Beware Monomania

By Saffron, Jesse | Modern Age, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Beware Monomania


Saffron, Jesse, Modern Age


The Education Apocalypse: How It Happened and How to Survive It by Glenn Harlan Reynolds (New York: Encounter Books, 2015; first published 2014 as The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself)

For the "secondhand dealer in ideas," to borrow Friedrich Hayek's term, a theory, especially one that jibes with his or her worldview, can provide a fount of inspiration and intellectual fodder. Indeed, some writers, policy analysts, college professors, pundits, and other savants, real and imagined, have built their careers rehashing the theories and ideas of past and contemporary philosophers, scientists, artists, and statesmen. In many instances, this phenomenon is beneficial, as it connects the public to important areas of knowledge and thought that might otherwise be lost in the miasma of popular culture and practical politics. In other instances, however, the "dealer" does a disservice to rational discourse and the advancement of social and economic understanding, particularly when his devotion to an attractive idea fosters unwillingness to consider fully competing theories and contrary evidence.

This deleterious tendency diminishes the value of law professor and Instapundit blogger Glenn Harlan Reynolds's most recent book, The Education Apocalypse: How It Happened and How to Survive It, which attempts to explain the origins of the so-called college bubble and the demise of K-12 educational quality, as well as show how technology will upend the education establishment. The author, who devotes most of his roughly one-hundred-page book to higher education, does a good job outlining the sector's numerous problems, which have piled up over the course of many decades. But some of his broader statements and predictions are unfounded or oversimplified.

"A theory is like a weed. Unless it is pruned back by empirical testing, it will grow to fill any void," remarked Andrew A. King, a professor in Dartmouth College's business school, in a September 2015 interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education. King was referring to prominent Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen's theory of disruptive innovation, first presented in Christensen's 1997 book The Innovator's Dilemma. The theory, which has been used to explain rapid change in industries ranging from computer chip manufacturing to bookstores, is based on the premise that incumbent firms in a given market tend to focus on making incremental improvements to existing products and services, rather than on providing new and possibly revolutionary ones. Such shortsightedness, the theory goes, leaves room for upstart firms and entrepreneurs to disrupt the market with more affordable or unique innovations.

The concept is "creative destruction" redux, an addendum to the theory popularized by economist Joseph Schumpeter in the early twentieth century, which describes the market process as a continuous and often turbulent cycle of "out with the old, in with the new." Strong belief in this theory has prompted some pundits--including Reynolds--to claim that online technology will drastically alter higher education and undermine its flawed and unsustainable financial model. Such conviction is one reason that Christensen, in a 2013 interview with The Economist, said, "I'd be very surprised if in ten years we don't see hundreds of universities in bankruptcy."

Professor King and one of his colleagues recently tested Christensen's disruption theory, which has become conventional wisdom in the business world and is a central tenet for some free-market education reformers. Their findings, based on two years of research, interviews with experts, and in-depth case study analysis, were published in the fall 2015 MIT Sloan Management Review. The results indicate that of the seventy-seven major examples cited in Christensen's books--involving companies such as Barnes & Noble and Kodak--only 9 percent meet all of Christensen's theory's criteria. …

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