your news from television or the radio or a website; you get your sports from ESPN or an iPhone app; you get classifieds from Craig's List or eBay. You get puzzles, recipes, consumer advice, horoscopes, weather, and celebrity gossip from a hundred different sources—mostly from various Internet sites at the touch of your fingers. Whatever you want, whenever you want it, wherever you are. . . .

An undergraduate education of the sort offered by Reed College is like a newspaper: prix fixe information. One price, four years, 30 courses, a whole bunch of requirements, and choices only from the menu provided by a bunch of professional educators. At the end, after jumping successfully through all the hoops that the professional educators have created, you get one overall certification—a bachelor of arts degree from Reed College. . . .

There are many voices saying, "Yes, you are doomed!" They point to the burgeoning, proliferating sources of educational material, courseware, even degree programs available on the internet. And much of it is completely free of charge. All you need is a computer and a high-speed internet connection, plus some patience, persistence, and effort. And voila! You can master Chinese, calculus, Roman history, Baroque art, macroeconomics, computer science, organic chemistry, or quantum physics. . . . If you can take these courses for free . . . why pay tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for a Reed education? . . .

The movement in American higher education has been away from structured, integrated curricula and toward a smorgasbord of electives. . . . Even at Reed, as the faculty expands, the portion of the curriculum devoted to structured, packaged instruction has declined and the portion devoted to open elective choice has increased. Here is where the danger lurks. Once we surrender to the siren song of the open curriculum, we are casting our lot with the à la carte approach to knowledge. And once we do that, how can we claim that a Reed education is better than Do-It-Yourself University? . . .

In recent years, I have spoken frequently about the importance of strengthening community at Reed College . . . so that we can offer our students not only the cognitive experiences we treasure, but also the emotional, spontaneous, challenging, multisensory experiences necessary for genuine learning and lasting transformation. . . .

The internet—along with all its associated electronic techniques for collecting, storing, manipulating, and presenting information—is, for education, the most disruptive technology since the printing press. . . . If we want to protect ourselves from being washed away, Reed College must commit itself, intentionally and deliberately, to maximizing the unique advantages of a prix fixe education by integrating the component parts of an undergraduate education in a way that the à la carte method never can, and by building a genuine community of scholars that can maximize the kinds of interactions that produce lasting learning.