Sunday, September 16, 2012

Saving History: Note on the Long Tail of Education

History, and alongside it, Philosophy, Sociology and Literature, are lucky: They may be saved from extinction.

It did seem, at one point, that these disciplines, whatever their importance, are irretrievably consigned to the past. They have become 'trivialized' - knowledge that no longer matters! People were writing defences for them. The ascendancy of professions, and technology, and the mass conversion to education for private benefit and the application of commercial principles in provision of education, both in public and private spheres ('does-this-make-money' principle), meant the disciplines such as history will be reduced to margins, not suitable for the smart, the ambitious and the academically able. 

However ludicrous that may sound, it was indeed turning out to be that way. In India, the sunshine state of Andhra Pradesh in the 1990s, at the time when Bill Gates and Bill Clinton paid a visit and praised the technocratic administration of the state, and shiny new software factories and new technical schools were built, the Government proposed to take history out of the school syllabus.  As the governments across the world equated higher education with job growth and economic competitiveness of the nation, but at the same time cut back on public money available for Higher Ed funding, these disciplines, which may be without an immediate or apparent economic value, started losing their audience. Private, particularly For-Profit, institutions, which tend to focus on areas of widespread demand, completely disregarded disciplines such as these. At the same time, public universities, squeezed for money and the losing side in the public debate, acquiesced to mass marketisation, and started pushing History and its cousins out of the view.

This is nothing new, indeed. The fortunes of disciplines are fickle. Who would now visualize that medicine was treated as an inferior discipline, and Medicine students at Harvard couldn't sit together with the Classics and History students a mere 120 years ago? Also, Stefan Collini has a view on which disciplines get priority: His point is that universities have always served the needs of the society, and it was always about 'careers' though the term may have entered the lexicon later. Thus, when universities taught the clergy, Classics and Theology were at the center-stage: Soon, it was about training for careers in public service and diplomacy, and history and philosophy duly emerged. In the last century, however, it was about fulfilling the needs of an industrial society, and not unusually, technical and professional skills have taken over.

No one should be unhappy about this except a few poor Historians, but there is a wider significance of such a move. This is happening at the same time as Higher Education moves firmly to the private domain. One of the features of private enterprise, particularly when in pursuit of profit, is unrestrained follow-the-herd mentality (for all the myths of innovation, it is usually public money or monopolies which begets groundbreaking ideas), something that has now been unleashed in education. So, it is hardly surprising that Engineering seats now go vacant in India, after years of high demand, as the markets have ensured oversupply, as they always do. And, despite the low economic value of history (and other humanities subjects), its various defenders vigorously and justifiably presented the case for its social value: Even if we consider such reasoning special interest representation, there are students who wish to study history and are fascinated by it. These hidden historians (I consider myself among them) may take up another career because they are actively discouraged by parents and the higher education system to pursue their interest, as the mass Higher Education invariably gets narrowed down to a few subjects certified for employability.

This is where Online Higher Education makes a huge difference. As did in Electronic Commerce, Online goes a long way in saving education's long tail, the subjects only a few wants to study. This is where Online is different from the Mass market Higher Education: It does not necessarily have to just offer the areas of maximum demand. In fact, coming late in the day, the Online Higher Education have to seek out the gap that its face-to-face predecessor has left, and despite the profit motive, in fact because of it, it may help create a great humanities offering, serving all those hidden historians and amateur philosophers around the world.

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