I should never have agreed to attempt to teach an online class. During my freshman year in college, for some reason completely obscure to me now, I enrolled in a computer programming class. I think the language was some hopelessly forgotten piece of computer history, like Cobol or Fortran. I had to drop the class because I was unable to power the machine up, or whatever the phrase is, without the help of the cheerleader sitting next to me. For all I know, she may have gone on to become a brilliant computer programmer. I did not. I repeated this folly in my junior year, now required to take a class in Pascal. This, too, is hopelessly outdated. I did survive, perhaps because the language was named for a figure from the humanities, rather than sounding like a radioactive element or Soviet locomotive. Regardless, I barely scraped by.
A hazy recollection survives. One programming assignment involved figuring out how to count various zoo animals and perhaps categorizing them by type and color. I struggled mightily to get my scraps of code to line up. And lo! The program seemed to work. But as usual, I was too bored with the whole pointless project to adequately test it and I completely left out the lines that accounted for zebras or antelopes or ibexes. I had managed a B in spite of myself, but the exercise was another piece of mental evidence I had amassed against computers. Wasn’t this zoo nonsense just a needless layer of complexity? Why didn’t the zookeeper simply go out with a pad of paper and a pen and count the confounded creatures, taking note of their varieties and colors?
And why doesn’t the teacher teach instead of staring dumbly at a panel of dancing electrons, trying to figure out the difference between a folder and a module and wondering why the fools in administration insist on one instead of the other?
Genetically, I am a combination of my mother and father. My father, in his eighties, struggles to understand various facets of computers out of a sense of duty. My mother detests computers and has nothing to do with them. When forced to confront them, she breaks down in tearful rage. As do I. I seem to have inherited only her luddite strands of DNA governing my reaction to these infernal machines. More often than not, I want to fling computers under the wheels of onrushing buses.
I remember fondly a recent visit to England’s Hook Norton Brewery, which has undergone very little change since its beginnings in 1849. A charming old curmudgeon gave us a very thorough tour of the facility, designed so perfectly over 150 years ago that little change has been necessary, but to meet outside developments, like an increase in air traffic and its effect on the ambient atmosphere (until just about ten years ago, they had employed a metal coolship wherein the newly fermented ale was cooled by the breeze). Whenever our guide detailed some painful change dictated by external forces, he punctuated his sentence by saying “That’s progress for you” (with a delightful long O). Indeed.
A great many truisms deal with change and its inability to be halted. And much change is very good, like improving the lives of human beings and expanding their rights and protections. But some changes have proven ill. The changes to higher education in the past decades have been disastrous, especially those affecting the humanities. The businessmen and the technocrats are now running the schools; high-paid administrative positions blossom, while faculty members are “rightsized.” We have finally reached the point at which higher education as it stands is beyond saving. It’s probably no longer worth saving. But university instructors used to be more than computer operators earning minimum wage and they used to teach something worth learning. Those days are now firmly rooted in history. That’s progress for you.