Higher Ed in 2037

What will students born today find in college?
By Tom McBride

Let us imagine, with puckish conjecture, ten items from the Mindset List for the class of 2037, students born in 2015. Will irreverent prognostication breed constructive gadflies?

1. College survey courses have always come through podcasts from five or six major universities.

2. There have always been departments of transhuman studies.

3. The replacement of human beings by computers and robots has made job prospects, even for college graduates, increasingly difficult.

4. Major animal rights movements, with millions upon millions of followers, have always been the norm in Europe and North America.

5. There have always been increasingly well-accepted scientific explanations for human consciousness.

6. Most Americans between eighteen and thirty say their political persuasion is neither Democratic nor Republican but libertarian.

7. A United Nations agency has always estimated that nearly 10 percent of the world’s sexual climaxes are virtual.

8. Surveys among Generation Y show rising tides of spirituality along with steadily decreasing interest in organized religion.

9. Old sexting selfies and Facebook posts running viral on the Internet have embarrassed millennials running for political office.

10. As weather catastrophes have increased, so have skepticism and uncertainty about human-made climate change.

Such a forecast in the literal sense will turn out wrong. Even so, it illustrates what higher education may have to address just two decades hence. These predictions also raise the question of how a larger milieu (featuring such phenomena as virtual sexual climaxes and libertarian politics) can influence educational practice and whether education can also affect the larger milieu. Many years ago a professor asked his class members (I among them) if they thought higher education had a right to influence the political climate. The response was unanimously affirmative. He then asked if they thought the political climate had a right to influence higher education. The response was unanimously negative. But did the wishes of the class have much to do with how the world works?

We may safely assume that the future enemies of American higher education will be the usual suspects of popular ignorance, poor instruction, lowered standards, diminished opportunity, and inadequate funding. But what guise will these common enemies take? Suppose that by 2037, more weather disasters have left Americans less certain that climate change is the menacing result of human habit. Would it be a failure of American higher education that well-established scientific opinion, even in the face of unprecedented floods and storms, has less credibility than ever? Yet in twenty-two years the World Wide Web, now a mega wilderness, will have become a hyper-super-mega-wilderness, where no matter what our opinions may be, we can always find those who agree with us.

Will this metastasis attack the healthy cells of higher education? For all the current tendencies toward discussion groups and guides on the side, the enterprise is still based on the proposition that educators know while students do not. Will the web, often celebrated today as a liberating dispenser of otherwise inaccessible knowledge, reach a critical juncture, morphing into an infinite and addictive wasteland where any form of ignorance can be found, justified, and supported? Will that make any difference to the practices of American higher education? Will practitioners of higher learning need to change in order to counter this lamentable trend (and if so, how?), or do professors in the 2030s just keep doing what they had been doing and let students explore ignorance on their own time as long as they don’t bring it into the classroom—while replacing the professor’s knowledge with their own private but durable forms of remaining benighted?

Will university courses be downgraded into “just one more source of information, which happens, regrettably, to be one that I’m graded on”?

Or consider the predicted trend of young people toward a libertarian viewpoint. What would prompt such a development? What will happen over the next two decades to the widely heralded youth movement toward the social liberalism of the Democratic Party? Suppose that the Republicans continue to estrange a younger cohort with reactionary cultural policies, while the Democrats are still unable to help the new college generation overcome the job-diminishing effects of globalization and robotics. Suppose that a new lost generation has decided that the best way to live is through low-paying work, nomadic lives, and innovative and self-pleasing uses of cyberspace. Suppose their beliefs come down to, “If you can’t help me, government, then leave me alone and let me live on my digital device in my own way”? If education can no longer provide the training once necessary for work before machines made human production redundant, should it now shift from a knowledge for production to a methodology for contemplation, the acquisition of more creative ways to deal with boredom? Will there be two-year “degrees” in contemplation studies? Will the most popular courses of the late 2030s have such titles as Oft-Misinformed but Always Amusing: How to Live a Lifetime of Cyber-Contemplation?

We could go on swimming in this artery, but it would be more useful if readers were to do their own thought experiments. What would be on the Mindset List in twenty years, and what would its relevance be to higher education? Will posthumanist trends continue as we learn more and more about how little we featherless bipeds really differ from both the desires of “lower” animals and the algorithms of “higher” machines? Will higher education turn to transhuman studies as it now houses women’s and Hispanic American studies? Will such new majors examine such possible future questions as the rights of robots to marry, either one another or nonrobotic humans? Will professors, against the background of a continuing collapse of the middle class and fewer tax dollars, become incessantly underpaid and insecure, largely devolving into “teaching assistants” as students get their courses from packaged but more affordable podcasts from Harvard University—or Kaplan? As students lose all but minimal interest in the great, institutionalized religions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, will even some Catholic universities be offering more courses in Buddhist meditation than in Aquinas and Augustine? With the advent of irresistible but disturbing virtual sexual climax and the haunting scandals of still-extant sexting from years ago, will fear of digital technology outpace even fear of global warming—a terrifying sense that artificial intelligence will transform itself into advanced and powerful modes faster than we can and that it will replace us?

Will Stanford respond by creating a new Department of Neo-Luddite Studies?

The speculations are endless, and maybe they’re provisionally comic, too. Behind them may lie a far more somber evolution of unwelcome trends. As universities sojourn further into a new millennium of declining funds for personnel and equipment, citizen complaints about economic relevance, digitally delivered falsehoods in impressive competition with the truth, and reduced job security for its faculty, will the world change American higher education far more than American higher education will ever change the world? It remains a vexed question; perhaps in just one score of years it will become a more disgruntled query than ever. I hope not.

Tom McBride is professor emeritus of English at Beloit College, where he taught Renaissance literature and rhetoric for forty-two years and directed the First Year Initiative Program. He is coauthor of the annual Mindset List. His e-mail address is [email protected]