New piece at Christian Courier

This is a polemic against MOOC futurism particularly and economic neoliberalism generally, swirled up with a deeply personal essay about my own intellectual history, with a cherry of love for my alma mater on top. The link expires in a month or so, but I’ll see if the nice Canadians will let the piece live here afterward.

Update: Now reposting the thing below, because the Courier changes their front page every month or so and doesn’t archive. And neither, when it comes to small Calvinist Ontario-based newspapers, do many US libraries.

Calvin College, MOOCs, and Bodies in an Actual Room
By Phil Christman

Fundamentalists are often assumed to lack any sort of intellectual life or culture. In my experience, this isn’t true. My father is both one of the smartest men I’ve ever met and a fundie right down to his (unevolved) toenails; and he taught me, by word and example, that research, argument, and thinking were important, because they could help in serving the single goal that fundamentalism proposes to hang over all of life: the making of converts.

By the time I was ready for college, this view of life had begun to cramp me. To be told, again and again, by my fellow churchgoers, that my interest in writing was valuable because (and, it was implied, only because) it might help “win souls” was to feel something I loved, again and again, reduced to an instrument. The Susan Sontag for fundamentalists of my generation—the person who explained modern literature and art to us in ways that would make a more general appreciation possible—was the conservative Presbyterian thinker Francis Schaeffer, apparently a generous and cultivated man in his private life but, in his books, little more than a cataloguer of ways in which Kant or Walt Whitman or the Beatles got God wrong. At eighteen, I didn’t want a list of thoughts to avoid, but a list of thoughts to explore. More than that, I wanted what fundamentalism, with its single-minded focus on salvation as a moment and not a way of life, could never give me: a rich account of how such exploration might relate to the God revealed in Jesus.

I gained a lot of things by going to Calvin College. But the most important was that explanation: We seek to know because we are made in the image of the ultimate Maker and Knower. Knowledge is an end, not a means.


That answer is not the world’s answer. The world tells us that we learn to accrue social capital; to further the Revolution; to increase likelihood of reproductive success; to make more money. In the US, all of these assumptions are often subsumed under a noble-sounding one: the end of education is to democratize society by increasing social mobility.

Now, I think social mobility is a perfectly good reason for a society to invest in higher education. Some critics scorn it as a “materialistic” concern, but those people have likely never spent a summer cleaning grease traps at a suburban Burger King. I am certainly grateful for the social mobility that Calvin gave me, which saved me from a constrained working-class existence in the cultural backwater of central Michigan. (I must add, though, that I wouldn’t have gained so much of it if I hadn’t been primarily—indeed obsessively—interested in my books. Life often works like that: If you shoot for the stars, you may just get as far as the moon.)

When, in April of this year, a California legislator proposed that students at state schools be allowed, in certain cases, to earn college credit by enrolling in Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), we heard quite a bit about how such programs will “increase access” to higher education, and, thus, social mobility. (That they could also devastate an entire industry was glossed over. So was the fact that, in some analyses, universal free public higher education turns out to be surprisingly cheap.) Now, MOOCs in themselves are not bad. I’ve taken a few myself. You log in, watch a few video lectures, do some problem sets, take a quiz. They are better than nothing, in the same way that a phone call from my wife, when she’s out of town, is better than talking to a wall. But the idea that MOOCs can replicate the higher education experience makes no more sense than the idea that phone calls alone constitute a marriage.

My Calvin education can hardly be reduced to a series of movie clips and online quizzes. It was late nights (and early mornings) in the college newspaper office. It was reading a particular assignment very carefully because I wanted to impress a female classmate with my arguments. It was listening to Dr. Anker lecture outdoors on a pollen-filled spring afternoon about Henry David Thoreau’s sacred anger against the strictures of polite society, until one guy decided to embody Thoreau’s point with an impromptu dive into the sem pond. It was Dr. Ward weeping, every two years—he couldn’t help it—when he lectured on the ending of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette. It was Dr. Saupe buying me a sandwich because she thought I looked a little thin. It was Dr. Sterk shepherding me through my first-ever academic conference. It was Ward, Saupe, Sterk, and Dr. Fackler steering me toward open jobs that were right for me.

It was Dr. Felch calling me in to her office when she learned that I’d been suffering from anxiety attacks, and talking with me for three hours.

These sorts of experiences just were my college education. And they were, not incidentally, the source of the social mobility I mentioned earlier: those resume-building freelance jobs would not have been made available to me by a professor I knew only in the way that I know my Twitter followers.

MOOCs only do half the job a good college course does, when it comes to education; when it comes to improving a person’s economic prospects, not even one percent. What MOOCs do make possible is the application to higher ed of a paradigm that dominates much of US life: they allow state money to be funneled, however indirectly, to the private investors who own most of the established MOOC providers. Let me be clear: I’m not accusing anyone of venality. US intellectuals and policymakers now believe in these sorts of public-private wealth transfers with the same disinterested fervor that they once believed in beating communism. We believe in markets more than we believe in education.


Which brings me back to Calvin College.

The details of Calvin’s financial scandal aren’t entirely clear yet. But if I were going to bet on anything, it would be this: nobody involved in this mess acted from personal greed. Even the revelation that former Calvin President Gaylen Byker served on the board of an oil company that was, by some subsidiary-within-subsidiary corporate relationship of the kind only lawyers understand, also linked to the hedge funds Calvin used, doesn’t make me think anyone was being greedy. When profit-making is assumed to be a legitimate goal of any and every human activity, even religious schools, why not use your loan-payback savings to score a few extra dividends? Money is useful and more money more so. It’s a perfectly natural decision in a culture deeply convinced that profit-seeking is the fundamental human activity.

Nineteenth-century US Christians brought books and tools to swamps and mudholes and built tiny religious colleges all over the Midwest, then admitted women and African Americans in defiance of every social norm. They didn’t do this because they were rational utility maximizers. They did it because they believed education would protect people against enslavement (which is, I might mention, the ultimate social mobility), and because they believed learning glorifies God. One of the things I learned at Calvin is that educators who genuinely believe this tend to do quite a bit both for students’ minds and their prospects. I worry future children won’t have the option of learning that fact from Calvin. I know they’ll never learn it from a MOOC.


One response to “New piece at Christian Courier

  1. I’ve got a bit of a love/hate relationship with my background. (Haven’t we all?) But I agree with you on the main thrust of your article. Whatever else you might say about Calvin, the faculty there are excellent. I’ve got not a bad word to say about any single professor I had at Calvin. They knew their stuff, they were open minded, they were thoughtful, and they introduced me to all sorts of new ways of thinking.
    The students at Calvin were wonderful as well. For all the faults of the conservative CRC ideology, these were at least serious people who were genuinely interested in ideas that mattered and in trying to seek out the truth. (In contrast to other schools where partying is all that matters to many of the students).
    The Calvin administration….Well, this lot actually I can’t vouch for.

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